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The Rarest Faience In The World
There is one kind of pottery which is rarer than anything else of its kind, and moreover, it has never been copied with anything like accuracy. There are, I believe, no real forgeries of it ; the existence of every piece is carefully chronicled, and there is huge competition for any of these pieces whenever they happen to come into the auction room. It is, perhaps, tantalizing to write about it, because the chances of any collectors obtaining a piece of this ware are so remote, and yet the story of it is so interesting.
When it was first discovered it was called Henri II ware, because it had upon it the monogram and the emblems of Henri II and also those of Francis I of France, and for a while that was the only clue people had concerning it. Then, all at once, a Monsieur Fillon came to the conclusion that he had solved the mystery. He said that, in about 1529, for a certain Countess Helene de Hangest, some wonderful pieces of pottery had been made by a potter named Cherpentier, under the express instructions of her librarian and secretary, Jean Bernard, and he pointed out that this extraordinary ware is decorated by marks closely resembling those on book bindings, and that the ciphers and the arms and the monograms all resemble those made by book-binding stamps. He proved that the librarian had made designs for the lady in whose employment he was, for binding and for frontispieces, and it was accepted as almost conclusive evidence that this ware was made at the Castle of Thouars and that it should be called Oiron instead of Henri II, while a further proof existed in the fact that the letter "G," signifying Gouffier-the husband of Helene de Hangest-came several times upon the ware, and that "H," the initial of her own name, also appeared frequently, while the arms and initials of various families connected with her particular district occurred also on this ware. Therefore, for a long time, it bore the name of Oiron ware, and the evidence that Monsieur Fillon brought forward seemed to be absolutely conclusive. Then another critic took up the investigation, and two pamphlets were issued by ,a Monsieur Bonnaffe, in which he declared that he had proved that the ware was made at quite another place, called Saint Porchaire, and that, although specimens had been preserved with great care at the Chateau of Thouars by Monsieur Claude Gouffier, for whom the same librarian had acted, yet it was not made at that chateau but in the little village of Saint Porchaire, and he pointed out that almost all the pieces had been found in the Poitou district, that there was a ceramic establishment at Saint Porchaire, that in 1552 a certain Monsieur Charles Estienne had spoken of the beauty of the Porchaire ware, and that in 1566 a local poet had sung its glories in his poems.
There, for the present, the matter has to rest, and connoisseurs use all three names Henri II, Oiron, and Saint Porchaire - when they speak of this exceedingly beautiful ware, which is sometimes called a ware of Touraine and sometimes a ware of Poitou, and no one has been able to prove really where it was made.
It is very remarkable in its appearance: pale creamy colour, marked with a black and white or red decoration, in the form of a series of fine stamps of arabesque detail, and it would appear that the space that the tools cut in the pottery were filled in with another coloured paste, either red or green or black, and then the whole thing was glazed and tooled down to a uniform smoothness, almost, in parts, as if it had been turned in a lathe, and on to this surface figures and other decorations were attached, which were also made in the same creamy clay, and also had, inlaid upon them, other coloured clays, generally green or blue, and then they, in their turn, were smoothed down, so that the whole ware is covered with what appears to be a kind of inlaid effect of colour upon a creamy ground.
Some of the pieces, notably the wonderful candlestick in the South Kensington Museum, have seated figures and mask faces, with floral decorations and cherubs' heads, all wrought with extreme dexterity and all decorated in this intricate system of fine design, interlacing scrolls and devices, forming an exquisite incrustation, and all belonging to the period from 1520 up to 1550, generally known as the Renaissance decoration.
As soon as any of this ware was discovered it was admired and appreciated, but perhaps it was not until the sale of the Fountaine collection at Narford Hall, on June 16th, 1884, that the Saint Porchaire ware attracted this special attention in England. Underneath a bed in one of the less important rooms in the house was found a rush basket, very carefully fastened up, and inside, packed away with the greatest possible precaution, were discovered three fine pieces of this ware a candlestick, a salt-cellar, and a biberon.
The candlestick had the arms of France and the Montmorency arms on it, and fetched three thousand five hundred guineas; the salt-cellar fetched fifteen hundred guineas; and the biberon a thousand guineas, and all three pieces were illustrated in the catalogue.
In July, 1892, another wonderful piece came up for sale in the Magniac collection-a splendid ewer which had been in the possession of Monsieur Odiot, a goldsmith and well-known collector in Paris, and which Mr. Magniac had purchased in 1842. It was only fourteen and a half inches high, and it fetched three thousand eight hundred guineas, passing into the possession of one of the members of the Rothschild family.
The Rothschilds have always taken a very keen interest in this particular ware and have regarded it as specially suited for their collections, and whenever pieces have come up for sale they have been eager competitors for it. At one time Sir Anthony de Rothschild had seven pieces, Baron Lionel two pieces, Baron Alphonse three, Baron Gustave two, and Baron James one, and, in all probability, all the pieces that have ever been bought by the Rothschilds are still in the possession of some member or other of that family.
One small piece came to the South Kensington Museum in the Salting Collection. It had originally belonged to the Duke of Hamilton, and was sold at the Hamilton Sale, in 1882, for L1,1218 It then passed to the Spitzer Collection, and I well remember Mr. George Salting's excitement when he came home from Paris and was able to tell me that he had secured this little tazza for L1,500 and how he had been opposed by one member of the Rothschild family who had bid against him step by step for it. It was not one of the great pieces, nor one of the most beautiful, but it is an object of considerable charm, and bears upon it the interlaced crescents of Diane de Poitiers. It is, of course, creamy ground, with the exquisite and delicate designs upon it that are embossed with the book-binding stamps and filled in with coloured clays, and just slightly enriched with touches of other colour, and it occupies an important place in the middle of the Salting earthenware case in the Museum and is numbered 1,233.
In 1892 a salt-cellar that had been in Madame D'Yvon's collection came up for sale, quite a small piece, and that was at once secured by one of the Rothschilds at a price rather over a thousand pounds. When, in 1887, Mr. Chaffers tried to make up a list of all the pieces of this precious ware that were known to him he had to confess that the greater number of pieces were in France, but that there were then twenty-six pieces in England, of which six were in the South Kensington Museum. Since then the number has, I am afraid, been reduced because the Magniac vase, one of the pieces that belonged to the Duke of Hamilton, the pieces that belonged to Mr. George Field, the example from the Malcolm collection, and the example from the M. T. Smith collection, have ail been sold and are believed, every one of them, to be in French collections.
There is no other ware in existence of which all the pieces have been so carefully catalogued as this. It is now a great many years since a piece has come into the market; probably the last occasion was in 1893, and the prices now would be considerably higher than they were even at that time. At one moment there existed five pieces in Russia, all in the Imperial collection, but when I was last in that country I only saw two, in the Hermitage Gallery. One more was declared to be at one of the Emperor's houses, but I did not see it at either of the three palaces I visited. As, however, the Emperor had a great many palaces, I think it is quite possible that it still exists. Of the fourth and fifth pieces I could hear nothing, and I wonder now very much as to what has become of the two pieces that I did actually see.
The opportunity here for a skilful collector is an unrivalled one. If he could but find the wonderful biberon which at one time belonged to Prince Galitzin, and which certainly was supposed to have gone to the Emperor of Russia, there is a fortune waiting for him, because it was one of the finest pieces of the whole series, exquisite in colour, rivaling the wonderful candlestick at South Kensington in its grace of composition and dignity of design-a piece for which there will be a very great competition, if it ever again should come into the market.
There is a cup with a cover in the Cluny Museum, there are five wonderful pieces in the Louvre, a large jug, that was evidently intended for some ecclesiastical purpose, because it is decorated with a crucifix and with religious emblems; a splendid candlestick; four fine salt-cellars, and two tazze.
There is one tazza at Sevres in the museum, and there is an odd cover of a cup. Another cover belongs to the D'Uzes family, and yet another cover was obtained in the South of France and passed into the collection of Monsieur Delessert, so that there is every opportunity for a skilful collector to try to find the cups to which these three covers belong, and it is quite a possible thing that in some small town in Poitiers there may be lurking yet these missing cups or some other pieces of this extraordinarily beautiful ware.
Once it has been seen it will never be confused with anything else. It is entirely different to any other ware that has ever been made. Its decoration is so pure and so delightful, its charm is so incomparable, and when one realises that not more than about sixty-five pieces are known to exist and that some of these are imperfect, there is plenty of room for the zest of a collector. Moreover, every piece differs, there are no two pieces in the least alike, and pieces have been found from time to time in all sorts of curious places. One of the most remarkable pieces, a ewer, was discovered as recently as 1887 at Bourges, in the house of a Monsieur Rhodier, who had inherited it from his ancestors and had always regarded it as a very special piece, but had no idea of its supreme value until Monsieur Stein purchased it for three thousand pounds and added it with great glee to his collection.
We are fortunate in England to possess such fine pieces as the two salt-cellars, the salver, the two tazze (one with a cover and one without), and the candlestick in the South Kensington Museum, and to have been able to have added to the national wealth the little piece which Mr. Salting bequeathed in later years. There are not many chances for the collector, but they are worth bearing in mind, for the ware is so beautiful and so rare that every effort to obtain a piece of it is well merited. Failure may probably be the result, but at the same time there is always the possibility of success.