Red Book of Heroes - Andrew Lang

Palissy the Potter

Four hundred years ago a little boy called Bernard Palissy was born in a village of France, not very far from the great river Garonne. The country round was beautiful at all times of year—in spring with orchards in flower, in summer with fields of corn, in autumn with heavy-laden vines climbing up the sides of the hills, down which rushing streams danced and gurgled. Further north stretched wide heaths gay with broom, and vast forests of walnut and chestnut, through which roamed hordes of pigs, greedy after the fallen chestnuts that made them so fat, or burrowing about the roots of the trees for the truffles growing just out of sight. When the peasants who owned the pigs saw them sniffing and scratching in certain places, they went out at once and dug for themselves, for, truffles as well as pigs, were thought delicious eating, and fetched high prices from the rich people in Perigueux or even Bordeaux.

But the forests of the province of Perigord contained other inhabitants than the pigs and their masters, and these were the workers in glass, the people who for generations had made those wonderful coloured windows which are the glory of French cathedrals. The glass-workers of those days were set apart from all other traders, and in Italy as well as in France a noble might devote himself to this calling without bringing down on himself the insults and scorn of his friends. Still, at a time when the houses of the poor were generally built of wood, it was considered very dangerous to have glass furnaces, with the fire often at a white heat, in the middle of a town, and so a law was passed forcing them to carry on their trade at a distance. In Venice the glass-workers were sent to the island of Murano, where the factories still are; in Perigord they were kept in the forest, where they could cut down the logs they needed for their kilns, and where certain sorts of trees and ferns grew which, when reduced to powder, were needed in the manufacture of the glass.

Whether the father of Palissy was a glass-maker or not—for nothing is quite certain about the boy's early years—Bernard must of course have had many companions among the children of the forest workers, and as he went through the world with his eyes always open, he soon learnt a great deal of all that had to be done in order to turn out the bits of glass that blazed like jewels when the sun shone through them. There were special kinds of earth, or rocks, or plants to be sought for, and when found the glass-maker must know how to use them, so as to get exactly the colour or thickness of material that he wanted. And when he had spent hours and hours mixing his substances and seeing that he had put in just the right quantity of each, and no more, perhaps the fire would be a little too hot and the glass would crack, or a little too cold and the mixture would not become solid glass, and then the poor man had to begin the whole process again from the beginning. Bernard stood by and watched, and noted the patience under failure, as well as the way that glass was made, and when his turn came the lesson bore fruit.

But Bernard learned other things besides how to make glass. He was taught to read and write, and by-and-by to draw. In his walks through the woods or over the hills, his eyes were busy wandering through the fallen leaves or glancing up at the branches of the trees in search of anything that might be hidden there. The bright-eyed lizards he especially loved, and sometimes he would persuade them to stay quiet for a few minutes by singing some country songs, while he took out his roll of paper and made rough sketches of them.

Artist as a boy


But after a while Palissy grew restless, and before he was twenty he left home and travelled on foot over the south of France, gaining fresh knowledge at every step, as those do who keep their wits about them. He had no money, so he paid his way by the help of his pencil, as he was later to do in the little town of Saintes, taking portraits of the village innkeeper or his wife, or drawing plans for the new rooms the good man meant to build now that business was so thriving, and measuring the field at the back of the house, that he thought of laying out as a garden of fruits and herbs. And as the young man went he visited the cathedrals in the towns as well as the forges and the manufactories, and never rested till he found out why this city made cloth, and that one silk, and a third wonderful patterns of wrought iron.

We do not know exactly how long Palissy remained on his travels, but as there was no need for him to hurry and so much for him to see he probably was away for some years. On his return he seems to have settled down in the little town of Saintes, on the river Charente, where he supported himself by doing what we should call surveying work, measuring the lands of the whole department, and reporting on the kind of soil of which they were made, so that the government might know how to tax them.

In the year 1538 Palissy married, and a year later came the event which influenced more than any other the course of his future life. A French gentleman named Pons, who had spent a long while at the Italian court of Ferrara, returned to France, bringing with him many beautiful things, among others an "earthenware cup, wonderfully shaped and enamelled." Pons happened to meet Palissy, and finding that the same subjects interested them both, he showed him the cup. The young man could scarcely contain himself at the sight. For some time he had been turning over in his mind the possibility of discovering enamel, or glaze, to put on the earthen pots, and now here, in perfection, was the very thing he was looking for.

During the next two or three years, when he was busy surveying the lands about Saintes, in order to support his wife and little children, his thoughts were perpetually occupied with the enamelled cup, and how to make one like it. If he could only see a few more, perhaps something might give him a clue; but how was he to do that? Then one day in the winter of 1542 a pirate boat from La Rochelle, on the coast, sailed into port with a great Spanish ship in tow, filled with earthenware cups from Venice, and plates and goblets from the Spanish city of Valencia, famous for its marvellously beautiful glaze. The news of the capture soon reached Palissy, and we may be sure he had made a study of the best of the pots before they were bought by the king, Francis I., and given away to the ladies of the French court. But the Venetian and Spanish treasures still kept their secret, and Palissy was forced to work on in the dark, buying cheap earthen pots and breaking them, and pounding the pieces in a mortar, so as to discover, if he could, the substances of which they were made.

All this took a long time, and Palissy gave up his surveying in order to devote his whole days to this labour of love. The reward, however, was very slow in coming, and if he had not contrived to save a little money while he was still a bachelor his wife and children would have starved. Week after week went by, and Palissy was to be seen in his little workshop, making experiments with pieces of common pots, over which he spread the different mixtures he had made. These pieces, he tells us, "he baked in his furnace, hoping that some of these mixtures might, when hot, produce a colour"; white was, however, what he desired above all, as he had heard that if once you had been able to procure a fine white, it was comparatively easy to get the rest. Remembering how as a boy he had used certain chemical substances in staining the glass, he put these into some of his mixtures, and hopefully awaited the result.

But, alas! he "had never seen earth baked," and had no idea how hot the fire of his furnace should be, or in what way to regulate it. Sometimes the substance was baked too much, and sometimes too little; and every day he was building fresh furnaces in place of the old ones which had cracked, collecting fresh materials, making fresh failures, and altogether wasting a great deal of time and money.

Thus passed several years, and it is a marvel how the family contrived to live at all, and madame Palissy had reason for the reproaches and hard words which she heaped on her husband. The amount of wood alone necessary to feed the furnaces was enormous, and when Palissy could no longer afford to buy it, he cut down all the trees and bushes in his garden, and when they were exhausted burned all the tables and chairs in the house and tore up the floors. Fancy poor madame Palissy's feelings one morning when this sight met her eyes. His friends laughed at him and told tales of his folly in the neighbouring town, which hurt his feelings; but nothing turned him from his purpose, and except for the few hours a week when he worked at something which would bring in money enough to keep his family alive, every moment, as well as every thought, was given up to the discovery which was so slow in being made.

Again he bought some cheap pots, which he broke in pieces, and covered three or four hundred fragments with his mixtures. These he carried, with the help of a man, to a kiln belonging to some potters in the forest, and asked leave to bake them. The potters willingly gave him permission, and the pieces were laid carefully in the furnace. After four hours Palissy ventured to examine them, and found one of the fragments perfectly baked, and covered with a splendid white glaze. "My joy was such," he writes, "that I felt myself another man"; but he rejoiced too soon, for success was still far distant. The mixture which produced the white glaze was probably due to Palissy having added unconsciously a little more of some special substance, because when he tried to make a fresh mixture to spread over the rest of the pieces he failed to obtain the same result. Still, though the disappointment was great, he did not quite cease to "feel another man." He had done what he had wanted once, and some day he would do it again and always.

It seems strange that Palissy did not go to Limoges, which was not very far off, and learn the trade of enamelling at the old-established manufactory there. It would have saved him from years of toil and heartsickness, and his family from years of poverty. But no! he wished to discover the secret for himself, and this he had no right to do at the expense of other people.

However, we must take the man as he was, and as we read the story of his incessant toils we wonder that any human being should have lived to tell the tale. He was too poor to get help; perhaps he did not want it; but "he worked for more than a month night and day," grinding into powder the substances such as he had used at the moment of his success. But heat the furnace as he might, it would not bake, and again he was beaten. He had found the secret of the enamel, but not how to make it form part of the pots.

Each time victory appeared certain some fresh misfortune occurred, the most vexatious of all being one which seems due to Palissy's own carelessness. The mortar used by the potter in building his kiln was full of small pebbles, and when the oven became very hot these pebbles split, and mixed with the glaze. Then the enamel was spread over the earthen pots (which at last were properly baked), and the surface of each vessel, instead of being absolutely smooth, became as sharp as a razor and tore the hand of any unlucky person who touched it.

To guard against such accidents Palissy invented some sort of cases—"lanterns" he calls them—in which to put his pots while in the kiln, and these he found extremely useful. He now plucked up heart and began to model lizards and serpents, tortoises and lobsters, leaves and flowers, but it was a long while before he could turn them out as he wished. "The green of the lizards," he tells us, "got burned before the colour of the serpents was properly fixed," and the lobsters, serpents and other creatures were baked before it suited the potter, who would have liked them all to take the same time. But at length his patience and courage triumphed over all difficulties. By-and-by he learned how to manage his furnace and how to mix his materials; the victory had taken him sixteen years to win, but at last he, and not the fire, was master; henceforth he could make what he liked, and ask what price he chose.

And there we will leave Palissy the artist and turn to the life of Palissy the Huguenot.

For some years past the reformed religion had spread rapidly in this corner of France, and Palissy, always anxious to understand everything that came in his way, began first to inquire into the new doctrines, and then to adopt them. One of the converts, Philibert Hamelin, a native of Tours, was seized by the magistrates and condemned to death, and Palissy, who was his special friend, careless of any risk to himself, did all that was possible to obtain his pardon; when that proved hopeless, the potter arranged a plan of escape for the prisoner, but Hamelin declined to fly, and was hanged at Bordeaux in 1557.

The new religion had changed life outwardly as well as inwardly at Saintes, as Palissy himself tells us. "Games, dances, songs, banquets, smart clothes, were all things of the past. Ladies were forbidden by Calvin, whose word was law, even to wear ribbons; the wine shops were empty, for the young men passed their spare hours in the fields; girls sat singing hymns on the banks of the streams, and boys abandoned their games, and were as grave as their fathers." The new faith spread rapidly in this district, but the converts did not all behave in the peaceable manner described by Palissy. As the party grew stronger it also grew more violent, and it was plain to him and to everyone else that civil war must shortly follow. Cruelty on one side was answered by cruelty on the other, and Palissy had thrown in his lot with the Huguenots, and by his writings as well as his words urged them to take arms against the Catholics. Perhaps the artist in him may have grieved to hear of the destruction in the beautiful churches of the carved images of the saints that were broken by axes and hammers; of the pictures that were burned, or the old illuminated manuscripts that were torn in pieces; but outwardly he gave his approval, and when things went against the Huguenots, even Palissy's powerful friends who admired his works could no longer shut their eyes. He was warned to change his ways, and as he did not the duke of Montpensier, then governor of the rebellious provinces, thought he would keep Palissy from greater mischief by putting him into prison. From Saintes he was sent to Bordeaux, where the magistrates, irritated at his having given the use of a tower which they had granted him for a studio as a meeting-place for Huguenots, ordered him into stricter confinement, while they debated whether the studio should be destroyed. But the constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, hearing of this proposal, hastened to the queen dowager, Catherine de Medicis, who came to the rescue by appointing him potter to the royal household. In this manner Palissy and his studio both escaped, and soon afterwards the Treaty of Amboise (1563) gave peace to both parties.

After this the happiest period of Palissy's life began. He was free, he was on the way to grow rich, and he had leisure to write down the thoughts and plans that had come to him long ago as a boy in his wanderings, or lately, in his lonely hours in prison. His children could be well provided for, and he need have no more anxiety about them. As to his wife, she appears to have been already dead when fortune at last visited him, and, indeed, she played but a small part in his life.

Now his first book was composed, and in it we can read about the gardens that Palissy hoped to lay out if his rich friends, Montmorency, or Montpensier, or Conde, or even the queen herself, would help him to carry out his designs.

The garden of Palissy's thoughts was to be very large, and certainly would cost a great deal of money. It was to be situated under a hill, so that the flowers and fruits might be protected from the winds, and many streams were to flow through it. Broad alleys would cross the garden, ending in arbours, some made of trees, trained or cut into different shapes, and filled with statues; others of different coloured stones, with lizards and vipers climbing upon the walls, while on the floor texts would be picked out in pebbles. Plants and flowers would hang from the roofs of the grottos, and beside them the rivulets would broaden into basins where real frogs and fish would gaze with surprise at their stone companions on the brink. Here and there the stream would be dammed up into a lake covered with tiny islands, and filled with forget-me-nots and water-lilies and pretty yellow irises, and at the next turn of the path the visitor would be delighted by a beautiful statue half hidden by a grove of trees. Catching sight of an inscription in the left hand of the figure, he would not resist stepping aside to read it, and as he was stooping to see what was written a jar of water in the figure's right hand would empty itself on his head.

Artist as a man


Wet and cross, the visitor would pursue his way, taking care not to go near another statue standing alone in a wide grassy space, with a ring dangling from its finger. The children or pages waiting on the lady of the house would, however, think that the flat lawn would be a splendid place in which to play at "tilting at the ring," and here was a ring just set up for the purpose. Hastily fetching their toy weapons, they would choose a starting-place and, holding their lances well back, run swiftly towards the statue, hoping to thrust the lance-point through the ring, as by-and-by they would have to do at the sports at a royal wedding or a coronation. But the moment the ring was touched a huge wet sponge would swing round from the back of the figure and hit the champion a sharp blow on the back of the head, to the great delight and surprise of his companions.

It was not a game that could be played twice on the same person, as Palissy well knew; but in those days great lords with trains of attendants frequently stopped at each other's houses on the way to their own lands, so that a constant supply of fresh pages might be looked for, all eager to play at tilting at the ring.

It was in 1565 that Palissy was sent for to Paris by the queen, to help her to decorate and lay out the gardens of the palace of the Tuileries, which she was now planning, close to the Louvre.

The very name of the place must have sounded home-like in the ears of Palissy, for Tuileries means nothing more than "tile-fields," and for a long while this part of Paris had been the workshop of brick-makers and potters outside the walls of the old city. But in the reign of Catherine's father-in-law, Francis I., they were forced to move further away, as the king had taken a fancy to the site, and had bought it for his mother. Gardens were made where the furnaces had stood; but these were by no means fine enough to please Catherine, and she called in her favourite architect, Philibert Delorme, to erect a palace in their place, and bade Palissy, now called "Bernard of the Tuileries" by his friends, to invent her a new pleasure-ground stretching away to the west.

We may be sure that Palissy did not lose this happy chance of carrying into practice the "delectable garden" of his dreams. He had his workshops and kilns on the spot, and a band of skilled potters who baked the figures of men and animals which he himself fashioned out of clay. Two of his sons, Nicholas and Mathurin, seem to have inherited some of his talent, and were his partners, as we learn from a royal account book of the year 1570, and it must have been pleasant to him to have their company. The queen herself often walked down from the Louvre close by to see how he was getting on, and to give her opinion as to the grouping of some statues or the arrangement of a grotto; and here too came his friends when in Paris, Montmorency, Conde, Jarnac and others, and Delorme, Bullant, Filon, and all the great architects of the day. The chateau of Ecouen, belonging to Montmorency, situated about twelve miles from Paris, had been decorated by Palissy before he entered the service of the queen-mother, and had gained him great fame and many commissions.

At Ecouen the long galleries and the floor of the chapel were paved with tiles containing pictures of subjects taken out of the Bible. In the garden was the first "grotto" the potter ever made, and very proud he was of it, and still more so of the invention by which, at a signal from the host, one of the attendants would touch a spring, and streams of water poured over the guests. It is difficult to imagine the grave constable, occupied as he was with religious wars, or anxiously watching affairs of state, playing such rude and silly tricks on the gentlemen and ladies he was entertaining, and it is pleasanter to think of them all listening to the songs of birds which, we are told, were imitated to the life by means of water passing through pipes and reeds. Altogether, Ecouen was thought a marvel of beauty and fancy, and everybody who considered they had any claims to good taste made a point of riding out to visit it.

Safe under royal protection and happy in his work, Palissy did not trouble himself about the fighting that still raged in the name of religion. When he was tired of the hot atmosphere of the kiln, he would wander along the banks of the river, or into the woods and hills about Paris, and watch the birds and the insects fluttering among the trees. Then, with his mind full of what he had beheld, he would return to his workshop, and, calling for clay, would never rise from his chair until he had made an exact copy of the little scene which had caught his fancy. First he would form his oval-shaped dish, and in the centre of it would lie some twisted snakes, with sprays of leaves and flowers scattered round them, while over the cups of the flowers bees and butterflies hovered gaily. Or, again, he would fashion a wavy sea, bordered by shells of all sorts, fishes, frogs, leaves, and butterflies, and in the middle a great sea-serpent wriggling gracefully across the dish.

Everything was true to nature and beautifully executed, and in those days it never seemed to strike anyone that dishes were meant to hold food and not to be treated as pictures.

Palissy had been working for eight years in Paris when the massacre of St. Bartholomew took place. No one sought to harm the potter, Huguenot though he was, and he lived on peacefully, respected by all, for some time longer.

In 1574 Charles IX., the well-intentioned, half-mad young king, died, and his brother Henry, a man in every way much worse than himself, came to the throne. Like the rest of his family, however, he was fond of art, and protected the potter, and a few months later we find Palissy, quite unharmed, giving lectures on natural history to some of the most famous scientific men in Paris. If he wanted to prove a point he had a quantity of drawings or materials at hand to show them. He spoke well, and the fame of his lectures spread. The little room was soon filled to overflowing with lawyers, scholars, and, above all, physicians, the celebrated monsieur Ambroise Pare, doctor to the queen-mother, and a Huguenot like himself, at their head.

During nine years Palissy continued to deliver these lectures every Lent, working steadily most of the day among his furnaces at the Tuileries. He was now seventy-five, and had escaped so many dangers that he might well think himself safe to the end, which could not be far off. But in 1585 Henry III. thought himself obliged to take more active measures against the Huguenots. Palissy had never concealed—as he had never obtruded—his faith, and, most likely at the instigation of someone who envied him, he was at once sent to the prison of the Bastille, and sentence of death passed upon him.

Yet once again the potter's gift for making friends, perhaps the most valuable of all his talents in that fierce age, stood him in good stead. This time it was actually one of the persecuting Guises, the duc de Mayenne, who saved him, and prevented the decree from being carried out.

For four years Palissy remained a prisoner. Mayenne desired to set him free, but did not dare to do so, so left him where he was till better times came. But Palissy had a surer friend than Mayenne, who came to his rescue. In spite of his strong frame, years passed in a prison of those days, where hunger, cold, and dirt would break any man down, proved too much even for Bernard Palissy, now more than eighty years of age. Little by little he grew weaker, watched and tended, as far as might be, by those who, like himself, had suffered for conscience' sake. Then one evening he went to sleep, and woke in the Delectable Garden.