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The Great Potter - Palissy

( Originally Published 1884 )

Ancient Pottery.—Bernard Palissy: Sketch of His Life and Labors.—Inflamed by the Sight of an Italian Cup.—His Experiments During Years of Unproductive Toil.—Indomitable Perseverance; Burns His Furniture to Heat the Furnace, and Success at Last.—Reduced to Destitution.—Condemned to Death, and Released.-His Writings.—Dies in the Bastille.

"Patience is the finest and worthiest part of fortitude, and the rarest too. . . Patience lies at the root of all pleasures, as well as of all powers. Hope herself ceases to be happiness when Impatience companions her." JOHN RUSKIN.

IT so happens that the history of Pottery furnishes some of the most remarkable instances of patient perseverance to be found in the whole range of biography. Of these we select three of the most striking, as exhibited in the lives of Bernard Palissy, the Frenchman; Johann Friedrich Bottgher, the German; and Josiah Wedgwood, the Englishman.

Though the art of making common vessels of clay was known to most of the ancient nations, that of manufacturing enamelled earthenware was much less common. It was, however, practiced by the ancient Etruscans, specimens of whose ware are still to be found in antiquarian collections. But it became a lost art, and was only recovered at a comparatively recent date. The Etruscan ware was very valuable in ancient times, a vase being worth its weight in gold in the time of Augustus. The Moors seem to have preserved amongst them a knowledge of the art, which they were found practicing in the island of Majorca when it was taken by the Pisans in 1115. Among the spoil carried away were many plates of Moorish earthenware, which in token of triumph, were embedded in the walls of sever-al of the ancient churches of Pisa, where they are to be seen to this day. About two centuries later, the Italians began to make an imitation enamelled ware, which they named Majolica, after the Moorish place of manufacture.

The reviver or rediscoverer of the art of enamelling in Italy was Luca della Robbia, a Florentine sculptor. Vasari describes him as a man of indefatigable perseverance, working with his chisel all day and practicing drawing during the greater part of the night. He pursued the latter art with so much assiduity, that when working late, to prevent his feet from freezing with the cold, he was accustomed to provide himself with a basket of shavings, in which he placed them to keep himself warm and enable him to proceed with his drawings. " Nor," says Vasari, am I in the least astonished at this, since no man ever becomes distinguished in any art whatsoever who does not early begin to acquire the power of supporting heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; whereas those persons deceive themselves altogether who suppose that when taking their ease and surrounded by all the enjoyments of the world they may still attain to honorable distinction for it is not by sleeping, but by waking, watching, and laboring continually, that proficiency is attained and reputation acquired."

But Luca, notwithstanding all his application and industry, did not succeed in earning enough money by sculpture to enable him to live by the art, and the idea occurred to him that he might nevertheless be able to pursue his modelling in some material more facile and less dear than marble. Hence it was that he began to make his models in clay, and to endeavor by experiment to so coat and bake the clay as to render those models durable. After many trials he at length discovered a method of covering the clay with a material, which, when exposed to the intense heat of a furnace, became converted into an almost imperishable enamel. He afterwards made the further discovery of a method of imparting color to the enamel, thus greatly adding to its beauty.

The fame of Luca's work extended throughout Europe, and specimens of his art became widely diffused. Many of them were sent into France and Spain, where they were greatly prized. At that time coarse brown jars and pipkins were almost the only articles of earthenware produced in France; and this continued to be the case, with comparatively small improvement, until the time of Palissy a man who toiled and fought against stupendous difficulties with a heroism that sheds a glow almost of romance over the events of his chequered life.

Bernard Palissy is supposed to have been born in the south of France, in the diocese of Agen, about the year 1510. His father was probably a worker in glass, to which trade Bernard was brought up. His parents were poor people too poor to give him the benefit of any school education. " I had no other books," said he afterwards, " than heaven and earth, which are open to all." He learnt, however, the art of glass-painting, to which he added that of drawing, and afterwards reading and writing.

When about eighteen years old, the glass trade be-coming decayed, Palissy left his father's house, with his wallet on his back, and went out into the world to search whether there was any place in it for him. He first traveled towards Gascony, working at his trade where he could find employment, and occasionally occupying part of his time in land-measuring. Then he traveled northwards, sojourning for various periods at different places in France, Flanders, and Lower Germany.

Thus Palissy occupied about ten more years of his life, after which he married, and ceased from his wanderings, settling down to practice glass-painting and land-measuring at the small town of Saintes, in the Lower Charente. Three children were born to him; and not only his responsibilities but his expenses increased, while, do what he could, his earnings remained too small for his needs. It was therefore necessary for him to bestir himself. Probably he felt capable of better things than drudging in an employment so precarious as glass-painting; and hence he was induced to turn his attention to the kindred art of painting and enamelling earthenware. Yet on this subject he was wholly ignorant; for he had never seen earth baked before he began his operations. He had therefore every thing to learn by himself, without any helper. But he was full of hope, eager to learn, of unbounded perseverance and inexhaustible patience.

It was the sight of an elegant cup of Italian manufacture most probably one of Luca della Robbia's make which first set Palissy a thinking about the new art. A circumstance so apparently insignificant would have produced no effect upon an ordinary mind, or even upon Palissy himself at an ordinary time; but occurring as it did when he was meditating a change of calling, he at once became inflamed with the desire of imitating it. The sight of this cup disturbed his whole existence; and the determination to discover the enamel with which it was glazed thenceforward possessed him like a passion. Had he been a single man he might have traveled into Italy in search of the secret; but he was bound to his wife and his children, and could not leave them; so he remained by their side groping in the dark, in the hope of finding out the process of making and enamelling earthenware.

At first he could merely guess the materials of which the enamel was composed, and he proceeded to try all manner of experiments to ascertain what they really were. He pounded all the substances which he sup-posed were likely to produce it. Then he bought common earthen pots, broke them into pieces, and, spreading his compounds over them, subjected them to the heat of a furnace which he erected for the purpose of baking them. His experiments failed; and the results were broken pots and a waste of fuel, drugs, time, and labor. Women do not readily sympathize with experiments whose only tangible effect is to dissipate the means of buying clothes and food for their children; and Palissy's wife, however dutiful in other respects, could not be reconciled to the purchase of more earth-en pots, which seemed to her to be bought only to be broken. Yet she must needs submit; for Palissy had become thoroughly possesed by the determination to master the secret of the enamel, and would not leave it alone.

For many successive months and years Palissy pursued his experiments. The first furnace having proved a failure, he proceeded to erect another out of doors. There he burnt more wood, spoiled more drugs and pots, and lost more time, until poverty stared him and his family in the face. " Thus," said he, " I fooled away several years, with sorrow and sighs, because I could not at all arrive at my intention." In the intervals of his experiments he occasionally worked at his former callings painting on glass, drawing portraits, and measuring land; but his earnings from these sources were-very small. At length he was no longer able to carry on his experiments in his own furnace because of the heavy cost of fuel; but he bought more potsherds, broke them up as before into three or four hundred pieces, and, covering them with chemicals, carried them to a tile-work a league and a half distant from Saintes, there to be baked in an ordinary furnace. After the operation he went to see the pieces taken out; and, to his dismay, the whole of the experiments were failures. But though disappointed, he was not yet defeated; for he determined on the very spot to " begin afresh."

His business as a land-measurer called him away for a brief season from the pursuit of his experiments. In conformity with an edict of the State, it became necessary to survey the salt-marshes in the neighborhood of Saintes for the purpose of levying the land-tax. Palissy was employed to take this survey, and prepare the requisite map. The work occupied some time, and he was doubtless well paid for it; but no sooner was it completed than he proceeded, with redoubled zeal, to follow up his old investigations " in the track of the enamels." He began by breaking three dozen new earthen pots, the pieces of which he covered with different materials which he had compounded, and then took them to a neighboring glass-furnace to be baked. The results gave him a glimmer of hope. The greater heat of the glass-furnace had melted some of the compounds; but though Palissy searched diligently for the white enamel he could find none.

For two more years he went on experimenting with-out any satisfactory. results, until the proceeds of his survey of the salt-marshes having become nearly spent, he was reduced to poverty again. But he resolved to make a last great effort; and he began by breaking more pots than ever. More than three hundred pieces of pottery covered with his compounds were sent to the glass-furnace; and thither he himself went to watch the results of the baking. Four hours passed, during which he watched; and then the furnace was opened. The material on one only of the three hundred pieces of potsherd had melted, and it was taken out to cool. As it hardened, it grew white white and polished! The piece of potsherd was covered with white enamel, described by Palissy as "singularly beautiful!" And beautiful it must no doubt have been in his eyes after all his weary waiting. He ran home with it to his wife, feeling himself, as he expressed it, quite a new creature. But the prize was not yet won far from it. The partial success of his intended last effort merely had the effect of luring him on to a succession of further experiments and failures.

In order that he might complete the invention,which he now believed to be at hand, he resolved to build for himself a glass-furnace near his dwelling, where he might carry on his operations in secret. He proceeded to build the furnace with his own hands, carrying the bricks from the brickfield upon his back. He was bricklayer, laborer, and all. From seven to eight more months passed. At last the furnace was built and ready for use. Palissy had in the mean time fashioned a number of vessels of clay in readiness for the laying on of the enamel. After being subjected to a preliminary process of baking, they were covered with the enamel compound, and again placed in the furnace for the grand crucial experiment. Although his means were nearly exhausted, Palissy had been for some time accumulating a great store of fuel for the final effort, and he thought it. was enough. At last the fire was lit, and the operation proceeded. All day he sat by the furnace feeding it with fuel. He sat there watching and feeding all through the long night. But the enamel did not melt. The sun rose upon his labors. His wife brought him a portion of the scanty morning meal for he would not stir from the furnace, into which he continued from time to time to heave more fuel. The second day passed, and still the enamel did not melt. The sun set, and another night passed. The pale, haggard, unshorn, baffled yet not beaten Palissy sat by his furnace eagerly looking for the melting of the enamel. A third day and night passed a fourth, a fifth, and even a sixth yes, for six long days and nights did the unconquerable Palissy watch and toil, fighting against hope; and still the enamel would not melt.

It then occured to him that there might be some defect in the materials for the enamel perhaps some-thing wanting in the flux; so he set to work to pound and compound fresh materials for a new experiment. Thus two or three more weeks passed. But how to buy more pots? for those which he had made with his own hands for the purposes of the first experiment were by long baking irretrievably spoiled for the purposes of a second. His money was now all spent; but he could borrow. His character was still good, though his wife and the neighbors thought him foolishly wasting his means in futile experiments. Nevertheless he succeeded. He borrowed sufficient from a friend to enable him to buy more fuel and more pots, and he was again ready for a further experiment. The pots were covered with the new compound, placed in the furnace, and the fire was again lit.

It was the last and most desperate experiment of the whole. The fire blazed up; the heat became intense; but still the enamel did not melt. The fuel began to run short! How to keep up the fire? There were the garden palings: these would burn. They must be sacrificed rather than that the great experiment should fail. The garden palings were pulled up and cast into the furnace. They were burnt in vain! The enamel had not yet melted. Ten minutes more heat might do it. Fuel must be had at whatever cost. There remained the household furniture and shelving. A crashing noise was heard in the house; and amidst the screams of his wife and children, who now feared Palissy's reason was giving way, the tables were siezed, broken up, and heaved into the furnace. The enamel had not melted yet ! There remained the shelving. Another noise of the wrenching of timber was heard within the house, and the shelves were torn down and hurled after the furniture into the fire. Wife and children then rushed from the house, and went frantically through the town, calling out that poor Palissy had gone mad, and was breaking up his very furniture for firewood !

For an entire month his shirt had not been off his back, and he was utterly worn out wasted with toil, anxiety, watching, and want of food. He was in debt, and seemed on the verge to ruin. But he had at length mastered the secret; for the last great burst of heat had melted. the enamel. The common brown house-hold jars, when taken out of the furnace after it had become cool, were found covered with a white glaze! For this he could endure reproach, contumely, and scorn, and wait patiently for the opportunity of putting his discovery into practice as better days came round.

Palissy next hired a potter to make some earthen vessels after the designs which he furnished; while he himself proceeded to model some medallions in clay for the purpose of enamelling them. But how to maintain himself and his family until the wares were made and ready for sale? Fortunately there remained one man in Saintes who still believed in the integrity, if not in the judgment, of Palissy an inn-keeper, who agreed to feed and lodge him for six months, while he went on with his manufacture. As for the working potter whom he had hired, Palissy soon found that he could not pay him the stipulated wages. Having already stripped his dwelling, he could but strip himself; and he accordingly parted with some of his clothes to the potter, in part payment of the wages which he owed him.

Palissy next erected an improved furnace, but he was so unfortunate as to build part 6f the inside with flints. When it was heated these flints cracked and burst, and the spiculae were scattered over the pieces of pottery, sticking to them. Though the enamel came out right, the work was irretrievably spoilt, and thus six more months' labor was lost. Persons were found willing to buy the articles at a low price, notwithstanding the injury they had sustained; but Palissy would not sell them, considering that to have done so would be to " decry and abase his honor;" and so he broke in pieces the entire batch. " Nevertheless," says he, " hope continued to inspire me, and I held on manfully; some-times, when visitors called, I entertained them with pleasantry, while I was really sad at heart. . . . Worst of all the sufferings I had to endure, were the mockeries and persecutions of those of my own household, who were so unreasonable as to expect me to execute work without the means of doing so. For years my furnaces were without any covering or protection, and while attending them I have been for nights at the mercy of the wind and the rain, without help or consolation. save it might be the wailing of cats on the one side and the howling of dogs on. the other. Sometimes the tempest would beat so furiously against the furnaces. that I was compelled to leave them and seek shelter within doors. Drenched by rain, and in no better plight than if I had been dragged through mire, I have gone to lie down at midnight or at daybreak, stumbling into the house without a light, and reeling from one side to another as if I had been drunken, but really weary with watching and filled with sorrow at the loss of my labor after such long toiling. But alas! my home proved no refuge; for, drenched and besmeared as I was, I found in my chamber a second persecution worse than the first, which makes me even now marvel that I was not utterly consumed by my many sorrows."

At this stage of his affairs, Palissy became melancholy and almost hopeless, and seems to have all but broken down. He wandered gloomily about the fields near Saintes, his clothing hanging in tatters, and himself, worn to a skeleton. In a curious passage in his writings he describes how that the calves of his legs had disappeared, and were no longer able with the help of garters to hold up his stockings, which fell about his heels when ` he walked. The family continued to reproach him for his recklessness, and his neighbors cried shame upon him for his obstinate folly. So he returned for a time to his former calling; and after about a year's diligent labor, during which he earned bread for his household and somewhat recovered his character among his neighbors, he again resumed his darling enterprise. But though he had already spent about ten years in the search for the enamel, it cost him nearly eight more years of experimental plodding before he perfected his invention. He gradually learnt dexterity and certainty of result by experience, gathering practical knowledge out of many failures. Every mishap was a fresh lesson to him, teaching him something new about the nature of enamels, the qualities of argillaceous earths, the tempering of clays, and the construction and management of furnaces.

At last, after about sixteen years' labor, Palissy took heart, and called himself Potter. These sixteen years had been his term of apprenticeship to the art, during which he had wholly to teach himself, beginning at the very beginning. He was now able to sell his wares and thereby maintain his family in comfort. But he never rested satisfied with what he had accomplished. He proceeded from one step of improvement to another; always aiming at the greatest perfection possible. He studied natural objects for patterns, and with such success that the great Buffon spoke of him as " so great a naturalist as Nature only can produce." His ornamental pieces are now regarded as rare gems in the cabinets as virtuosi, and sell at almost fabulous prices. The ornaments on them are for the most part accurate models from life, of wild animals, lizards, and plants, found in the fields about Saintes, and tastefully combined as ornaments into the texture of a plate or vase. When Palissy had reached the height of his art he styled himself Ouvrier de Terre et Inventeur des Rustics Figulines."

We have not, however, come to an end of the sufferings of Palissy, respecting which a few words remain to be said. Being a Protestant at a time when religious persecution waxed hot in the south of France, and expressing his views without fear, he was regarded as a dangerous heretic. His enemies having informed against him, his house at Saintes was entered by the officers of " justice," and his workshop was thrown open to the rabble, who entered and smashed his pottery, while he himself was hurried off by night and cast into a dungeon at Bordeaux, to wait his turn at the stake or the scaffold. He was condemned to be burnt, but a powerful noble, the Constable de Montmorency, interposed to save his life not because he had any special regard for Palissy or his religion, but be-cause no other artist could be found capable of executing the enamelled pavement for his magnificent chateau then in course of erection at Ecouen, about four leagues from Paris. By his influence an edict was is-sued, appointing Palissy Inventor of Rustic Figulines to the King and to the Constable, which had the effect of immediately removing him from the jurisdiction of Bordeaux. He was accordingly liberated, and returned to his home at Saintes only to find it devastated and broken up. His workshop was open to the sky, and his works lay in ruins. Shaking the dust of Saintes from his feet, he left the place never to return to it, and removed to Paris to carry on the works ordered of him by the Constable and the Queen-Mother, being lodged in the Tuileries while so occupied.

Besides carrying on the manufacture of pottery, with the aid of his two sons, Palissy, during the latter part of his life, wrote and published several books on the potter's art, with a view to the instruction of his country men, and in order that they might avoid the many mistakes which he himself had made. He also wrote on agriculture, on fortification, and natural history, on which latter subject he even delivered lectures to a limited number of persons. He waged war against astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, and like impostures. This stirred up against him many enemies, who pointed the finger at him as a heretic, and he was again arrested for his religion and imprisoned in the Bastille. He was now an old man of seventy-eight, trembling on the verge of the grave, but his spirit was as brave as ever. He was threatened with death unless he recanted, but he was as obstinate in holding to his religion as he had been in hunting out the secret of the enamel. The king, Henry III., even went to see him in prison to in-duce him to abjure his faith. " My good man," said the King, " you have now served my mother and my-self for forty-five years. We have put, up with your adhering to your religion amidst fires and massacres.

now I am so pressed by the Guise party as well as by my own people, that I am constrained to leave you in the hands of your enemies, and to-morrow you will be burnt unless you become converted." " Sire," answer ed the unconquerable old man, I am ready to give my life for the glory of God. You have said many times that you have pity on me; and now I have pity on you, who have pronounced the words I am constrained! It is not spoken like a king; it is what you, and those who constrain you, the Guisards and all your people, can never effect upon me, for I know how to die." Palissy did indeed die shortly after, a martyr, though not at the stake. He died in the Bastille, after enduring about a year's imprisonment there peacefully terminating a life distinguished for heroic labor, extraordinary endurance, inflexible rectitude, and the exhibition of many rare and noble virtues."

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