Faiance pottery is a popular and widely produced style of earthenware ceramic; we have seen examples throughout France, where it has been produced since the 1600’s. The name seems to apply equally to both the technique of making and the method of hand painted decoration. Common throughout Europe, its origins are usually associated with Faenza in northern Italy, but the method was apparently being used in the Middle East and Iran in particular as far back as the ninth century. So it has a long and fine tradition.
Nevers was the first major city on our route where it was publicized. The town has a large museum devoted to its pottery history, but….it was closed for renovations which was disappointing. Partly because it is early in the season, we have faced quite a few frustrations like this. However, according to the little Museum housed in the Maison d’Ville, faiance was first developed in Nevers by the Conrade brothers from Mantua in Italy. Their business prospered and others like it set up to such an extent that the city became the first major pottery centre in seventeenth century France.
The town itself is pleasant enough, with small winding streets and as in many places major efforts are underway to rejuvenate the city centre. The cathedral St Cyr had been accidentally bombed by the Allies during the war, and in 1969 a major reconstruction was started. All the stained glass is contemporary, and this combined with a faithful reconstruction of the original gothic architecture gives it a very distinctive atmosphere. Quite beautiful.
Faiance is essentially a ‘cheaper’ alternative to porcelain. Earthenware has different characteristics to stoneware, is fired at a lower temperature, is porous and not as robust as the famous white material. The clay body also typically has a red or sandy hue. The porosity in particular limited its practical use until at some point it was discovered that by the addition of an oxide of tin to the slip of a lead glaze the earthen ware could be sealed. This also provided a white base glaze suitable for hand painted decoration. On this the art of the Faiance style was based until further technological and manufacturing advances pushed it into near obsolescence.
During the later 1700’s, methods for cheaply processing porcelain (delicate shapes that were light and strong) were introduced, taking over the market for faience products. By the early 1800’s, these advances proved to be so economical and productive, that most of the traditional faiance makers were forced to close or change their processes and materials.
This historically interesting type of ceramic has seen something of a resurgence in popularity, not least because of the increase in historical tourism. There are plenty of contemporary examples to be found, sadly though, a good many of them don’t live up to the quality and character of the period pieces.
- Nick C