Jean-Antoine_Watteau_-_Fêtes_Venitiennes_-_Google_Art_Project detail

I’ve just read Anita Brookner’s wonderful monograph on Watteau, her first book (1967), published before she published her first novel. It’s written with a novelist’s insight into character and is beautifully expressed, perfectly scholarly (French 18th century painting was her specialism), but it draws you in to the subject.

Of Les Fêtes Vénitiennes (detail above) she writes:

As the Grand Turk can be identified as Vleughels, a perceptive scholar has suggested that the bagpipe player may in fact be Watteau himself. Underneath his obviously borrowed (or hired) costume, he appears to be rougher and lumpier in texture than his fellows, and is wearing an expression of haggard benignity which betokens both physical exhaustion and social strain. The implication are obvious and acceptable. The man wearing a cloak  and tricorn hat in the background is caught in a deeply theatrical attitude; though nobody is looking at him, he is about to make a resounding exit. Odd items of Comedia del’Arte costume can be detected here and there in the audience – a hat, a ruff, a green satin doublet – but the setting has been turned into something totally straightforward: a clearing in one of the allées of any of the great woods around Paris.




We stayed for a few days with our friends in France, where they have an old farmhouse well away from town in a peaceful spot with roses and fruit trees. In the sweltering heat we preferred to stay indoors, protected by two-foot walls, but the evenings were pleasant in the garden under the vines.


Over the years they have built an eclectic collection of china and pottery, for use and ornament, found in antique shops and brocante stalls, and generally bought for a few euros. Here are some pictures, and also pictures of other items from their cabinet of curiosities.



Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.


Reindert Overduin in his studio with a student from CFA.

Saint Quentin la Poterie, a village near Nîmes with twenty-four pottery studios, has a long history as a pottery centre (tiles in the Pope’s Palace in Avignon were made there), but by 1970 all the traditional workshops had closed. Its revival is due largely to the energy and vision of Nicole Bouyala, its formidable mayor. Mme Bouyala, who held office from 1983 to 2001, encouraged potters to set up there, created the gallery Terra Viva, the European ceramics festival Terralha, a museum of ceramics and a Centre for Arts and Crafts Training (CFA), the only training centre for ceramics in the Gard or Hérault. The studios and shops along the pretty streets have turned St Quentin la Poterie into a village with a cosmopolitan population and the resources of a city, with national accreditation as a Ville et Métiers d’Art (arts and crafts town).

I visited the studios of four potters – Reindert Overduin, Denis Grazon, Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet – and asked them how they came to set up in Saint Quentin la Poterie.

Like all the potters in the village, Reindert Overduin is not local. He was born in Holland, where he went to art school, came to France for a holiday and liked it so much that he stayed. He visited St Quentin la Poterie, worked in Lilou Milcent Gallot’s studio for a day and decided to study ceramics seriously. He trained at CNIFOP, the National Centre for Training in the Ceramic Arts in Burgundy, from which many French ceramists have graduated. CNIFOP offers one-year modules that can be taken alone or combined into a longer course, plus numerous specialist short courses. After CNIFOP, Reindert returned to San Quentin la Poterie to work with Patrick Galtié, who has the largest workshop and the only one with permanent employees.

Denis Grazon made an even more sudden decision to become a ceramist. In 2002, when he was working in a Paris advertising agency, he took a holiday in the Périgord, saw some potters at work and the next day decided, “This is what I want to do!” Ten days later, he started work in his flat; three weeks later, he had built a wood-fired kiln and fired his first pots. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said, “only a photo of a kiln, which I tried to copy.”

Denis Grazon with visitors to his studio, L’Age de Faire

He is still fascinated by kilns and firing. He has five gas and wood-fired kilns, including raku kilns, a fast-fire wood kiln and an open fire, low temperature kiln for the courses he runs in primitive firing – “Original pottery from the original kilns”. His studio is called L’Age de Faire, a pun on “making” and “iron age”.

Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet share a studio making work that differs from everything else made in St Quentin la Poterie, simple, white and austere.

In 2003, Agnès came from Paris to study at the CFA, then took an apprenticeship with Lilou Milcent Gallot, who has trained several of the potters here. Two years ago, before setting up, she had a show in Paris to see if her work would sell and was encouraged by the response. She and Marine were helped by the council to find premises for their studio. They like to progress slowly, ensuring that each step they take is well established before they move on to the next one – first their studio, then their shop, then their blog. They sell only from their shop now and will consider later whether to sell in Paris as well.

Les Souris Blanches: Agnès Alex and Marine Maude with some of their work in Limoges porcelain

At a Saturday night dance in the village, I spoke to Lilou Milcent Gallot, one of the first studio potters in St Quentin la Poterie. She told me that the future of ceramics is uncertain there. The potters are getting older and the success they have made of the village has pushed up property prices. The council is now promoting other activities. That evening in the market square, there was a pop-up bar, a raku demonstration and a Latin American accordion band. There was a mix of established locals and people who have chosen the relaxed pace of this Occitan village in preference to the pressures of the metropolis. The community spirit among the potters is well known and many more want to set up here, so hopefully it will survive and grow.