Saint-Porchaire ware is the earliest very high quality French pottery. It is white lead-glazed earthenware often conflated with true faience, that was made for a restricted French clientele from the 1520s to the 1540s. Only about sixty pieces of this ware survive, all of them well known before World War II. None have turned up in the last half-century. When collectors first noticed this ware in the nineteenth century, the tradition of where it had been made had been lost, and it was only known as Henri II ware, for some pieces bore the king's monogram. Its style clearly showed the influence of the Fontainebleau School of Mannerist decor, which introduced the Italian Renaissance to France. In 1898 Edmond Bonaffé linked its source for the first time to the village of Saint-Porchaire (nowadays a part of Bressuire, Poitou). He noted that in 1552 Charles Estienne had spoken of the beauty of the Saint-Porchaire ware, and that in 1566 a local poet had praised it in a poem and cited 16th-century inventories that includes objects of terre de Saint-Porchaire or made façon de Saint-Porchaire.
The attribution to this small village raises more questions than it answers. There is no archaeological evidence at Saint-Porchaire to support the village as the kiln site, and the sophisticated range of design sources, both engravings and actual examples of metalwork seems beyond the cultural horizon of a place far from Fontainebleau and Paris.
The production of Saint-Porchaire ware was labour-intensive, and in overall decorative design, no two pieces are alike. The basic clay shapes were thrown on the wheel and perhaps refined on the lathe or were assembled from shaped slabs of clay; the candlesticks, for example, were assembled from more than a hundred separate components. Mould-formed sculptural decoration was applied with slip to make relief masks, festoons, and the like. Additionally, hand-modelled figures might serve as handles for ewers. Banding and fields of fine geometrical decoration or rinceaux were made by repeatedly impressing metal dies into the leather-hard body; after further drying the impressions were filled with dark brown, rust red or ochre yellow clay slip that was rubbed off the surface to give an inlay with a discreet range of colors. Further touches of colored slip, such as a spinach green, were applied.
The surface was then covered with a lead glaze that fired to give a slightly golden transparency. Salt cellars, standing cups with covers, plateaux, ewers and the spouted vessels called biberons, and candlesticks, often in distinctive bizarre and fantastic designs derived from Mannerist silver- and goldsmiths' work, are the usual forms of Saint-Porchaire wares. Many armorials on Saint-Porchaire wares show that its clients were from the nobility, and religious institutions, in addition to wares that bear the royal arms.
Recent findings suggest Bernard Palissy may have employed some Saint-Porchaire techniques at his Paris workshop, 1565-72. Other than that, the experiment at Saint-Porchaire remained without precedents and without direct influence in the development of French ceramics, which, apart from Palissy's experiments, started anew with increasingly fine faience in the later seventeenth century.
Museum collections with three or more pieces include: Louvre, Musée du Petit Palais Paris, National Ceramic Museum at Sèvres, Victoria and Albert Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morgan Library and Museum,National Gallery of Art Washington, Cleveland Museum of Art, & Hermitage Museum.
- Wardropper, Ian. "Ceramics in the French Renaissance". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–
- Faïence d'Oiron was another term in the trade, under the mistaken impression that the manufacture had been sited at Oiron in the département of Deux-Sèvres; some pieces of Saint-Porchaire ware had been conserved at the Château d'Oiron.
- These concerns are raised by Poulain 1997 and Timothy Wilson's review in The Burlington Magazine 139 No. 1137 (December 1997:894f). (Wilson 1997).
- An observation from the exhibition catalogue, Bernard Palissy et la céramique de Saint-Porchaire noted in the review by Timothy Wilson (Wilson 1997)
- A ewer at the Louvre Museum bears the monogram G of Gilles de Montmorency-Laval.
- Dominique Poulain, curator, Bernard Palissy et la céramique de Saint-Porchaire, exhibition catalogue, Château d'Écouen, 1997; the exhibition brought together 38 pieces.
- "There are no convincing ceramic precedents. The stylistic relationships are many, and consistently non-ceramic" Timothy Wilson observed in reviewing the 1997 Écouen exhibition (Wilson 1997:895).
- The Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library share the eight pieces that had been brought together in the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan.
- Wilson, 247, note 1
- Wilson, Timothy H.; NGA Washington Western Decorative Arts: Medieval, Renaissance, and historicizing styles, including metalwork, enamels, and ceramics, National Gallery of Art (U.S.), Oxford University Press US, 1993, ISBN 0-521-47068-4, ISBN 978-0-521-47068-1
- "The Rarest Faience In The World"
- (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Saint-Porchaire ewer
- (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) Three pieces of Saint-Porchaire ware
- (Cleveland Museum of Art) Saint-Porchaire ware
- Edmond Bonaffé, Les Faiences de Saint-Porchaire (1898)