The soul of Brittany
For those who love the salt air and sumptuous seafood of Brittany, the sturdy earthenware of Quimper is as evocative of that seagirt coast as the indigenous music of the fife and bagpipe. For me it recalls a stormy day spent at a pardon in Perros Guirec, where thousands of celebrants in regional costumes, like those of the little peasant couple familiar from Quimperware, gathered to hear a noted chanteuse folklorique. She was an unforgettable embodiment of Celtic beauty, although unmistakably well into her 50s, with a voice that soared to the farthest reaches of the crowd. No microphone; just that goddess-like beauty dominating the snap and flap of the banners and the snarl of the wind as she released a traditional song on the pentatonic scale, eerily and primitive and paradoxically, pre-Christian in spirit.
It is hard to believe the 300-year-old pottery almost went under in 1983. Such a disaster would have been like the death of the very soul of Brittany. Fortunately Paul and Sarah Jansson, longtime American dealers in Quimper, came to rescue the firm from bankruptcy. Paul Jansson modernized the production process at the factory by installing new machinery while retaining the time-honored hand-decorating and hand-glazing that gave Quimper so much of its unsophisticated, folk-art quality.
Strange to think this quintessential Breton product was first developed by a potter from Provence, Jean-Baptiste Bousquet. (Reason enough, perhaps, for two of the latter-day patterns of Quimper to be called Mistral and Soleil.) He established the pottery works in 1690, thus launching a family enterprise that passed to his sons in 1708 and then to descendants until the family died out – as so many families did – in 1917.
Meanwhile, the history of the ware had been complicated in the late 18th century by the emergence of rivals. All were potters trained at Bousquet’s works: The first were the Eloury Brothers, whose plant passed to a grandson-in-law, Charles Pourquier, in 1839. He acknowledged the input of decorator Alfred Beau by putting a PB mark on their products – quite justifiably, since Beau was the originator of the costumed peasant figures that have long been associated with Quimper. Beau’s talents were manifest – he painted attractive botanicals in the traditional manner, too.
The other competitor was Guillaume Dumaine, a not-particularly –talented potter who languished in mediocrity until 1886, when the more enterprising and aggressive Jules Henriot took over. Henriot expanded the factory, taking advantage of the closing of the PB works in 1904 to absorb a mass of its experienced and well-trained workers onto his staff. Cannily, nine years later, he also bought the PB trademarks as well. Three marks are associated with his régime: PB, HR, and Henriot Quimper.
Not too long after, during World War I, the Bousquet factory shut down. It was bought by Jules Verlingue, a potter from a family in Boulogne long associated with ceramics. Verlingue moved the factory to new quarters, where it remains. Always cognizant of the value of hand decoration, he continued the tradition, while introducing new designs to meet the then-current rage for Art Deco. These Odetta pieces, patented in 1933, proved as appealing as the old designs. Today an Odetta tray in blue and brown, with the HB mark, will command $110 or more.
Quimper was also becoming popular on the export market, so much so that masses of it were beginning to appear at department stores in the United States. By 1968 Henriot had combined with HB to form Les Faienceries de Quimper, in a deal that left each concern as an independent unit with its own designs, markets and customers. The subsequent bankruptcy of this combine in 1983 led to its rescue by the Janssons, who were dismayed by the thought of so venerable an enterprise disappearing.
The mark used today is HB Henriot Quimper.
Older specimens may be identified by the softness of the glaze (attention! it contains lead) and the greater variety of forms. A heart-shaped inkwell, showing the traditional peasant man and woman, enlivened with red and blue florals, has the HB mark and is worth $145. Pieces from the late 19th century such as a flower pot with the PB mark might go for $675. While a plate showing a fisherman and the Breton crest, marked HR Quimper, is valued at $350. A very peculiar cheese dish, so highly molded it is reminiscent of a piece by Palissy, has bignoux – bagpipes – on its cover, along with the usual peasant woman theme and an array of flowers and leafery: Marked Henriot Quimper, it is worth $435.
Dating and identifying Quimper can be rather complex- it helps to consult a source book such as Sandra Bondhuis’ "Quimper Pottery, a French Folk Art Faience." A newsletter putout twice a year by the Janssons in Stonington, Conn. will help keep collectors up to date. (The Janssons market Quimper through 500 outlets in the U.S. and two stores, one in Stonington, and one in Arlington, Va.)
Otherwise, finding old Quimper is catch as catch can – a dealer friend informs me it’s hard to find even in France. With luck a stray piece or two may lurk on a dealer’s dusty shelf, perhaps waiting to be lured into view by the magical strains of the fife and the bagpipe.