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For The Home

Provençal Pottery

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: November, 2013, Page 46
Photos by David B. Moore

Provençal pottery comes in an array of richly hued glazes, and most pieces date to the late-18th or early-19th century. Shown here, clockwise from top left: Pitcher from La Poterie Provençale in Salernes, Var, France • Gargoulette jug, often used to hold liquids • Toupin, traditionally used to warm up soup • A bonbonne, or jug, to hold oil, wine or vinegar; a rope was strung through its handles so that it could be carried by a pack animal or person • French pot used to hold jams or preserves • Pichet de barque, a pitcher used on boats, made with a hooded top to prevent liquids from sloshing out

History, Highlights and Helpful Hints

Provence is a dreamy region of France bordered by alps on the north, Italy to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the south. In between, there are rolling hills, charming villages, lavender fields, vineyards, sun-soaked beaches and, illuminating it all, an often-mentioned “clarity of light” that inspired Cezanne, van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso and other masters. This southeastern corner of France also is credited with introducing the Niçoise salad, bouillabaisse and ratatouille to the world, and is the site of the Cannes Film Festival and Brangelina’s château. It’s as well-known for its fierce mistral wind as it is for its mild climate, and as famous for its swanky beach resorts as its quaint villages. Likely less prominent is the rustic pottery hailing from the area. But because it comes from this land of many riches, it should come as no surprise that Provençal pottery has a certain je ne sais quoi.

“This is functional pottery that was used for cooking, serving and storing food,” notes Sophie Christian, owner of Bleu d’Olive in Scottsdale. “Each piece had a specific function, from storing and preserving meats, oils, fruits and vegetables, to heating and cooking milk, soups and stews, to making coffee and serving wine. They are functional but very beautiful, and are prized as decorative pieces for the home.”

Functional pottery is not exactly breaking news—fragments excavated from a cave in China were confirmed to be 20,000 years old—but a culture’s tools are interesting in the stories they tell about daily life. We know, for example, that Provençal earthenware pottery was formed from clay available in the region, and the interiors of each piece were glazed to prevent liquids from absorbing into the porous material. Exteriors were glazed as well, but in many cases, the pottery was glazed only on the top half on the outside.

Biot jars such as this one were used to store either dry or wet goods. The jars were made with an off-white slip covered in a clear lead glaze, which creates a light yellow color.

The French recipe for confit features pieces of duck cooked in its own fat until tender and then stored in the same fat. Such confit jars often preserved this decadent treat before more modern refrigeration services were available.
This bordeaux jug boasts a decorative pattern.

Confit pots, for example, were used to preserve and “store meats, such as duck and goose, and meat dishes like cassoulet and foie gras,” according to Lisa Savale of Trouvé in Scottsdale. “They would bury the pots halfway into the ground to keep the food cooler and fresher. The bottom unglazed portion was more porous, thus having a natural cooling effect.”

Other forms and functions include pichets de barque—pitchers designed for use on boats—which have partially closed tops to keep their contents from splashing out. A toupin is a small, single-handled saucepan-type pot used for heating and pouring milk or other liquids. A vase à bec is a tall water jug with several looping handles and a spout. Various other jugs and pots stored oil and wine, or were used to transport warm meals.

Crafted from local earth and likely shaped on foot-powered potting wheels, Provençal pottery is utilitarian but undeniably pretty. “Yellow, green and blue are the three main colors used in Provence for pottery,” says Todd Zillweger, co-owner of Relics in Phoenix. “Traditionally, green represents vegetation, yellow is for the sun and blue is for the sea. Yellow is the most common; then green. I’ve only seen one blue confit pot in 11 years, so they’re rare. But there are white pieces that are fully glazed on the inside and outside. Those are the most rare.”

Pots such as these were both multipurpose and utilitarian.
Sometimes, if you are lucky, you might find a piece with a combination of colors. “Depending on where the pottery is stacked in the kiln, if some green glaze drips down onto a yellow pot, that’s when it gets interesting and fun,” Zillweger comments.

In addition to the deep, rich glazes, there are other telltale characteristics of antique Provençal pottery. “Look inside,” Zillweger urges. “There should be age-appropriate wear and pitting. Over time, as people went to take food out, some of the glaze would be worn off from scraping, causing pitting and dents and chips. That’s all normal wear. When we’re all 100, 150 years old, we’ll have chips and dents, too.”

Because all pieces were made by hand, even pots created for the same purpose may vary slightly in size and shape. That’s to be expected. Prices depend on a piece’s quality, size and uniqueness, as well as its age.

Unlike most ceramics, Provençal pottery typically does not include a maker’s mark. But some examples, such as Biot jars, might include stamps on the side or bottom. These jars were produced in the Biot region of southern France for food storage. Some have stamps under the glaze that indicate the family who owned them, as well as the status of that family. “That also denoted who would get first choice of the food products stored in that piece,” Zillweger adds.

Although Provençal pottery was originally crafted for food use, it is not recommended for that purpose today, due to the lead content in the glaze.

From the south of France, this 19th-century tian (left) was used for cooking or washing and is stamped on the side. The staples indicate a repaired crack from around the time of its creation, making the piece even more rare and valuable.
Where to buy
Bleu d’Olive, Relics, Trouvé

Beyond Provence
The Savoy region of France is not in Provence, but it is not too far away, and charming antique pottery can be found there as well. Pottery crafted in this area in the early 1900s is glazed in brown, cream or yellow and decorated with flowers, grapes, vines, polka dots or, sometimes, writing.

“Cafe wine pitchers might have writing that is either an advertisement with the name of a vineyard or wine, or humorous sayings related to drinking wine,” says Sophie Christian, owner of Bleu d’Olive in Scottsdale. “They might say ‘water rusts the sickle,’ meaning, drink wine, or ‘Don’t listen to your doctor, do as he does, drink wine.’”

Pitchers are the most common form, but the pottery comes in many shapes. Confit pots, plates and cups also can be found.

“I like them for their nice forms and colors, and their whimsical designs,” Christian says. “They can be displayed in the kitchen or dining room, or even in a bathroom or bedroom as vases for fresh flowers.”
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