Page images
PDF
EPUB

A POTTER'S TRIALS.* The name of Bernard Palissy is unfamiliar in this country. In France, where he was known as “the poor potter, M. Bernard,” and is still known as Palissy the naturalist, his name is illustrious as that of, to use the words of Buffon, “ so great a naturalist as nature only can produce;" and, according to another distinguished philosopher-Haller-one “ born to the greatest things.”

As a potter and painter on glass, Palissy attained high distinction, and was patronised by Catherine of Medicis, and her son Henry III. A self-taught genius, he not only perfected the arts that he cultivated, but in the prosecution of his researches he made considerable discoveries in chemistry and geology: so much so, that some French writers have assigned to him the credit of having anticipated many of the great fundamental principles of those sciences as they now exist. A zealous Calvinist, and living in troublous tines, his life was also chequered by many an adventure and incident; but how far this would authorise a person, professing to write the biography of so interesting and remarkable a personage, to interpolate facts drawn from the experiences of others, even though those experiences were contemporaneous-to illustrate, for example, the life of Palissy by details drawn from the chronicles of “Blaise de Montluc,” chit-chat from the “ Livre des Marchands,” and from the reveries of Parcelsus, we must leave others to decide. The author has apologised for taking such a liberty, by saying that it enabled him to describe more easily the character of the experience that must have been acquired by Palissy during his early travels. But it is evident that it has the bad effect of imparting the character of fiction to a narrative which could, more than any other, from the simple zeal, the natural gifts, and the earnest genius of its subject, afford to dispense with, nay, to scorn, such adventitious aids.

The year and precise spot of Bernard Palissy's birth appear to be unknown. It was at or about 1509, and in the “ diocese” of Agen. He was educated as a glass-painter, and worker generally in painted glass-an art which, being at that time deemed an honourable occupation, his biographer deduces from that, and from Palissy's own impression that the art was confined to nobles, that he was descended from some of the innumerable families of poor and petty nobles. Certain it is, that of the general learning of the day none was communicated to the child. “ I have had no other books,” he says, in his treatise “ On Stones,” “than heaven and earth, which are open to all.” He learnt to read and write; and the minerals employed in staining glass, and some few of their properties, had to be learned also, and they made up Bernard's first and almost only lessons in chemistry.

When Bernard grew up to be eighteen years of age the desire to see the world, which is most irresistible in active minds, led him to shoulder his scanty wallet, and direct his steps, in the first place, towards the Pyrenees. Little is known of the incidents and adventures of this portion

* The Life of Bernard Palissy, of Saintes, his Labours and Discoveries in Art and Science. By Henry Morley. 2 vols. Chapman and Hall.

of the potter's career; and here it is that his biographer takes the liberty of filling up the hiatus from the experiences of others. It appears that Bernard hoped to gratify his love of travel, and possibly even to better his condition, by practising his skill as painter in the noble houses and the towns met with during his peregrinations. From the summary of his travels, given by M. Faujas de St. Fond, in the fourth edition of the works of Palissy, 1777, it appears that he dwelt some years at Tarbes, and that he tarried long in sundry other towns. During nine or ten years of wandering he appears to have traversed the greater part of France, as also a portion of Germany. During these wanderings he lived by his painting chiefly; but another means of livelihood consisted in his knowledge of geometry, and nianual skill in the employment of a rule and compass. This knowledge made him capable of measuring and planning sites for houses and gardens, and of making maps of landed property. Yet Palissy appears to have looked, in these days of his youth, upon his bread-earning talents as merely a secondary thing, for much of the knowledge which he afterwards applied to his reasonings in chemistry and geology was gathered during these early days of travel. It appears also-although it is difficult to mark the time when Palissy began to adopt the opinions of “ those of the new religion”-that he also became a convert during his travels. And it was thus that he ripened into a practical and earnest man.

Not being proof, like Paracelsus, against woman's charms, Bernard Palissy was at length stopped short in his peripatetic career by marriage, and he settled in the ancient town of Saintes, or as it was written at that time, Xaintes. His biographer supposes this to have occurred in 1538, when our philosopher was about twenty-nine. His pursuits, however, continued the same land-surveying, glass-painting, and portrait-painting. His engagements, as surveyor usually sprang out of disputes concerning land, formerly a constant source of litigation in most countries. His house seems to have been in the outskirts of the town, for he says, in his “ Artist in Earth,” “ I have been for several years, when, without the means of covering my furnaces, I was every night at the mercy of the rains and winds, without receiving any help, aid, or consolation, except from the owls that screeched on one side, and the dogs that howled on the other.”

Thus labouring for bread (writes his biographer) among the narrow-minded people of the narrow-streeted town of Saintes, dissatisfied with labour that produced food, and only food, Palissy, conscious of his own strength, hoped that he might yet live to accomplish something better. He had abundant spirit and vivacity. In his darkest hours of evil fortune he could try like a man to set his friends a-laughing. In the simplicity of his mind, he was at all times full of hope, although unconscious that it was the spiritual sense of power which begot his hopefulness. All that is possible, is certain to the man who wills, if he has wit enough to use a little tact or skill, and a great deal of patience. Palissy had a child upon his arms ; land-measuring came only now and then ; glass-painting was not attractive ; and the inhabitants of Saintes were but a limited population to provide with pictures. The young artist kissed his baby, and buoyed up his wife with his own hopes. There was another baby to kiss, but there was no doubt in his mind about the future.

It was at this time that there was shown to Palissy an elegant cup of Italian manufacture—“an earthen cup,” he says, “turned and enamelled with so much beauty, that from that time I entered into controversy with my own Nov.-VOL. XCVI. NO. CCCLXXXIII.

2 A

thoughts, recalling to mind several suggestions that some people had made to me in fun, when I was painting portraits. Then, seeing that these were falling out of request in the country where I dwelt, and that glass-painting was also little patronised, I began to think that if I should discover how to make enamels, I could make earthen vessels, and other things, very prettily ; because God had gifted me with some knowledge of drawing.” Palissy then knew nothing whatever of the art of pottery, and there was no man in the nation who could make enamels. That last fact was the attraction to him. Enamels could be made; there he beheld a specimen. What is possible, is sore to him who wills, if he can use a little skill and a great deal of patience. To be the only man in France able to make enamelled vases, would be to provide hand. some support for his wife and children ; and to work at the solution of so hard a riddle, would be to provide full occupation for his intellect. So Palissy resolved to make himself a prince among the potters; and, “ thereafter," he writes, “ regardless of the fact that I had no knowledge of clays, I began to seek for the enamels, as a man gropes in the dark.”

The Florentine sculptor, Lucca della Robbia, had, by enduring toil carried on like the labours of Palissy, amid cold, hunger, and all kinds of discomforts and privations, discovered about a century before a means of defending terra cotta figures from the injuries of time by an enamel of tin, litharge, and antimony, but Palissy had the whole ground to go over again; he knew nothing of the discoveries of others, he had nothing but nis genius and his indomitable perseverance to rely upon, and the history of his struggles in search of what was truly his philosopher's stone are both justly and quaintly styled by his biographer, “ The Wars for the Discovery of White Enamel.”.

“ Without having heard,” says Palissy, “ of what materials the said enamels were composed, I pounded in those days all the substances which I could suppose likely to make anything; and having pounded and ground them, I bought a quantity of earthen pots, and after having broken them in pieces, I put some of the materials that I had ground upon them, and having marked them, I set apart in writing what drugs I had put upon each, as a memorandum; then, having made a furnace to my fancy, I set the fragments down to bake.”

The purchase of the drugs, the buying of the pots, the building of the furnace, and the loss of time from customary occupation, made, of course, a very serious impression on the household purse. The wife cared naturally more about her children than about the best of white enamels, but she doubtless had consented with not much reluctance to the present sacrifices. It seemed to be quite true that if Bernard discovered the enamel, he would make them rich: how difficult the task might be, it was impossible to foresee: of course it would be difficult, but then Bernard was clever. Let the old funds fall, therefore, since there really was hope of a new and rich investment.

So the old funds fell. Ordinary work was to be done only at the call of strict necessity. The enamel when discovered if discovered—would be useless except as a covering to ornamental pottery, and Palissy would have to learn how to make that. He set himself to rival the enamelled cups of Italy, when he would have failed in an attempt to make the roughest pipkin. He knew nothing of clay, and he had never even seen the inside of a pottery. He “ had never seen earth baked.” But what of that? Enamelled cups were made in Italy ; why should they not be made also in France ?

The building, destroying, and rebuilding of furnaces, in which the chemicals he bought with household money were always only burned and spoiled, was anxious labour. Fuel was not cheap, and Bernard had

to take, not only food out of his kettle, but also wood from under it. “ He fooled away,” he tells us, “ in this manner several years.”—“ With sorrow and sighs,” he adds—“ for the bread of his children lessened—he was weighed down by domestic care.” Considering this matter, and perceiving well how much his family required that he should do a little steady work in their behalf, Bernard resolved to close this his first struggle for the discovery of white enamel. With his own charming simplicity, he himself tells us, 6 When I saw that I could not at all, in this way, come at my intention, I took relaxation for a time, occupying myself in my art of painting and glass-working, and comported myself as if I was not zealous to dive any more into the secret of enamels.”

A lucky tide turned, however, at this conjuncture in favour of the philosophic potter. A royal edict came forth that the islands of Saintonge, and the district surrounding the salt-marshes, should be surveyed. Palissy was appointed as the most competent man to the task, and “ a bright flood of sunshine suddenly poured in to chase the gloom out of his dwelling.” Bernard, the uneducated, was still the philosopher even in the salt-marshes. He has left an account of his labours, prefaced by a 66 Treatise on Common Salt and Salts generally.” He was not of the school that treats salt as the source of all evil. "Salt,” he says, “ rejoices human beings : it whitens the flesh, giving beauty to reasonable beings; it preserves friendship between the male and female, by the vigour given to the sexes; it gives voice to creatures as to metals.” The Arabs appear to entertain a somewhat similar idea of the properties of salt.

Palissy brought his work to a conclusion in somewhat more than a year, and then he says: “When the said commission was ended, and I found myself paid with a little money, I resumed my affection for pursuing in the track of the enamels ;” and here begins what his biographer calls the “ Second Palissian War for the Discovery of White Enamel.” The profits of the marsh surveying were soon swallowed up in this second struggle, and Bernard's biographer justly remarks that we must not spend all our admiration in the inflexible energy with which Palissy battled his way on through adversity; sympathy is also due to her who, as his wife, stood by him in the contest, sharing all the blows he suffered, and yet unable to comprehend the battle that he waged. Bernard discovered in this campaign that the chemicals which he could not get to melt in a potter's furnace, did so in a glass furnace. For two long years after this, however, he still pursued his experiments without any definite success, till, at last, he resolved upon one grand final effort. He made no less than three hundred different mixtures, and this time success awaited upon his courageous efforts, his long toil, and selfsacrifice.

On such moments in a life the mind dwells as upon the recollection of a picture. We see the glow of the furnace, through the two mouths by which it is fed, upon the walls of the surrounding hovel. We have a glimpse of some rich foliage, with broken bits of sunbeam scattered over it, as a glass-worker enters by the hovel-door, bringing in billets from the wood to feed the fire. Three or four men of Saintonge are occupied about the place, rough, coarselyfeatured men, whose flesh is in strong contrast with the spirit that looks out of the face of Bernard, anxious and very still. Bernard Palissy, a man in the full strength of life, aged about thirty-seven, with a vigorous frame, paled and thinned by care, sits on a heap of fagots, sometimes laughing with the

men, to cover his anxiety, at other times reverting with a fixed gaze to the furnace-mouth. During four hours he has waited there. The furnace is opened, and his whole form is shining with a bright glow from the molten glass, as his eyes run over his regiment of potshards. The material on one of them is melted, and that piece being taken out, is set aside to cool. The furnace is closed, and Palissy has now to watch the cooling of that compound which has been so quickly melted; not with great hope at first; but as it hardens—it grows white ! All that was black in the thoughts of Palissy begins to whiten with it. It is cold. It is " white and polished ;"--a white enamel, “singularly beautiful."

This took place in the year 1546, Palissy being then about thirtyseven years old. It was, however, but the success of a moment. Another trial was followed with less encouraging results, but Bernard persevered, till first the palings, then the chairs and tables, and lastly the flooring of his house was torn up to gratify this terrible enamel mania, and his wife and family, frantic with despair, rushed out into the town, publishing aloud the madness of the haggard, weary, unsuccessful experimentalist.

In the midst of all these domestic and scientific troubles and grievances, the persecution of heretics, which had been for some time spreading all over France, reached the remote district of Saintonge, and was inaugurated by the burning of “a brother at Gimosac, who kept a school, and preached on Sunday, being much beloved by the inhabitants.” It does not appear that Bernard was so mad but that he took a deep interest in these religious troubles, of which he has left a truly interesting and philosophical account in his “ History of the Troubles of Saintonge.”

He had also, at the same time, hired a potter to work for him, but having no money to pay his wages, he was forced to give him part of his clothes. He also built himself a new furnace, with maimed hands and almost broken heart, and then the lints cracked with the heat, and stuck into his enamel. Great was Bernard's dismay; he had expected three or four hundred livres, and he received nothing but shame and confusion; so he broke in pieces the entire batch, and lay down in melancholy.

If one could sketch a scene like this with a pencil of a master, it would make a goodly picture. The dilapidated outhouse, its breaches rudely filled up with green boughs ; Palissy grand in his own grief, tattered in dress, with a litter of beautiful vases, cups, urns, and medallions, the products of his rich taste and fancy, broken at his feet ; the angry creditors ; the village gossips pouring their much talk over his bowed spirit ; his thin, pale children crouching, wondering about; his lean wife—God forgave her on the instant-pouring on him maledictions, ignorant or careless how his heart would open in that hour of anguish to receive one syllable of woman's consolation.

Palissy retired into his chamber, and lay down upon his bed. He had done well'to break his vessels. His skill as an artist, and his really discovered secret of the white enamel, placed before him a wide field for ambition. He meant to produce costly articles of luxury, and he could not afford, because the flints had speckled them, to hurt his future reputation by sending his rich creations into the world at the price of well-side pitchers. Princes were to be his paymasters. But he had no longer any means to feed his family. His wife could not forget that; and he might have had more than eight francs for the things that he had broken.

If the wife could have seen and understood the spirit of her husband, she would have followed his melancholy step when he withdrew to the recesses of his chamber.

Bernard was thus compelled once more to abandon his experiments,

« PreviousContinue »