Quimper (pronounced kem-pair), located in northwestern France in the province of Brittany, has been a pottery town since the days when the area was part of the Roman Empire. Eventually settled by Celts from what is now Wales, Brittany did not officially become part of France until 1532, relatively late by European standards, and thus, it has retained its Celtic heritage. Today, the town has become virtually synonymous with its pottery.
The current history of Quimper pottery begins in 1690 with the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Bousquet. Originally from the environs of Marseille in southern France, Bousquet started his factory in the section of Quimper known as Loc-Maria. He specialized in the production of utilitarian pottery such as tablewares and clay pipes for smoking tobacco.
Situated in close proximity to four rivers, Quimper was an ideal place to be a potter. (The town's name is derived from the Gaelic "kemper," meaning a confluence of rivers). The riverbanks provided clay as well as a mode of transportation for the finished product, abundant nearby forests meant plenty of fuel for the kilns, and at that time the closest potteries were days away in the towns of Nantes and Rennes.
By 1708, Jean-Baptiste's son, Pierre Bousquet, took over the firm, moved it to a new imposing location, and expanded operations. In addition to stoneware, known as grès in French, the factory made eight different types of tobacco pipes as well as decorative wares, including faience.
It was a great time to be a faience maker in France. With the country's treasury reserves depleted due to the cost of the on-going wars and the extraordinary lavishness of his Court, Louis XIV sought to fill his coffers in every imaginable manner. Knowing that the elite of France ate and drank from plates and vessels crafted of silver and gold, the King issued orders calling for the confiscation of all such precious metal goods.
Lesser folk, accustomed to using wood or pewter tablewares, were not affected, but the rich, their dishes suddenly seized, sought to replenish their shelves and sideboards. Porcelain, made only in far-off China, could not be quickly obtained by French noblemen, who were soon clamoring for faience as a more immediate replacement.
Faienceries (factories that make faience), began to spring up all over France. With the enormous amount of fuel that was necessary to operate the kilns, it wasn't long before the French government began to intervene. Concerned that forests were being depleted, restrictions were implemented and, in some areas, pottery activities were curtailed.
But the Bretons (inhabitants of Brittany), have always been an extremely self-reliant and practical lot; reforestation practices had always been implemented by Quimper's potters, and thus, they were able to continue their production. As well, Quimper was isolated from the French government, both distance-wise and policy-wise. Considered in essence to be the Siberia of France, it was not unusual for enemies of the Court to find themselves banished to Quimper.
These factors played a part in Quimper's ability to continue as a pottery town long after other French centers of pottery production were forced out of business. By the mid-nineteenth century, many of the major French potteries had closed; to the contrary, at the same time, there were three thriving pottery factories operating in Quimper.
The original pottery, started back in 1690 by Bousquet, had evolved into a large factory run by descendants named de la Hubaudière and was now known as the HB factory (for Hubaudière-Bousquet). The two other factories had both started in the later part of the eighteenth century and became popularly known as the Porquier factory and the Henriot factory.
About 1860, one of the Quimper potteries began decorating its faience wares with colorful naïve scenes depicting peasants dressed in the individual costumes of the different villages in Brittany. This was the beginning of the "petit breton," or little Breton decor. It's never been proven which factory was the first to use the design, but it was either the HB or Porquier factory, as at that time the Henriot factory's production was limited to undecorated, utilitarian grès.
1863 was a turning point in the history of Quimper – both for the town and for the pottery – for that is when train service between Paris and Quimper was inaugurated. Brittany, comfortable in its isolation, had steadfastly resisted the industrial revolution, and consequently, while the rest of the world had embraced the universal derby and top hat, in Brittany, each village had retained its own identity and distinctive costume.
Portfolios of prints depicting Breton life were published, which further fueled interest in the area. With the opening of the train route, tourists flocked to the area for respite and to revel in its quaintness. Quimper's potteries took advantage of the area's popularity and made pieces in every imaginable shape, decorating them with the petit breton and his female counterpart, the "petite bretonne."
Another pivotal point in the history of Quimper pottery occurred about 1870. Alfred Beau, a Breton photographer and artist from Morlaix, arrived in Quimper and offered his artistic services to the HB factory.
He had one requirement, however, and it was not agreeable to Madame de la Hubaudière, the head of the factory at that time. Beau had stipulated that all pieces made after his designs were to have a special, identifying mark.
Rejected, but undaunted, Beau next approached the Porquier factory. There his request was met with success, as "the Widow Porquier," in charge since her husband's death in 1869, was only too happy to have help.
They entered into an agreement, and from 1873 to 1894, Alfred Beau provided designs to the Porquier factory. Pieces made after those designs are distinguished by a "P" conjoined with a sideways "B," signifying Porquier-Beau.
Beau's first series of designs produced by the Porquier factory was called "Botanique." It consisted of 122 different aquarelles or watercolors featuring various types of flowers, fish, rodents, and insects. The painterly quality and Japanesque designs were striking, particularly in combination with the elaborate, hand-shaped forms favored by Beau.
Another distinctive Beau creation is known as the "Legendes Bretonnes." Beau's father-in-law was Emile Souvestre, a Breton writer credited as an initiator of the popular movement to preserve Breton lore.
Beau illustrated Souvestre's compilation of Breton legends, and six of the designs were eventually also used on faience produced at the Porquier factory. They include "Le Biniou et Les Korigans," meaning "The Bagpipe and the Leprechauns" and "La Fée des Eaux" or "The Water Fairy."
In other designs, Beau sought to capture the still-rustic flavor of life in Brittany. Many were based on studies of factory workers and their families and depict typical scenes of daily life set within an intricate arabesque-motif border called torsades or dècor-riche.
Beau's designs were very popular with the tourists. As the rest of the world became more and more homogeneous, the unique costumes and customs of Brittany evoked curiosity. Published accounts of Breton life further fueled interest in the area.
Seeing the popularity of the Porquier-Beau production, the HB factory increased its efforts to appeal to the same customer. They also produced large, decorative chargers and other wares decorated with genre scenes, and visitors to the area often returned home with a piece of Quimper pottery as a souvenir.
Among the visitors to Brittany were artists from all over the world. One of the most remembered today is Paul Gauguin, whose first visit to Brittany resulted in his staying in Pont-Aven from June to November of 1886. Gaugun returned to Brittany between 1886 and 1894 before permanently leaving for Tahiti. His paintings from that period chronicled the Breton countryside and its inhabitants and include still lifes that prominently feature pieces of Quimper pottery.
Duly taking note of the success of the Porquier and HB factories, the other Quimper pottery, run by Jules Henriot, began making decorative faience. Previously they had only produced utilitarian pieces in grès, but in 1891, Henriot hired an artist named Moreau. Formerly an employee of the Porquier factory, Moreau had been personally trained by Alfred Beau, and with this hiring, the Henriot factory began making decorative faience also.
There was intense rivalry between the Quimper factories, and there still is. They were constantly trying to lure each other's employees and were always filing lawsuits against each other and still are.
The competition and copies that flooded the market had an unfortunate effect on the Porquier factory. In 1894, Alfred Beau ended his relationship with Madame Porquier, and her son, Arthur Porquier took over the management of the firm. Unfortunately, the factory continued to flounder and eventually ceased production in 1903.
For the remaining two factories, HB and Henriot, the competition intensified. Both factories drew on the earlier works of the collaboration of Alfred Beau and the Porquier factory and, in addition to common tablewares, produced grand pieces that featured finely detailed scenes, dècor-riche borders, and life-like botanicals.
During the period between World War I and World War II, many new designs were produced, and Quimper tablewares were vigorously exported. In America, they were sold by high-end retailers such as Tiffany's and Shreve, Crump, and Low, where wealthy Americans looking for a chic, country ambience were eager customers.
Among the new decors was the use of a yellow ground. The HB factory used it first, around 1920, but the Henriot factory came out with their own version very soon after that.
The factories continued to try to outdo each other, both in the marketplace and at expositions and fairs. In 1922, in preparation for the prestigious 1925 Arts Decoratifs et Industrials Modernes Exposition in Paris, the HB factory, owned since the end of World War I by Jules Verlingue, introduced the Odetta line.
Odetta pieces were made of a specially-formulated stoneware clay developed by HB with the aid of ceramics technical experts hired by Verlingue. Odetta required a higher firing temperature than faience, and the metallic oxides used in the decorative glazes were extremely difficult to master. Pieces decorated in the exact same manner and fired at the same time, even placed next to each other in the kiln, would emerge totally different – one blue and the other green, for example.
The factories courted famous artists to submit designs. One artist, René Quillivic, was given his own studio at the HB factory. Georges Renaud was another artist to have his designs produced by the HB factory. In his early career, Renaud worked in Paris making the bronze mounts used in formal French furniture. Later, he would craft the bronze lamp standards seen on Pont Alexandre III, one of the bridges that cross the Seine in Paris. Renaud began submitting designs to the HB factory in the 1920s and, in 1931, was awarded a gold medal for eleven pieces of his design that were part of HB's entry at the Exposition Coloniale Internationale.
The Henriot factory also commissioned designs and produced pieces based on the works of several accomplished artists, including Charles Maillard and Mathurin Méheut. A sculptor, many of Maillard's designs incorporated figurals with utilitarian functions, such as knife rests in the shape of resting Bretons and egg cups formed from a Bretonne holding a basket.
Méheut, a world-renowned artist whose credits include a mural for the Heinz Auditorium in Pennsylvania and frescos on the French luxury oceanliner, Le Normandie, created several designs for Henriot, including a series of plates depicting various sea creatures.
Another name prominent in the history of Quimper pottery is Paul Fouillen. Fouillen worked as a decorator at the HB factory from 1920 to 1923, at which time he was named as the head of one of their decoration workshops. Fouillen created many designs for HB, several of which reflect a cubist influence.
Fouillen would leave HB and go on to start his own business in 1929. Lacking a kiln, at first he crafted his designs only in wood, leather, or glass, but soon Fouillen would again produce ceramics, using the facilities of the Henriot factory for the biscuit forms and the firing process.
World War II saw Quimper occupied by German forces from September 1940 to August 1944. During that time, production was basically limited to plates and plaques made for the Commanders of the German submarine bases and other military facilities located in occupied Brittany.
Today, these pieces are extremely rare; there weren't many made, as fuel for the kiln, and other supplies were severely rationed. When Brittany was liberated, the occupation-themed pieces were often ceremoniously smashed as a symbol of freedom.
With the end of World War II, Brittany began the process of rebuilding. Victor Lucas, who had previously worked at both the HB and Henriot factories, opened his own pottery in 1947. Called Keraluc, the factory produced both faience and grès, but Lucas had a penchant for contemporary design and, eschewing tradition, Keraluc specialized in grès decorated in avant garde, art moderne motifs.
It was the era of modernization. The Fouillen factory installed an electric kiln and before long, so did HB and Henriot. It was time for innovation, bright colors, new glaze formulas, and up-dated designs.
All seemed well until the 60s, when the marketplace for hand-painted pottery was taken over by factories in Portugal and the Far East. In 1968, facing decreasing sales and dwindling profits, the Henriot factory ceased production. The owner of the HB factory purchased the Henriot marks and molds and hired many of their former employees.
A new factory was formed, Les Faienceries de Quimper, essentially a blending of the two former rivals. In practice, however, production was more on the order of totally separate entities; one part of the building produced Henriot designs and the other, those of HB. Client arrangements were handled independently as well.
The 80s brought more tough times for Quimper potters. In 1980, the Fouillen factory ceased regular production; pieces continue to be made by Paul Fouillen's son, Maurice, now in his 70s, but on a sporadic basis only. With the Fouillen factory's closing, only Les Faienceries de Quimper and Keraluc remained.
Les Faienceries de Quimper continued until 1983, when the intricacies of French government regulation forced it to declare bankruptcy. One of the U.S. distributors of Quimper pottery, the husband and wife team of Sarah and Paul Janssens of Stonington, Connecticut, all of a sudden found themselves with nothing to distribute.
Quickly putting together a group of investors, they presented their case to the French government, and in 1984, the factory was sold to their American-run corporation. Société Nouvelle des Faienceries de Quimper. To this day, all of their pieces are hand made in Quimper and are individually decorated without the use of decals or transfers.
In 1985, the Keraluc factory faltered, first filing bankruptcy and then quickly being reorganized under the name Stylform. Production continued until 1993, when further difficulties precipitated its subsequent buy-out by the Société Nouvelle des Faienceries de Quimper. This left only one pottery factory in Quimper – a factory run by Americans.
This distinction was short-lived, however. In 1994, illustrating the legendary tenacity of the Breton spirit, a new factory began production. Run by a group that includes the son and grandson of Jules Verlingue and the great-grandson of Jules Henriot, this pottery is named La Faiencerie d'Art Breton. Once again, there are competing factories, and Quimper continues as a pottery town.
In order for a piece to be considered a true example of Quimper pottery, it need only to have been made in the town of Quimper. In addition to pottery factory production, independent ceramic artisans worked in Quimper; given the time span involved, over three hundred years, today's collector of Quimper pottery has an incredible range of work from which to choose. The breadth of its production is truly staggering and never ceases to amaze.
Written By: Adela Meadows
Source: New England Antiques Journal