Dish with snake relief, French 1570-90
Bernard Palissy was the most original French potter. His most famous work is decorated with plants and animals cast from life and glazed in vivid colours. Such pieces combine Palissy’s experiments in ceramics with his love of natural history. This is the potter I would most like to meet in history; he would have been an extraordinary potter in his time. For nearly sixteen years Palissy tried to imitate Chinese porcelain, however through a succession of utter failures, he worked with the utmost diligence, without a gleam of hope. This story verges on the tragic. At times he and his family were reduced to the bitterest poverty; he burned his furniture and even, it is said, the floor boards of his house to feed the fires of his kiln. Meanwhile, he endured the reproaches of his wife, who, with her little family clamouring for food, evidently regarded her husband’s endeavors as insanity. All these struggles and failures are most faithfully recorded by Palissy in one of the simplest and most interesting pieces of autobiography ever written, expensive and difficult to obtain in an English translation see here.
This is a mantelpiece ornament and shows the entrance to a famous traveling menagerie. Although it is made of inexpensive earthenware, the elaborate moulded and painted decoration would have made it more costly than other pieces. It makes a high point in quality before Staffordshire potters began making cheaper, simpler moulded figures. Lead-glazed earthenware, painted in enamels.