Rhenish- Westerwald Pottery of the Renaissance and the Baroque

Gerd Kessler

When speaking about Rhenish Stoneware of the Renaissance and the Baroque periods one should take into consideration the regions of the early Potteries along the Rhine. There is Siegburg with a pottery tradition that goes well back to the middleages, there is Frechen and Raeren with a similar pottery past, as well as Langerwehe. The pottery places around Brühl reach even further back, well into Frankonian times (aprox. 9th century). An extensive pottery region, the importance of which was only realized to its full extent and importance some thirty years ago, lays within the town of Mayen. Not only the size but also the fact that archeaoligists excavated a great numT ber of kiln sites that had been operated continuously from late Roman times onto the early middleages present us with new outlooks into the history of Rhenish pottery.

Almost all pottery of these times can be described as earthenware fired to a various degree below fusion. The hardness of the clay body depends largely on the knowledge of kiln construction, firing technology, quality of clay and obtainable fuel (mostly wood). The ware produed was for daily use in houshold, storage and to some extent to transportation. Practical use governed the shapes which meant that the globular form was widely the majority of the scope of manufacture.

Most of the ceramics of the places stated above have been subject to thorough research. The early period of the pottery activities in the south-west region of the Westerwald, however, did not find enough attention to attract personalities with a learned background to undertake thorough research into the early beginnings of the pottery in that part of the Rhineland. We know from documentary evidence that pottery was well established in 1402 already but no research into possibly excisting documents of the following times until the late fifteenhundreds has been carried out yet. However, we are in the possession of many hundreds of sherds from various sites in the town of Hohr-Grenzhausen excavated and secured from construction sites in the second half of the past century by persons of the “Documentation Centre of the Kannenbackerland”. These finds are now scientifically examined with archaeological methods and also subjected to physical-chemical analysis by the Universtiy of Applied Science in Hohr-Grenzhausen. This project is sponsered and accompanied by the Documentation Centre supported by the Ceramics Museum Westerwald with the perspective to gain substantial knowledge of the early beginnings of the Westerwald Pottery and the further developement to the decorative Stoneware starting in the late 16th century .

First signs of decorative pottery in Cologne

The idea to decorate ceramic vessels so far only used as utility ware was developed in the beginning of the 16th century by potters in Cologne possibly from neighbouring Frechen. Potters tending to artistic work had been inspired by the advent of the Renaissance style allied with the new wave of humanistic thinking centering more on the individual and secular way of life. Excavations of pottery kilns in several parts of Cologne have brought to light a large mumber of vessels with embellishments so far unique with perhaps some exceptions on early Siegburg ware (medallions on funneljugs) or Aachen ware with plain and coarse faces at the spouts of jugs. Whereas the cologne potters had to leave Cologne by order of the city authorities the potters of Siegburg, Raeren and Frechen very soon picked up the new wave of ceramic decoration. In the second half of the 16th cent, potters in Raeren produced vessels in a new renaissance inspired style in great numbers and variations. At the same time their Siegburg colleagues had also changed from their long and succesfully produced gothic jugs to the new style, to the elegant spouted jugs and to the famous slender tapering tankards, to name the more prominent examples.

By this time in all active rhenish pottery centres earthenware had matured to fully fused stoneware in the course of the preceding two hundred years. Saltglazing had also been developed and its technology was well established.

Cobaltoxide as a decorative medium was introduced almost simultaniously in the leading centres Raeren, Siegburg and Frechen, but early finds in Cologne show the use of Cobalt colouring on the eyes of animal shaped jugs and also as decorative element on several bodies of jugs. As these finds must be dated into the period approx . 1540 to 1570 it can be assumed that the cologne potters were the first to use cobalt blue and that they carried their knowledge to Frechen, Raeren and Siegburg.

It were the Raeren potters who developed the technique of cobalt decoration to perfection. Although still manufactoring their traditional brown saltglazed ware towards the end of the 16th century they successfully introduced the grey-blue ware in increasing numbers.


The migration of masterpotters to the Westerwald

An incisive change in the world of pottery in the Rhineland occurred within few years between about 1583 and the end of the century. Leading potters of Raeren and Siegburg gave up their workshops and moved to small villages in the western part of the Westerwald where the pottery craft was being practised for several centuries but had not so far attracted much attention. Obviously clay and firing wood was available in abundance, the locations near little streams in mildly sloping areas was ideal for building kilns and the situation just a few miles near the river Rhine was ideal.

There must have been other reasons as well to give up a long and well established solid existence. The long struggle in the Spanish Netherlands and its non ending pressure on the population may have been a cause for the raeren potters. The Cologne War outbraking in 1583 may have induced the Knutgen family of Siegburg to move to the Westerwald.

The local sovereigns, the Elector of Trier, the Counts of Wied , Sayn and Isenburg are very likely to have lured such renowned artists in pottery to settle in their territories. The fact that it took a very short time for the new potters to get established and starting their craft indicates that they must have had mass’iv support from the authorities.

The raeren potters having settled in Grenzau and Grenzhausen started immediately with their already well known Renaissance-type baluster jugs and the elegantly pear-shaped jugs, all by that time in the new grey- and blue version.

The siegburg potters at first continued with their traditional white ware but soon changed to the much more popular grey-and blue.

The arrival of the immigrants did not arouse pure enthusiasm among the settled potters in the villages of Höhr, Grenzhausen and Grenzau. There is documentary evidence of quarrels between the potters of Höhr and their new colleagues from Siegburg. It took about two decades until it came to an understanding to allow the settled potters to produce officially the modern ware brought to the Westerwald by the raeren and siegburg master potters.

Before these arrived the Westerwald potters had already developed a fully fused stoneware, although only slip glazed, saltglazing as an exception. With this background they very quickly adopted the new art and skills.


The rise of artistic pottery in the Westerwald

It is very fitting to use here a physical term when we state that with the beginning of the 17th century the new artistic wave and art of decoration brought by the potters from Siegburg and Raeren had fused with the skills of those settled already and had been practising their craft for centuries in the Westerwald.

It was the beginning of a blossoming craft and trade in the later so called “Kannenbäckerland” – the “Land of Potbakers” as Solon translated in 1892 in his comprehensive publication on German stoneware. The new masters had brought with them not only their skill and artistic potential but also their moulds and tools. We find in the first half of the 17th century a great many relief applications on baluster jugs and tankards that had been used on raeren as well as on siegburg ware.

A very special jug is of a design of plain appearance but of charming elegance. Created in Raeren where it served as basis for several types of graceful utility ware still in traditional saltglazed brown. It was brought to the Land of Potbakers where it was transformed into a onehandled jug as a rule with the arms of Amsterdam but now in the grey-and-blue manner. It was succesfully sold all over the western world. Found in a waster heap in Grenzau (part of HÖhr-Grenzhausen) in 2003 gave evidence that it was made by the masterpotter Johann Kalb who had built his house at this precincts in 1621.

The new generation in the Land of Pottbakers used their ingenuity to create new shapes and ornaments. The cylindrical centre part of the baluster jugs well fit for the relief applications of whole biblical stories, such of daily life or the coats of arms, was omitted in order to make possible a more globular shape of the vessel. In the first half of the 17th century the ornamentation of necks with relief and the use of grooves and akanthus leafs was still popular. Towards the second half of the century stamps of varied design distributed at random but at equal distance over the body became a current mode of decoration.

Pear-shaped jugs were another favored creation. The variation of ornaments was so manifold that it is hard if not impossible to find two identical pieces. Many jugs, globular as well as pear-shaped, frequently were mounted with pewter lids. These lids too gave the pewterer plenty of scope for his inventive talent. Very often we find the initials of the owner and the date of the mounting on the lid. Jugs exported to England were often mounted with silver lids which, of course, enhanced the value of the vessel.

In the meantime manganese oxide had come into use as a means of colouring besides the well established cobalt. Manganese which next to cobalt was one of the only colours to withstand the temperatures above 1200 centigrades, the fusion temperature for stoneware. Manganese assumed in combination with saltglazing the degree of brilliancy as was known of cobalt and therefore was a most welcome complementary means of decoration.

Many of the stamps applied to the pottery that gradually assumed the configuration of the Baroque style were images of flower heads. To give this, type of ornamentation some coherency the more artisticly inspired potters started to incise lines in the shape of flower stems, this way connecting the blossoms to each other but leaving out any leafes. The first ornaments in this manner we find on vessels of the late 17th century. Showing some clumsiness at first these ornaments gained more and more elegance and became a leading way of decorating as the 18th century proceeded.

Incising became an art of decoration in its own right. We find it on almost every jug or pitcher after the turn of the century. Especially the jugs bearing the ciphers of the English sovereigns are embellished with incised configurations. Depending on the artistic talent of the potter these could be quite graceful or rather clumsy.


The gradual transition to utility ware

Towards the middle of the 18th century the potters of the Land of Potbakers in the Westerwald increasingly felt the influence of the Rococo style which could manifest itself much more in the new European porcelain, newly developed in Meissen. Porcelain owing to its much thinner walls than those of stoneware could be formed into finer structures which was ideal for the now fashionable Rococo.

The newcomers from Raeren and Siegburg had brought their new stoneware in the Renaissance fashion to the Westerwald It was soon adopted by the Westerwald potters who quickly dropped their traditional plain household ware. Both, newcomers and the natives, created new forms which eventually brought about the baroque style pottery. But now the stoneware potters had to find new markets and to change or modify their products to suit other demands.

The wealthier classes who had been a constant and reliable clientele lost their interest in the artistic stoneware which had for a long time decorated their homes and added to the image of the renaissance enviroment. Rococo style porcelain was now “in” and stoneware old fashioned.

The Westerwald potters were well aware of the advantages of stoneware as there are: impermeability and resistance to practically all liquids, robust hardness, dense and easy to clean surface and practically eternal life of the fused clay body. They left off the embellishments on jugs, pitchers, tankards and jars and returned to plain solid utility ware for haushold, transport and, not to forget, taverns.

The shapes of the products were modified to simplify the throwing on the wheel. In many cases this was not to the disadvantage of the product as in this way the producer had to follow the inherent character of the material clay. Stoneware vessels could now be produced in large numbers and were sold all over the continent at reasonable prices.

Still, there always have been potters with an artistic potential and we find occasionally jugs, tankards and pots beautifully adorned, very frequently in cobalt painting and sometimes in the incised manner. An example can be seen on paintings by the famous impressionist painter Claude Monet depicting large pots in his gardens of Argenteuil and Vetheuil. One is exhibited in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection; one in the Art Institute of Chicago, Martin A.Ryerson Collection.

The Decline

As with the beginning aof the 20th century glass jars and tin cans increasingly took over the task of preserving food stuffs, the stoneware pots lost their market.
Very little of this craftsmanship has survived and is practised by few master potters only.
With the advent of the “Plastic&Age” traditional Stoneware Pottery has practically disappeared.