The arrival in Auvillar of earthenware manufacture, successor to the old pottery trade, dates from the middle of the 18th century.
Louis XIV, engaged in numerous wars & other extravagant expenditure, found himself forced to decree that all vessels of gold, silver & silver gilt owned by the nobility, the high clergy & the upper classes be melted down to provide funds. In addition, these same social groups were asked to encourage wherever possible the financing of factories for the manufacture of earthenware, similar to those already existing in Nevers & Rouen. As a result, the first earthenware works in Auvillar, that of Francois Ducros, was financed by a member of the local nobility, Vedel de Therme, in 1739 (24 years after the death of Louis XIV).
Tin-glazed earthenware (faïence) is made from terracotta clay coated with an opaque tin or lead based enamel which makes it impermeable. The clay used is found in clay/limestone mall quarries located in the Auvillar area. The extracted clay is refined, kneaded & enriched with sand also from the Auvillar locality which facilitates the drying process. After washing & sieving, the clay is stored for several months (5 or 6 months minimum) &, before use must be homogenised by compacting (treading underfoot) to eliminate air bubbles & hard particles. The clay is then shaped by spinning or moulding.
After shaping the clay piece is allowed to dry before undergoing a first firing at between 1180°C & 1380°C The result is a “biscuit“ or a “dégourdi” which receives a coat of enamel when it has cooled. The enamelling is done by dipping the piece in an aqueous solution of tin & lead oxides. The earthenware is then given a colourful decoration (many of the pieces were sold undecorated or white) The decoration was a very delicate operation because the clay was still porous & absorbed the coloured oxides & the enamel had not yet hardened & behaved like a white powder. The painter had to be very skilled.
The metallic oxides known to give colour were few. There was only the blue of cobalt, the green & red of copper, the purple-brown of manganese & the browns, yellow & red of iron were the only colours able to stand up to the firing in the kiln. Cobalt blue was the colour most used as it was the least effected by firing at high temperatures (see the photograph of the soup tureen made after the end of the 18th century with only blue decoration)
After touching up with a paintbrush any tong marks or missing enamel which can be found in certain intricate designs, the piece was taken by the artist who was able to start work on it after several hours of drying. This work demanded a very steady hand because it is necessary to carry out the decoration very quickly & without the possibility of retouching as the metallic oxides which make up the coloured enamels were absorbed instantly into the powdery surface.
In Auvillar decoration was carried out in three ways:
- Free hand drawing
- Using a stencil
Free hand decoration gave the artist complete freedom of inspiration & execution.
Pouncing: The pounce was used to repeat identical patterns. The pounce, placed on the piece to decorated, was daubed with a small canvas sachet filled with carbon powder. The powder passed through the holes in the pounce & traced a pattern on the piece to be decorated. The traces acted as a guide to the painter to carry out the decoration. The imprint was only a guide for the artist who was able to modify it & then carry out the painting with enamels coloured with metallic oxides
Stencilling: This method used a brush to paint through a pattern cut into a sheet of thin brass. A multi-coloured pattern needed a different stencil for each colour used. It was at the end of the Restoration around 1830 that decoration using stencils made its first appearance in Auvillar.
Decoration complete, the pieces were put into a kiln. The faïences were then said to be “de grand feu”, with baking taking place at 1050°C to 1180 °C. To avoid bonding of the molten enamels, a stack of plates, after being separated one from the other by three small triangular & pointed “pernettes” or spacers (the spacers are made from fireclay & are reusable), was then piled up in fireclay “gazettes” & the baking took place in wood fired kilns.
The kiln, completely sealed, was heated for 30 to 36 hours. After cooling for 24 hours the pottery could be removed from the kiln. It was then that the potter could see the success or failure of his work – no going back was possible.
Around 1840, white faience was abandoned in favour of glazed faïence (see the bust opposite) mainly of a brown colour because tin & lead oxide had become too expensive to use & competition had become stronger from the big factories in Limoges. However the potters of Auvillar adapted well & delivered huge amounts of faïences to Bordeaux & the Gers
Thousands of dishes, plates & other pottery pieces were crafted in 20 small “cottage industries” called “fabriques”. It was thus from 1749 to 1909 that the name of Auvillar was spread throughout the region & further afield.