After I visited Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert last fall, I stopped off in the village of Saint-Jean-de-Fos – it was on my way home, so how could I not! 🙂
Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been famous for its pottery workshops since the Middle Ages. In days gone past, these workshops produced a huge range of everyday items for use inside and outside the home. Think of items we take for granted today, such as cooking pots and pans. Until not that long ago, a lot of people in France used terracotta cooking vessels, just as people in parts of India and Africa still do to this day. Clay is very versatile, and objects were cheap and easy to produce.
In recent years the production of pottery in Saint-Jean-de-Fos has been revived, and one of the former factories has beentransformed into a museum, aptly named Argileum, “argile” being the French word for clay.
The part of the building with the rusted exterior/roof is the new addition to the old factory, and it houses the visitors centre and reception area, as well as a gallery. Looking at the main picture above I feel as though the building could be somewhere in Colorado or New Mexico…
The visit of the museum starts in a gallery which was added to the old building. Just outside the door into the gallery is an installation of sculptures, which sit on a bed of broken terracotta.
The display in the gallery charts the history of this particular factory, as well as the history of ceramics production in the village.
Here are some examples of items produced in Saint-Jean-de-Fos:
Pitchers, jars, jugs, bowls, plumbing pipes, roof tiles, sugar-loaf moulds, roof decorations, strainers… There’s much more on display in the gallery than I am showing you in my pictures!
Here is a model of the old factory – the new additions are not shown. The red dot (if you enlarge the picture) marks the location of the model in the gallery building, which was added to the old factory.
Also in the gallery are cuttings from a clay pit – this is what clay looks like when it is extracted from the ground:
The first room in the old factory is the throwing room, where the lumps of clay would be turned into pots and other objects – not by throwing the clay around, but by throwing it on a wheel. 😀
The wheel shown here is a “kick wheel” so-called because the potter kicks the weight at the bottom to turn it. In this room there was also a video explaining how clay is prepared: once it is dug from the ground it is mixed with water, then sieved to remove impurities such as stones. The sieved liquid was then left to settle and dry in large basins outside. You can see the basins on the model above.
When the clay was the right texture it was cut into squares, and the squares stacked inside and left to mature. Heavy work!!
In the yard outside, where the basins were located, an exhibition of Raku pottery had been installed.
Raku is a particular technique of firing, where the red-hot objects are pulled from the kiln and put into sawdust, which results in the black surfaces.
Back inside the museum we came to the drying room, where the pots would be left to dry before being fired. A video in this room explained the decoration particular to pots from Saint-Jean-de-Fos, where different oxides are applied to the clay before being glazed.
The final room was where the big kiln was located – an important part of every pottery! In days gone by, pottery kilns were always wood fired. Modern factory kilns can be gas or oil-fired, or powered by electricity. Some potters still use wood, and the results from a wood fired kiln are very different from what is fired in other kilns. In the picture below you see the upper level of the kiln, where the pots were stacked. The hole would be walled up for each firing, and the wood was burned in a chamber beneath.
If you want to know how an artisan pottery such as this would work in modern days, here is a video for you. The workshops of the Not brothers are located close to Castelnaudary, and I will get there one of these days!
After the visit to the museum I wanted to see some of the modern-day potters and their wares. The village itself is very nice for a stroll: narrow roads, squares, fountains…
… and then there were the shops 🙂 – very tempting and subversive to ever-diminishing cupboard space!!
If you visit St Guilhelm le Desert, be sure to leave some time to stop off at Saint-Jean-de-Fos, especially if you enjoy pottery!!