Compared to southern England, France seems comparatively underpopulated. The traffic outside of large cities is mostly tolerable, and because of the way their day is structured, is often quite light. The driving environment in Spain is even better because many shops open late in the morning and the lunch hours are generally longer. The result being that traffic is spread more evenly throughout the day. I want to qualify this though by saying that French and particularly Spanish drivers have a certain panache (imagine a fighter pilot) that makes them formidable opponents. However, once you come to understand the local timetable, there are windows of opportunity around which a timid foreign driver can plan and avoid putting himself in harm’s way! But things don’t always go to plan, and every now and then we found ourselves barrelling along a major road at a busy time. It was on one of these occasions, rainy, late afternoon, when traveling at a fair clip we passed the Poterie Du Mesnil De Bavent.
I actually didn’t see it, my eyes being glued to the car in front, so I was not at all keen when it was suggested that we should turn around and go back. This proved difficult and not a little dangerous, but eventually we were able to cross the flow of traffic, backtrack and sweep into the car park of this most extraordinary little pottery. And only just in time, as a big sign on the gate informed us that it closed at 5.30pm, and it seemed the last visitors of the day were in the process of leaving.
The buildings that make up this pottery complex are just glimpsed from the road, and only fully appreciated as you walk up the drive towards them. The current pottery was established in 1842, and parts of the workshops predate this. The business was once a sizable concern, manufacturing architectural as well as decorative ceramics, and a variety of buildings line its central ‘street’.
These outbuildings are characterful enough, but two of them are quite unique. It sounds clichéd but the main house is almost something from a fairy tale- half-timbered with decorative brick and tile work and capped with a variety of turret-like rooves and spires. French but with definite Austrian influences! The gate house was a folly, covered in ceramic tiles and decorative pieces. To maintain these buildings must be a struggle and a labour of love.
In 1987 the business was split up and sold, with the decorative side being purchased by artist Martine Kay-Mouat who was later joined in the enterprise by her youngest daughter, Dominique.
Twenty years on after a lot of hard work it seems the business has rebuilt itself around one of its original specialisms, finials. These are the most wonderful and extraordinary things you could imagine, and quite caught me by surprise!
In NZ finials are usually quite simple, often just small simply decorated or turned lengths of timber mounted at either end of a gabled roof. This tradition of mounting decorative elements is common throughout Europe and the origins are ‘protective’, in so far as they were originally intended to prevent witches from perching or landing on the roof. Poterie Bavent ceramic finials are anything but simple or plain, and are undoubtedly extremely effective as witch deterrents. They also look great! Of various sizes and complexity, but mostly about one and a half meters tall, these traditional French finials are more like sculptures, and could very well be used as such…inside or out. Some have a medieval and rather dark, brooding character, whilst others are delightfully whimsical. All are assembled from individually moulded parts, and whilst some are reproductions based on traditional forms, the pottery also creates unique pieces, and understated they are not!
It was late in the day, but Dominique still working in the office, was kind enough to show us around. The showroom is stocked with a wide variety of domestic ware, animal figurines, large pots and of course finials. The gallery at the back is used for temporary exhibitions and there was work on display by a variety of ceramicists including one of the staff potters, Philippe. This display of large riotous sculptural ceramics was overtly contemporary. In contrast to other work for sale, these pieces were cartoon-like constructions with bright, graphic, glaze treatments. Bold and strong, this was fun and engaging work. Philippe had other more conventional, but equally interesting pottery in the shop underlining the range of skills to be found in this workshop.
Dominique showed us through the studios, which were charmingly cluttered, low ceilinged and crammed with moulds and work in progress. As well as the usual throwing techniques, the workshop specialises in hand moulded, formed and assembled work. Clay is painstakingly pushed by hand into moulds to produce the components that are then assembled either into single objects or in the case of the finials, much larger and complex assemblies. It is all very labour intensive and requires a range of skills to make sure that the pieces survive the journey from clay, to bisque, to glazed, finished product.
I’d never really given much thought to roof ornaments, which seem to be covered by the broad term architectural finials, but searching the internet reveals a quite a busy niche, certainly in the UK where traditional and restoration pieces are easy to come across. However, I was unable to find anything as unusual or exotic as those we saw at Bavent, which are more like mini-totem poles, definitely roof top sculptures. I’m glad we risked life and limb to stop!
- Nick C