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Pot Spot: Pretty Polychromes

Page history last edited by Tess Barrett 10 years, 7 months ago


The considerable trade in wine between Gascony and Britain in the Angevin era, brought in addition into the country a quantity or pottery manufactured in the Saintonge region of southwest France. Several kilns making this distinctive type of pottery have been located at La Chapelle-des-Pots, about three miles northeast of Saintes. The fragments of rejects (known as ‘waster’ shards) cover an extensive part of the surrounding district demonstrating a flourishing industry which continued in the Saintonge area into the seventeenth century.

The most easily recognisable products from the medieval Saintonge workshops are polychrome jugs which are frequent finds in the larger English ports in the south, for example Southampton, London and Bristol. They also occur in castles, abbeys and town sites which are close to coastal trading centres. Despite medieval York's obvious importance as a commercial city, no shards of polychrome ware have so far been identified from among the vast assemblage of pottery excavated by the Trust. At Hull, however, which thrived in the Middles Ages as a port for the booming English wool trade, substantial amounts of Saintonge ware including polychromes have been discovered. It is therefore perhaps slightly odd that York has produced fragments of only one of the plainer green-glaze variety of pitchers (a).


The fabric of Saintonge ware is very fine, hard fired and smooth to the touch. It is usually white, but may occasionally be pink in colour. The polychrome vessels are exquisitely decorated with designs executed in dark brown or black outline which are then overprinted with bright green and amber yellow. The clear glaze is evenly applied and colourless. The commonest motifs on jugs follow in England are either foliate patterns with shields (c), or birds with shields (d), though more abstract compositions are not unknown (b). By far the most extraordinary example of the polychrome potters’ art must be a puzzle jug unearthed in Exeter: this was moulded in the form of a tower with cut-out windows revealing models of human figures which also appear playing musical instruments around the base of the tower. A unique piece, it was probably make especially for export to a wealthy customer. Owing to their association with well documented castle sites, the dating of polychrome wares has been refined to encompass the late thirteenth century and the early fourteenth. The period may be as little as 1280-1310, indicating a possibility that this particular aspect of the ceramics industry of the Saintonge was the output of one of two master craftsmen.


Other types of vessels - pitchers, jugs, bowls, and mortars - span a longer period of production lasting from the early thirteenth century into the fifteenth. They are essentially similar in fabric to the polychromes though thicket and coarser and they have a green glaze which may be an overall bright colour or uneven and mottled on the larger vessels. The pitchers are often sizeable and are either plain or decorated with combed applied strips (as on the York example), sometimes in combination with parallel lines of clay 'studs'. More unusual are the jugs covered with dark brown slip with a design scratched through into the lighter paste underneath. Distinctive characteristics are the large bridge (parrot-beak) spouts, flat strap handles and flat bases.


The loss of Gascony in the fifteenth century caused a decline in the numbers of Saintonge products imports into Britain though the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw renews interest as the popularity of items such as chafing dishes and barrel costrels revitalised the export business in southwest France .





Jane Holdsworth

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