CHAPTER IV

 

 

THE BERRY-NIVERNAIS REGION

IN THE INTER-WAR YEARS:

DECLINE AND SURVIVAL

 

      At the first Monday market of January, l933, in Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye, the local residents who had assembled to do their shopping were to register surprise at the appearance of two strangers:

 

          '... Ils s'y étaient rendus dans leur tenue de

          travail, pantalon et tablier couverts de terre.

          Cela les signalait immédiatement aux yeux de la

          population comme des 'étrangers', car ils

          derogeaient à la coutume locale qui voulait jamais

          un potier poyaudin ne sortit en ville avant d'avoir

          ôté ses vêtements d'atelier ...' (l)

 

      In search of employment, the two had come from La Borne, sixty kilometres to the west, where potters were accustomed to wearing their working clothes after work, but this practice was not the sole significance of the event.  It also signalled the slow but inexorable decline that was affecting the traditional pottery industry throughout France in general, and that of the central region in particular.  It further highlighted the different reactions to this decline which distinguished these two major remaining pottery centres.  Though located on the same bed of clay and having an almost identical production, these reactions were to guarantee the eventual supremacy of Saint Amand over La Borne as an industrial centre.

      Following centuries of growth and prosperity, the first signs of threat had appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century with the initial phases of the Industrial Revolution.  In l858, it had been seen that the potteries in the region of La Puisaye were beginning to experience some competition from newly established factories, a stoneware factory having opened up at Bonny-sur-Loire in l854. (2)  Just until that time, mechanisation, which would eventually be responsible for the massive depopulation of the countryside, had scarcely any effect on the potteries of Berry, or on the distant provinces serviced by their products.  The needs of rural France remained as they had been for generations, and the local and regional outlets of the patron potters remained the most important factor in their economic well-being. (3)  Describing the situation in La Puisaye, Marcel Poulet has shown how two factors alone would soon combine to the detriment of traditional crafts in general and pottery in particular.

 

          '... La naissance des grandes fabriques industrielles

          va permettre une production abondante à bon marché

          d'une part, et d'autre part les progrès techniques

          et industriels vont susciter l'apparition de produits

          nouveaux : vaisselle de fonte, de fer blanc.  Le

          développement des chemins de fer va quant à lui

          favoriser la diffusion de ces produits nouveaux sur

          les marchés ruraux.  Il est bien significatif

          d'ailleurs que c'est la vaisselle qui sera la

          première touchée, et très durement puisque les

          ateliers du nord dont c'était la production

          specifique, auront presque tous disparu à la fin du

          siècle ...' (4)

 

      The railway system, extended to Henrichemont in l885, had already arrived in Bourges in l847, at the same time that a narrow-gauge line had been constructed to link Saint Amand with the station at Neuvy-sur-Loire.  Though each centre had its own specific outlets, they were in competition for the promotion of their saloirs in Brittany and the Vendée.  By the turn of the century, the sale of their products was extensive, and covered, in addition to Brittany, 'la partie centrale de la France, d'Est en Ouest, y compris Paris (Bordelais, Charente, Vendée, Poitou, Auvergne, Sologne, Champagne, Lyonnais, Jura, plus un fort marché régionale). (5)  The challenge posed by the new industrial product and the inability of many traditional potters to recognise the need for modernisation was soon to be recorded in La Puisaye:

 

          '... Il faut dire que les potiers ne se

          perfectionnent point dans leur art.  Ce

          que leurs grands-pères, ce que leurs pères

          ont fait il y a 50 ans, il y a l00 ans, ils

          le font encore aujourd'hui, ni mieux, ni

          plus mal.  Mais tout progresse, tout se

          perfectionne, et les usines similaires l'ont

          compris, aussi fournissent-elles aussi bon,

          à aussi bas prix et beaucoup plus élégant.

          Le public s'est donc dit que payer pour payer

          il valait mieux avoir beau que laid.  La

          concurrence s'est faite sur une grande échelle

          et l'on a pu voir, on peut encore voir

          aujourd'hui, des ouvriers potiers dont les

          femmes font le commerce de mercerie, épicerie,

          poterie, aller faire leurs emplettes dans des

          usines étrangères ...'(6)

 

The reaction to the impending crisis took a different form in La Borne.  Census figures for both l86l and l9ll show that in the intervening half-century the population of the village had increased from 570 to 605, a rise of 6%, in sharp contrast to the almost 20% reduction in the surrounding rural areas. (7)  More significantly, those for the census of l89l reveal that, in that year, the population of the village had reached its peak, with only five of the inhabitants registering as being involved in agricultural activity.  Eighty-three were potters, and the occupations of the remainder are an indication of the craft infrastructure which had developed around the principal economic activity, and which must itself decline as the products of that activity were to be replaced by articles fabricated, more easily and cheaply, in other materials, in the new century:

 

          6l woodcutters and labourers;

           7 hauliers;

           7 weavers;

           3 bakers;

           l butcher

          23 artisans, including a cabinet-maker, a harness-

        maker, a mason, a wheel wright and a black-smith. (8)

      Although La Borne had always been the main centre of production in the region of Henrichemont, the demands of the market had been sufficient to support smaller potteries.  In l86l, the census revealed that the following centres were still active:

 

Les Poteries d'Achères

 

      Veuve Talbot and her two sons, Pierre and Frederic.

      Jean and Jacques Talbot.

      Jean-Baptiste Foucher and his son.

 

Les Poteries d'Humbligny

 

      François Auchère dit Chappé.

      François and Jean Auchère.

      Jean and Leon Siguret.

 

Neuvy-Deux-Clochers

 

      Jean, Etienne and François Auchère.

    Felix and Auguste Talbot, and a worker, Germain Chenu.

 

Les Siguret of Neuilly-en-Sancerre

 

      Sébastien and François Panariou.

     

      The l860 report on the industrial situation in the department of Cher noted that 'les poteries entrent dans une période de prosperité remarquable.  La marchandise s'écoule avec une grande facilité.'  Even with the large kilns being fired thirty times per year, the ten potteries and their thirty workers were scarcely capable of fulfilling their orders. (9)  In l887, Albert de Meloizes, reporting information provided by Buhot de Kersers on the continuing work of the Société des Antiquaires du Centre, felt able to draw attention to the ongoing success of the village:

 

          '... On sait que l'atelier céramique de La

          Borne, ou sont encore en usage, les procédés

          les plus primitifs de l'art du potier, non

          seulement se soutient par l'excellence de

          ses produits inattaquables aux acids et par

          leur bon marché, mais encore qu'il va

          prospérant en augmentant d'importance d'année

          en année.  Il place aujourd'hui ses produits

          jusque dans le Poitou et le Limousin. Il y a

          un fait économique fort curieux, fort rare

          dans nos pays peu industrieux et tout ce qui

          s'y rapport mérite d'être noté ...' (l0)

 

      The optimism of de Kersers, which had patently been based on the continuing demand for the saloirs and other large containers, had obviously ignored the malaise that was already evident in La Borne, where the patrons were complaining that the extension of the railway to Henrichemont in l885 had given a notable advantage to their industrial competitors. (ll)  This was to be confirmed in l888, when it was noted:

 

          '... la poterie a diminué le nombre des

          ourvriers.  Les potiers se plaignent avec

          raison de la taxe qui est appliquée à leurs

          produits qui est celle de la poterie de luxe.

          Ils se font concurrence et se plaignent beaucoup

          de leurs prix de vente.  Quant aux ouvriers,

          ils manifestent des tendances de voir augmenter

          leurs salaires ...' (l2)

 

      That the decline of the potteries had commenced was evident by l90l, when the workshops at Les Poteries Achères and Les Sigurets de Neuilly-en-Sancerre had ceased to function.  By l9l0, the commercial directory of Cher would show that forty-eight potters, working for twelve patrons, were left in La Borne, with four at Neuvy-deux-Clochers and one only at les Poteries d'Humbligny. (l3)

 

      In l892 the patron potters experienced the first signs of labour organisation within the industry with the establishment of the 'Syndicat des Ouvriers Potiers et Travaux Similaires des cantons d'Henrichemont et des Aix d'Angillon', (l4) but it was not until l9l0 that the first major strike was reported:

 

          '... Les ouvriers potiers de La Borne sont en

          grève depuis le 24 juin; ils reclament une

          augmentation de salaires de l0 à 35% suivant

          le genre de travail.  Les patrons, dans une

          tentative de conciliation ont offert l0% mais

          le syndicat des ouvriers a refusé ...' (l5)

 

      With most of the forty-six potters then working in the village being in a position to find alternative employment in the forests or on the construction of the 'tacot', the narrow guage line designed to link La Borne directly with the station at Henrichemont, the strike lasted for almost one year before the workers returned to their patrons, but without having materially improved their former position.  With the coming of the Great War, the mobilisation of August l9l4 virtually emptied the potteries, and at such a pace that the patron, Bedu-Guillepain, found himself left with a kiln full of fired ware, and no-one to help him unpack it. (l6)  Though the conflict itself offered some short respite, the after-war years witnessed an acceleration of the decline.  After l9l8, the only potteries left in the region were those in La Borne, and 'Le Grand Louis', Louis Auchère of Neuvy-deux-Clochers, who, with the aid of an assistant, fired his kiln once per year. (l7)  With the cost of living markedly increased, a further strike could hardly be averted, and on l April l924, having demanded that their salaries be increased, the potters withdrew their labour and did not return to work until August, when they received a pay award which brought their daily remuneration up from 22 to 24 francs. (l8)

 

      In contrast with many potteries in other regions where, faced with industrialised competition, some workshops had started to concentrate on specialised items, the perpetuation of the craft tradition at La Borne ensured the continuation, alongside the large saloirs and vinaigriers, of a range of smaller vessels, such as cups, bottles, jars, plates etc.  During the nineteen twenties, demands for such items began to diminish as further changes became evident in the countryside.  People were more inclined to move in search of employment, accelerating the depopulation of rural areas.  For those remaining, the butcher making his rounds meant less need for containers for preserving meat; the use of separators resulted in a decreased demand for recipients for milk and its by-products, and it was much more economical to buy the less weighty, less fragile galvanised iron product. (l9)  By the end of the decade, as the effects of the recession started to affect the nation, La Borne was dealt a mortal blow when, in l930, Les Etablissements Philippon et Bruchet of Limoges, the principal wholesaler of its pottery in western France, withdrew its custom from Gabriel Talbot, transferring instead to Saint Amand-en-Puisaye, where the means of production, and prices, were more appropriate to the new demands. (20)  With an increasing slump in sales, the patrons decided to reduce salaries by l5% from l January l933.  The twenty-three remaining potters and some labourers, although willing to accept a 7.5% reduction, went on strike.  Despite attempts at conciliation, the opposing positions were irreconcilable, and many of the employees remained out of work for over two years. (2l)  Others decided to seek employment elsewhere, and the already ailing traditional pottery of La Borne was deprived of some of its best potters, among whom were those who created such a stir at the Monday market in Saint Amand.  For them the difference between the two centres must have been equally startling.

 

      Since the nineteenth century, Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye had been open to influences coming from the outside, the most notable and influential having been that of the Parisian sculptor, Jean Carriès.  His encounter with the ceramics in the Japanese section at the Exposition Universelle of l878 had made a deep impression, and in the climate in which the study and dissemination of the basic concepts of the art of Japan was at its strongest, he had ample opportunity to indulge his growing passion for stoneware, as recalled by his friend, the critic Arsene Alexandre:

 

          '... Les petits pots à thé, de Seto, qui

          sont d'un émail brun sombre, condensé même

          jusqu'au noir, et qui, au toucher, donnent

          une sensation caressante, onctueuse, comme

          une cosse de châtaigne, comme une enveloppe

          de fruit, le hantaient surtout ...' (22)

 

      It would be ten years before he finally decided to commit himself to ceramics, and to work in a manner similar to the potters of Japan.  Setting out for La Puisaye, a vivid description of his commitment is left by his friend and disciple, William Lee:

 

          '... Il y debarque un beau jour (au printemps

          de l888), léger d'argent de de science, mais

          résolu, tenace et, d'ailleurs, très préparé

          par ses recherches d'art antérieures.  En

          l'espace de quelques mois, sans autre

          apprentissage, il réussit à s'improviser potier.

          Il interroge l'un et l'autre, il écoute, il

          observe, il cherche, il bat le pays.  On le

          voit ramasser des cailloux sur les routes,

          broyer des scories de four, délayer et tamiser

          marnes et terres, et presque tout de suite ses

          premiers essais sortis du four, ont figure de

          quelque chose: exemple unique qui dénote, avec

          un rare bonheur, des facultés d'intuition

          extraordinaires.  Après de brefs retours à Paris,

          il s'installe bientôt définitivement en Puisaye

          et s'attelle courageusement à son ingrat besogne ...' (23)

 

      Re-enacting the procedures of the traditional Japanese potter, he produced nearly three thousand pieces before his early death in l894; thrown ware, sculpture and architectural ceramics.  In Saint Amand he had found an abundance of that material which he would fashion, alone and without the intermediary of the bronze founder, the clay of the region of which he was to remark:

 

          '... ce mâle de la procelaine, cette matière

          noble qui nul ne peut dominer s'il n'est un

          maître ouvrier - pâte divine, silice mystérieuse

          qui, sous l'habile pression des doigts prend des

          formes si diverses, si exquisement gracieuses, qui

          résiste aux températures énormes, qui s'assimile

          des émaux chargés de chaux et s'épanouit sous

          l'aspect enchanteur d'un fruit mûr ou d'un cailloux

          précieux, modelé pour le joie ou le besoin de

          l'homme ...' (24)

 

      Before finally establishing his own studio at Montriveau, near Arquian, where he had own kiln constructed, one based on the fours couchés of the region, he acquired the rudiments of the craft in the workshop of Pierre Amand Lion, learning to throw on the potter's wheel and engaging in his first experiments with the glazes he had contrived from the primary materials he had collected while scouring the local terrain.  In addition to his vases, taut swelling volumes, admirable for supporting his poured glazes, (Figs 55, 56) he concentrated on ceramic forms which emanated from his training as a sculptor, one which manifested itself with mastery in decorative objects: fruit, vegetables, frogs and toads, fantastic animals, grimacing masks, portraits and babies. (Figs 57, 58)

 

The Carriès Glazes

 

      Carriès first glaze trials had a base of iron and, to achieve these, he resorted to a procedure stimulated by the Japanese use of ground rocks and other natural materials.  Metal files were manufactured at Cosne and, during their tempering, it was the practice to immerse them in crucibles containing molten lead.  Since it often happened that the crucibles were broken during the operation, fired clay floor tiles, which by their nature contained iron, were impregnated with lead.  Taking some of these, Carriès ground them finely to obtain an ingredient for a glaze.  In the report of the Exposition Universelle of l878 he had likewise read that the Japanese had often used wood ashes in their glaze recipes, and since these were in a bountiful supply in the region of Saint-Amand where the kilns, like those of neighbouring La Borne, were fuelled with wood, Carriès incorporated it in his other glaze trials, obtaining sober tones, soft to the touch, of a grey or off-white colour.  He tried to suggest the broken and speckled surfaces of various species of gourds, studying them in an attempt to reproduce their external reality.  On these and on his bowls the effect was often accentuated by the flooding of a golden glaze in the form of coloured masses, he no doubt having borrowed this idea from the Japanese custom which consisted of using gold lacquer to repair cracks in previously fired pots.  This golden patination of Carriès has a subdued tint which is in complete accord with the tawny, grey or rusty tonality of the background glaze.

 

      It is to the Japanese alone that Lee attributes the method that Carriès used for the development of his glazes, namely, the use of local materials.  Classified by him into three groups, they are:

 

l.         Ash glazes - '... contiennent en effet tous de la cendre de bois,

           à l'imitation, nous dit-on, des japonais ...'

           Reminiscent of the white, velvety Korean and Japanese glazes, they

           comprise:

 

           (a)  four whites

           (b)  a green achieved by the addition of copper carbonate

           (c)  varied browns and red-brown, obtained by the introduction of

           red clay or iron oxide.

2.        Coloured slips obtained with bases, either ferruginous or obtained

           from the chromate of baryte, associated with the clay of Saint-

           Amand.  Ashes are not used in their composition and the tonalities

           obtained are: rose, yellow, brick, violet-red, rust, green speckled

           with red.

           '... Il y a là une gamme très variée et fort intéressant pour la

           céramiste ...' (25)

 

3.        Matt glazes: composed mainly of the same elements with the use of

           wood ashes once again.  Oxides of uranium and titanium, rutile, etc.

           are employed and result in: yellow-orange, brown-red, purple-brown

           with bluish reflections, and yellow-ivory.

 

           Lee emphasizes Carriès instinctive development of his glazes and

           stresses the fact that his glaze compositions - to be published by

           Auclair in 'Art et Décoration', October l9l0 - were no more than

           recipes, '... en céramique, c'est l'homme qui fait tout, non la

           recette ...' (26)

 

      In glazing, he overpoured two or three glazes downwards from the necks and shoulders of his vases but, with an element of control, he was able to achieve a range of coloured configurations that have an affinity with the 'naturalness' of many of their Japanese models.  This free and rapid flow of the glaze, in addition to the hazardous effects of the firing, combined to shatter the shackles of an overcharged decoration:

 

          '... la faculté de laisser la poterie sans

          ornement apporte de nouvelles possibilités,

          entraîne la liberation de la forme et permet

          d'échapper aux styles pluralistes européens,

          encore présent à la fin du siècle dernier ...' (27)

 

 

'L'école de Carriès' et Saint-Amand

 

      The power, energy and enthusiasm of Carries had been immense.  As a catalyst, he had gathered to himself many friends and disciples.  Some were local enthusiasts, like Doctor Lamblin of Saint Fargeau and the Abbé Pacton of Arquian, but mostly, like Paul Jeanneney, Georges Hoentschel and Willaim Lee, all of whom settled and worked in Saint-Amand, they were 'des amis parisiens':

 

          '... désireux de pratiquer un métier manuel

          dont l'exemple japonais leur a revelé

          l'importance quasi-mystique ...' (28)

 

      The 'école de Carriès' he had so inspired, a unique phenomenon in France, displayed a similar feeling for purity of form and the softness of matt glazes which came to dominate the Paris salons at the turn of the century, and which established a model for succeeding generations:

 

          '... une conception de la céramique que d'autres

          à sa suite ont adoptée et enrichie de leur

          expérience, technique et intime ... Ils ont tous

          en commun cette fascination pour l'émail, brillant

          ou mat, pour ses vibrations, ses profondeurs, ses

          transparences, pour ce qu'il suggére de la forme

          et de la matière, grès ou porcelaine, qu'il

          enrobe ...' (29)

 

      Despite an initial reserve on the part of the traditional potters, some had realised that the workshop of Amand Lion had been 'la charnière de la poterie traditionnelle et des premières recherches du renouveau.' (30)  Gradually becoming more responsive, a significant number had adopted his aesthetic and started to orient their own researches in a similar direction.  Amand Lion, himself learning from Carriès, 'produisait des grès valant, en qualité, ceux de l'illustre céramiste ou peu s'en faillait.' (31)  His son Eugène, resolutely continued in this tradition, producing pieces of a spare and sober form, over which played crackled and poured glazes:

 

          '... Il est, parmi les potiers de l'ancienne

          tradition, celui qui emprunte le plus à Carriès

          et avec le plus de réussite.  Il en prolongea

          longtemps les formes et l'émaillage dans ses

          vases, petits ou grands ...' (32)

 

 

Modernisation in Saint-Amand-en-Puisaye

 

      In La Puisaye, as in other pottery centres, the Great War had served as another stage in either evolution or dissolution.  Before the conflict a number of the smaller workshops had been disappearing one by one.  Some did manage to survive, but the strength of Saint-Amand in the succeeding decades was to depend on the injection of new capital and the presence of enterprising individuals from within the traditional community who perceived, sooner than others, the need to modernise. (33)  After l9l8, a semi-industrial activity was to develop exclusively in Saint-Amand, and was primarily due to members of the Normand family, Fernand and André, whose ancestors had initiated the dynasty at Arquian in l736. (34) Wheels operated by petrol driven motors were soon to be followed by those electrically powered, and the initiative was also taken to transform the mode of firing the 'grands fours' by the introduction of coal.  Specialisation was introduced, thus, a young man entering an enterprise as an apprentice 'thrower' learned no other aspect of the craft.  Pillet has shown how this practice was already apparent in the terminology used in La Puisaye, as opposed to that in use in La Borne.  There he became a 'potier', having to acquire all the skills required, whereas in Saint-Amand, by his single role, he was known as a 'tourneur'.  A more important feature, and one which determined the remuneration of the employees, differentiated the two centres:

 

          '... A La Borne les potiers étaient payés à

          la pièce finie et rendue seche, tandis qu'a

          Saint-Amand, la comptabilisation se faisait

          à la journée: une quantite d'un type d'article

          étant définie par le travail quotidien, le

          programme étant donné chaque semaine ...' (35)

 

      Thus a 'tourneur', working between six and eight hours depending on the difficulty of the piece to be repeated, could earn thirty-eight francs, whereas a 'potier' in La Borne was paid twenty-six for a day which lasted from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.  At the end of the inter-war years, this adherence to the form of artisan life which had sustained the village for generations was still in place, with five patron potters still operating, and the essential satellite craftsmen ever reliant on them for their own future:

 

          '... Cette concentration pour les deux cents

          habitants que le village comptait alors, et

          pour la période à laquelle elle se situe, dénote

          une très grande persistance d'un type d'économie

          fermée et de l'autoconsommation dans ce petit

          bourg isolé au milieu des bois.  Cet isolement,

          cette vie sur soi, entraînait (ou avait pour

          cause) un individualisme très fort qui faisait

          considérer comme suspect ou négligeable tout ce

          qui était étranger au village ...' (36)

 

      It was such a closed mentality that would impede attempts to resuscitate the village, even when attempted by members of the community itself.  Some of the patrons, notably Joseph Talbot, Gabriel and Henri Talbot tried to do so, and by modifying some of the forms and using a simple range of poured glazes obtained promising results.  Above all, it was Armand Bedu who perceived the inevitable decline in the traditional craft unless it was subjected to modernisation and transformation.  Until his death in l967, he was the only figure within the village who helped to lay some of the foundations for a renewal of its ceramic life.

 

      Born on 5 June l89l, into a family whose connections with the village potters extended back to its origins.  Armand Bedu was the grandson of François Guillepain whose legendary skills had been responsible for the large vinaigrier and saloir, thrown specially for the l889 Exposition in Paris. (37)  Under his tutelage, Armand had served his traditional apprenticeship before obtaining a postion as a ceramics specialist in a chemical factory, Teston, in Lyons.  Following this he spent three years in 'l'Usine des Isolants du Rhone' at Villieur-Banne, during which time he also studied in the Technical school 'La Martinière'. (38)  Before returning to La Borne in l9l9, he had discovered 'les faïences persanes, les procelaines flammés des hautes époques chinoises (des SONG principalement) et les grès japonais ... Son enthousiasme pour l'art de l'Extrême-Orient était né et marquera toute sa vie'. (39)  Re-installed in the village, he took over the pottery of Jacques Talbot in La Borne d'en bas, and set about introducing some modern equipment.  From l92l on, he extended his production to include decorative and ornamental work, likewise engaging in the research of clay bodies, slips and coloured glazes:

 

          '... L'année l927 marque le début de sa réussite

          d'émaux, de tons variés allant du gris clair au

          vert bronze et du jaune au brun mat.  MM. Joseph

          Massé, Duneufgermain et François Guillaume sont

          conquis.  Ce dernier, amateur de céramique,

          decouvrant le grès, se passionnera,  s'investissant

          totalement pendant plus de dix ans apportant son

          imagination, sa sensibilité, son talent ...' (40)