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On a buying trip in England eight years ago, we found ourselves in a dealer's shop out in the countryside. As we took in all the wonderful furniture and accessories, a group of ceramic plates caught our eyes. Both exotic and repulsive (in an intriguing way) they featured snakes, salamanders, frogs, and other animals we try to keep at arms length. Interspersed with shells and leaves, these figures were molded in high relief and glazed with earthen colors. The plates looked alive with motion, a microcosm of the forest floor. We learned they were a type of French majolica called Palissy Ware. Although we didn't buy, the name was filed for future reference.

Several months ago at an antique show, we spotted a platter stored in a box under a table, exposed just enough that we knew immediately it was the same Palissy ware we had seen years ago in England. It featured a large lobster in such high relief and so realistic it looked like it would walk off the plate. Armed with our new purchase, the next step was to research the history of such a bizarre type of art.

Majolica books made only passing references to Palissy Ware so we turned to the internet for help. Within seconds we had the names, authors and publishers of two books on Palissy Ware and the web site of an antique dealer with several pieces accompanied with their photos and descriptions. We e-mailed for the price of a piece very similar to ours and received a reply quickly.

Then the folks at the Nashville Public Library‘s Interlibrary Loan Service searched libraries across the country until they tracked down the books and arranged for them to be sent to our nearest branch for checkout.

In those books we found that 19th- century Palissy Ware was inspired, not made, by the 16th -century French ceramist Bernard Palissy. A true Renaissance man, Palissy was a writer, student of the natural sciences and artisan. Three centuries later, Palissy’s art caught the attention of Victorian revivalists, known for reviving such earlier styles of decorative arts as Rococo , Renaissance , Egyptian, Greek and Gothic

Palissy’s work appealed to the Rococo Revivalists because he used the motifs of the Louis XV’s Rococo style, which are taken from nature, particularly the "rocaille" or shell ,and also features leaves, flowers and other natural forms. For the Renaissance revivalists, it was Palissy’s inteccectual study of nature that held special interest. He was believed to have taknen actual molds of the animals depicted in his ceramic work.

Bernard Palissy experimented for fifteen years to find the right combination of chemicals and kiln temperature for his enamel glazes. Alas, he was so guarded about his methods and formulas , when he died in 1590 his secrets died with him.

It wasn‘t until about 1850 that interest in his style was rekindled. It began in the city of Tours in central France. A local ceramist Charles-Jean Avisseau, spurred by the Victorian interest in the Renaissance, discovered Palissy‘s methods, through years of research and experimentation. Avissiau single-handedly revived interest in this high relief, strictly ornamental style of ceramics. From 1850 to 1900, the popularity of Palissy Ware spread throughout France, England and the United States. In small shops around Tours, whole families worked to product this time-consuming and labor-intensive art

Today, examples of this unique ceramic and the great potter who popularized it can be found on display in the Bernard Palissy Room of the Louvre’s Richelieu Wing in Paris. The largest collection of Palissy Ware, however is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Tours. We plan to visit both of these collections on our winter buying trip to France.

*Published in NFocus magazine February 1999.


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