Saturday, May 15, 2010

Like a Man Who Gropes in the Dark

A young man trained in the art of glass-painting, Bernard Palissy was once shown an enamel cup of such exquisite beauty that he was forever captivated. He set about trying to learn the art behind the creation, seeking to discover the secrets of Chinese porcelain. He was like a man "groping in the dark." He wrote in his autobiography:

An earthen cup was shown to me turned and enamelled of such beauty that henceforth...seeing they were beginning to give them up in the country where I lived, and also that glazing was not in great request, I thought that if I could discover the invention of making enamels I should be able to make vessels of earth and other things of beautiful arrangement, because Heaven had given me to understand something of painting; and thenceforth, without considering that I had no knowledge of argillaceous earth, I set about seeking enamels like a man who gropes in the dark.

No European could train him in this art; he would spend the next sixteen years of his life endeavoring to unlock the key. He had seen a specimen and knew it was possible, but the failed attempts to recreate it multiplied. His wife and children suffered with him, as he spent money on supplies to no avail. Poverty overwhelmed him, forcing him to subsist on money earned by the spare glass-painting work he did to make ends meet while he took up floorboards to keep his kiln burning as he slowly began to master the craft of pottery. Somehow, along the way, he invented what is now known as Palissy ware, a style of polychrome lead-glazed earthenware often incorporating animal motifs, that has been long admired and copied.

The French Huguenot potter, who was imprisoned several times for his faith during his lifetime and died in the Bastille after his court protectors could no longer shield him from persecution, never did quite unlock the secret of that Chinese porcelain, but instead he paved a new way and created an art form all his own. The light and legacy of the man who spent sixteen years groping in the dark shines on.

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