The Town, The People and The Pottery
Volume 24 Number 4
Quimper...pronounced "kem-pair"...is a town in northwestern France. It is also a people and a pottery.
To the people of Quimper, the town name is Kemper, which in their language describes a confluence of rivers. ("Quimper" is a somewhat nonsensical rendition as not all the Breton dialects have a "Q" and a true French pronunciation would be different from the actual "kem-pair"). At any rate, "confluence of rivers" is an apt description, as the town is situated at the juncture of two rivers, the Odet and the Steir. Two other rivers, the Jet and the Frout, are close-by, but travel underground through the town limits. Historically, this close proximity to rivers meant an ideal place to establish a pottery factory and thus, Quimper has been a pottery town for centuries. Its "recent" history of continuous pottery production begins in 1708. (Previous accounts put the date as 1690, but history is not written in stone and recent findings have provided further information).
By the last decade of the nineteenth century, three pottery factories were operating in the town of Quimper. One was the Porquier factory, another was known as the Grande Maison or De la Hubaudière factory, and the third, owned by Jules Henriot, was called the Faïencerie d’Art Breton. Tin-glazed earthenware, known in France as faïence, was a popular product, especially pieces that were hand-painted with scenes depicting life in the region of Brittany.
The making of faïence is an art. Especially in the early days, prior to the introduction of more modern methods, when both the technical and artistic skills necessary to make a piece of faïence were quite daunting. Extremely difficult to master its making, I've been known to liken faïence to being the "puff pastry" of pottery production.
The use of an opaque tin glaze is one factor that distinguishes faïence from other types of pottery...pieces made by this process were known as faïence in France, Spain, Germany, and Austria; in the Netherlands, they were called Delft; in England, the term was Delftware; and in Renaissance Italy, such pieces were called maiolica...not to be confused with majolica, that's actually a trade name of the Minton pottery in England for a Victorian-era product made using substantially different glazes and production methods.
The tradition of Quimper faïence production continues today. But much like the comparison of a Model T with a current Ford Motor Company product, today’s Quimper is very different from vintage Quimper. In many fields of collecting there is a line of demarcation; for Quimper pottery that line is World War II. Modern techniques and machinery introduced in the days after World War II resulted in the creation of a different product. Vintage Quimper refers to pieces made prior to that time period; later production falls into the collectible genre.
Here at www.oldquimper.com, we specialize in vintage Quimper and invite you to come along as we further explore old Quimper...The Town, The People, and The Pottery. If you've just joined us, since 1999 we've been using these pages to extol upon the beauty and intrigue of vintage Quimper pottery and, at the same time, do some "traveling"...and, indeed, over the years, we have visited some of the most picturesque towns of Brittany...each one delightfully different.
Each month, this depiction of King Gradlon by Quimper-born artist Pierre Toulhoat (1923-2014) will herald in a new article about Quimper...The Town, The People and The Pottery.
It's September already ! Here in France, that instantly signifies la rentrée...a term defined as the resumption of activities after an interruption. September is such a demarcation in France...a reawakening...that stationery stores sell calendars with it as the first month instead of January.
For www.oldquimper.com, September means it's time for our traditional "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" report presented by Jean-Pierre...our CFO ( chief feline officer )...
It was a good summer...even if did I have some unwelcome trips to the vet the past couple of months...ugh...but all is well now. Most of the time, I was able to diligently be at my post overlooking Quimper's rue Kéréon and I'm here to report that during July and August Quimper's "Main Street" was alive with visitors...
...we're usually a relatively secret haven, but this year, everyone figured out that Quimper was THE place to be !
Shop windows reflected the situation...If I had just one word to describe our summer, it would have to be "hot"...over 90 degrees Fahrenheit for many, many days in a row...but still not as hot as other parts of France...
...so it was as if everyone from the other regions of France came to partake in the opportunity to enjoy the miles and miles of Brittany's coastline. But they soon discovered that often, it's actually hotter along the coast then it is in Quimper which is a little less than miles upstream.
Quimper was up for the task of having lots to offer...and had planned for numerous activities for all the folks on holiday. The town center was a-buzz with things to do...and visitors had various diversions from which to choose...including an architectural tour...
...that included this relatively new house from the 1930s...with a facade that pottery lovers found particularly interesting. A time-worn Quimper faïence plaque announced the name of the house...Ty-Glas is Breton for Blue House...and the house number was also presented in true Quimper style.
On one of the trips back from the vet, Dad was surprised at having to lug me home through a group of tourists listening to their guide describe our building ! We're not the oldest house in Quimper, but on the other side of our courtyard is the oldest residence in the entire county of Finistère...that building dates from the 13th Century !
The Cathedral Saint-Corentin is another jewel in Quimper's ensemble of architectural gems...construction began in the 12th Century and it has long been a natural gathering spot...
...and this summer was no exception. One afternoon, the parvis... the area in front of its main entrance...served as a perfect place for a bit of dancing...
...presented by a group decked out in the traditional costumes worn in Quimper.
After beginning an energetic Ronde de St-Vincent...they soon invited bystanders...including Mom and Dad...to join them.
The Cathedral and dancing are such a big part of life in Brittany, that it's no wonder that the two subjects are often depicted on Quimper pottery.
There were no end to the parades, concerts and dancing over the summer...a good deal of it right under my nose...
...like these dancers dressed in the traditional costume of Concarneau...
...and this group of youngsters representing the nearby town of Saint-Evarzec.
Representing your village or town during an annual festival is sure to be a forever remembrance !
During the summer, Brittany comes alive with celebrations...a custom that has come to identify the region since over a century ago when Théodore Botrel created Pont-Aven's Fête des Fleurs d'Ajonc...the region's oldest traditional festival.
Ajonc flowers...known in other parts as golden broom...is...along with heather...an emblematic symbol of Brittany and can often be found as a motif in a Quimper pottery design.
This year's celebration in Pont-Aven was a two day affair with activities including classes on crêpe-making, performances to enjoy such as bands playing traditional music as well as costumed participants on hand with every turn of one's head.
The folks weren't entirely idle though...with no webisode to write, their summer "break"time was put to good use and they were able to scratch off a number of entries on the Wish List. That's the list they keep of collectors looking for a specific piece...be it a certain form, color or motif. They have had many successes and have even helped one clumsy husband get himself out of the doghouse by finding a replacement for a piece he broke. So if you "need" a specific piece, just let them know !
Mom also did her thing at the Musée de la Faïence...during the summer they have a special day...une matinée d'estimation...when people can bring in their Quimper pottery pieces in the hopes of finding out more about them. Her "job" was to identify them and provide the owner with the history of the piece, how it was made, information about the artist, etc. What fun ! After drooling half the time over some of the pieces, she finally remembered to take few snapshots so you can see what some of the locals have in their attics !
Such fabulous pieces carted around with very little protection...at least these pieces were in a box...some people brought stacks of antique plates in just a flimsy paper bag...Dad would have fainted !
In this case, the large blue and white charger...
...came from the HB pottery and was painted by Émile Poulain...who was part of a studio of all-male painters tasked with hand-painting intricate motifs like this Rouen design.
Also in the box was this large pitcher known as a broc; it was an exemplary example of Odetta...with a well-fired motif of dancing bigoudènes that had been designed by Paul Fouillen.
Being well-fired was not always the case with Odetta...the firing process was fraught with angst and large numbers of pieces...perhaps the majority...either didn't survive or were deemed to be "seconds" because the colors ran or were other-wise adversely affected.
That was the sad news for a number of Odetta pieces that were brought in...the lacklustre colors and design definition in the pieces shown above reveal that they were seconds. Odetta was a very expensive proposition...to make and to buy...and only the finest examples made it to the store shelves and into the hands of discerning collectors. The lesser pieces were locally as seconds or offered to factory workers.
The owner of this piece believed it was produced at the Porquier pottery in the last quarter of the 19th Century.
Mom went through her "don't go by the marks" routine and explained how by looking at the modeling...particularly the faces and hands as well as the colors of the glazes...you could tell that it was actually a piece made at the Henriot pottery circa 1925.
Out of their bags came a mix of pieces...a relatively common HB Quimper bud vase which to the owner was just as beloved as an extraordinary Henriot figural group created by Anie Mouroux...entitled Santez Anna Mam Goz Ar Vretonnez...Breton for "Saint Anne Grandmother of the Bretons".
The family histories were fascinating. One woman brought a figure of Notre Dame de Carmes to be identified and recounted how her grandfather had been working in a field when he unearthed it back in the 1930s. She was thrilled to learn that back in the days of the French Revolution, many religious items were secreted away...hidden in trees, buried in fields...and her piece actually authentic 18th Century Quimper.
One of the summer events in Finistère was an exhibition of the art of Robert Micheau-Vernez and this prompted a number of people to re-examine the figure that had been on their mantel for as long as they could remember, resulting in many Micheau-Vernez Henriot figures...large and small...popping out of bags. People brought in Micheau-Vernez figures of young musicians dressed in various traditional costumes representing different communes...
...as well as a beautifully-modelled figure entitled Jeune et Vielle Bigoudènes...which means"Young and Old Women from the region of Pont-l'Abbé".
No end of unusual examples...like this stoneware bust of Réné Laënnec, the inventor of the stethoscope...who was born in Quimper in 1781. The piece was created for the HB pottery in 1926 by Georges Robin.
Another sackful of treasures revealed figures by Berthe Savigny and Henriette Porson produced at HB and a depiction of a grandfather and his granddaughter by Jim-Eugène Sévellec created at Henriot.
A closer look at the Porson and Sévellec figures.
The pastel tones and delicate scenes on a faïence violin from the 1980s...
...were in sharp contrast with a yellow-ground Fouillen-designed HB charger from the 1920s.
This Keraluc plate was from the early days of the pottery and was signed by Pierre Toulhoat...
And the owner of this piece...
...a terre cuite chamottée sculpture of an owl highlighted with colorful glazes that had been produced at the Atelier du Steir by Jean-Claude Taburet...was excited to learn that next year's special exhibit at the Museum will be devoted to Jean-Claude and his wife, Marjatta.
Speaking of the Museum's special exhibits...reminder...this month is the last chance to visit the 2022 event. It's a spectacular display of the artistry that was the result of the collaboration between the Porquier pottery and the artist Alfred Beau. Here's a peek of what awaits you...
The exhibition centers around 10 albums of watercolors depicting Alfred Beau designs that were intended to be recreated on faïence by the Porquier artists. Hundreds and hundreds of intricate motifs...
...that led to the gorgeous results that bring us such joy.
The exhibition is loaded with breathtaking pieces with the added bonus of seeing the original design !
It's all there...yellow-rimmed botanicals, animated scènes bretonnes and fanciful legends...and will be there for you to enjoy until October 1, 2022 ! Open every day except Sunday...10am to 6pm without an interruption.
That's it for this issue...our exploration of Brittany...its towns, its people and its pottery...will continue in our next webisode. We publish a new issue on or about the first of each month...with a double issue for July/August. If you would like an email reminder when a new issue comes out, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. ...and be sure to check your computer settings...because sometimes unless you change them, we end up in your SPAM folder !