Carol Nicholson Bell is an expert in ceramics, art pottery, Chinese export and European porcelain. An author, dealer and collector, she writes extensively on these topics. I was fascinated by her knowledge about kaolin, that pure white clay from which porcelain is made. I think I may have come across some kaolin myself at Hot Springs, Montana, on the Flathead Indian Reservation. White clay is common there, and some of the Native Americans in Montana are called, “People of the White Clay,” the A’aninin. In addition, the original native place name for Cutbank means “Cuts-into-the-white-clay-bank-river“ and there is a town named White Clay. I will have to look into the composition. It is the finest, softest, whitest clay I’ve ever seen and, at some point, I would like to use it. Back to our story, though. The Chinese discovered kaolin and began making proto-porcelain as early as 1600 BCE and by 100-200 BCE porcelain was developed. “Marco Polo was one of the first Europeans to see porcelain; he named it after very white and translucent shell,” according to Bell in an article for Suite 101. “Vasco de Gama brought back the first porcelain objects to Europe in the fifteenth century.” Unbeknownst to him, Louis XIV was the catalyst of events which eventually led to finding kaolin on French soil. On May 15, 1702, war was declared on Catholic France. It was a battle of Protestantism vs. Catholicism, as well as a personal attack on the French king, who was accused of being duplicitous over James III. Over the intervening years, war drained France’s resources and, finally, all silver plate at Versailles was melted down to make coins, by order of the king. France was bankrupted by war with the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and the Americas, according to David J. Sturdy in Louis XIV. The order to melt down silver caused people to scramble for a new material. Until one was found, porcelain dishes started being imported from China, but at great cost. “The State decided to find out how porcelain was made and an order went out that anybody who could discover the manufacturing process would be handsomely rewarded,” said Bell. The first porcelain to be manufactured in Europe was in Meissen, Germany, in 1710. Later, kaolin was discovered outside Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche at Clos de Barre, in the Limousin region of west-central France, she writes. Apparently, an unsuspecting wife held the key. According to Ceramics Today, “In 1765, the wife of French surgeon Jean-Baptiste Darnet was using a white and unctuous paste that whitened fabrics to wash her linen.” Darnet “was eager to commercialize the mysterious substance and went to see an apothecary to work out a formula for a new detergent,” it continues. “The apothecary identified the material as pure white kaolin, spawning the Limoges ceramics industry.” Interestingly, early Native American Gros Ventre women in Montana and Saskatchewan used white clay to clean their hides and robes. I will have to find out more about this aspect of kaolin. In the meantime, let’s turn to Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche and our story. The French economist, Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, was the tax collector of Limoges. According to Bell, when Turgot heard of the kaolin find, he recognized the economic potential. People in his tax region were poor but the area was rich in metals that could be used for oxides for faïence. As a result of Turgot’s foresight, a porcelain industry was established at Limoges. Bell said the first factories set up in Limoges and Saint-Yrieix-la-Perche in 1772. “In 1771 the Faïence manufacture was converted into porcelain manufacture,” Bell said, “and the region’s first hard-paste porcelain began to be made.” (According to Wikipedia, hard paste porcelain was first made in China from “a compound of the feldspathic rock petuntse and kaolin fired at very high temperature…It now chiefly refers to formulations prepared from mixtures of kaolin, feldspar and quartz.”) In France, porcelain manufacture was state-sponsored and, in 1784, the factories in Limoges and Yrieix-la-Perche became subsidiaries of the royal factory in Sèvres, according to Bell. “By the 1830’s there were as many as thirty porcelain factories,” said Bell. The fame of Limoges porcelain grew and it was perfect because of the purity of its kaolin. Most pieces were painted by hand, some by well-known artists and they became very collectible. A piece with an artist’s signature over the manufacturer’s mark was and is more valuable. Many factories meant many ‘brands.’ “Some of the best known are Haviland (H&Co), T & V, Paroutaud Freres, Flambeau, Elite, and JP/L.,” Bell said. “The name “Limoges, France” usually appears, or the letter “L” beneath the name of the manufacturer,” she continued. I first learned about Limoges porcelain when I fell in love with a little hinged box in the 1980s. It was of a pea pod. When I opened it up, there lay five perfect peas. I do not know why it affected me so. But, the design for the ‘Peas in a Pod’ trinket box was perfect…along with enchanting. It’s amazing, isn’t it? A surgeon inquires about a detergent, a king’s silver plate is replaced, and the world is given pieces of enduring art and utility, Limoges porcelain.
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