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Beauce: Art Pottery from Quebec, Canada
The black planter that I discovered in a charity second hand shop had clearly been overlooked by the bargain hunters and collectors who scour the housewares section looking for vintage treasure. The unusual six-legged rectangular piece had Art Deco detailing, a glossy black glaze that reminded me of patent leather shoes, and a mark on the bottom that read "Beauce, Quebec, Canada." I was hunting for a simple, low container to use for an Ikebana floral arrangement, and this item was just the right size and proportion. Its understated elegance would form a perfect base for an arrangement, without detracting from the beauty of the flowers it contained.
My first Beauce purchase, a five dollar planter, expanded my understanding of Quebecois politics and introduced me to a branch of Canadian art pottery with a fascinating history. The roots of Beauce pottery can be traced to a Depression-era Canadian government project aimed at providing employment and housing for rural residents in Quebec. The idea of reinventing traditional crafts as modern industry was championed during the 1930s by Oscar Beriau, Director of Handicrafts for the Province of Quebec. The provincial government was on a mission to remake Quebec as the "Normandy of the New World" through a revival of habitant folk customs and traditional weaving, woodworking and pottery. In 1933 Beriau initiated a self-sufficiency program for young farmers in the Saint-Joseph de Beauce area, offering parcels of land to men who were prepared to build their own homesteads, maintain a ten-acre farm with crops and livestock, and make pottery on the side to earn extra income.
Beriau's program provided a communal workshop for 20 selected farmers and an educational curriculum that included instruction in languages, drawing, mathematics, carpentry, pottery and model-making. The government's back-to-the-land initiative was designed to counter the out-migration of young people from farming communities, while fostering a Quebecois "Renaissance." By encouraging traditional French-Canadian activities at a local level within the province, the government hoped to boost the economy, restore a declining population and improve the standard of living during hard times.
The plan that began as a socialist-leaning government scheme eventually grew into a successful capitalist enterprise. By 1940, a group calling itself the "Syndicat des Ceramistes Paysans de la Beauce" started a course in ceramics under the direction of a Swiss teacher, Willie Chochard. There were 33 young farmers who signed up for the three-year course held in the Catholic-run College du Sacre-Coeur. In 1942 Raymond Lewis, a graduate of the Montreal Ecole des Beaux-Arts joined the staff as Artistic Director and Head Designer, a position that he would hold for the next two decades as production moved from one-of-a-kind handmade to full-scale industrial. A vacant shoe factory was renovated as the new Beauce headquarters, and by 1970, the pottery had expanded to become the largest ceramics factory in Canada with 135 employees and annual revenue of 1.5 million dollars. The Ceramique de Beauce was destroyed by fire in 1974 and rebuilt as a modern plant in 1975, but due to economic failure, ceased production in 1989.
Characteristic Marks, Styles and Forms
Red earth from the Callway River was used to make Beauce pottery during the early 1940s. This material was replaced with white kaolin imported from Georgia, as the demand for oven-proof tableware increased. After the Second World War as the export market opened up, the more English-sounding trademark "Beauceware" was used.
The early 1940s red earth Beauce pieces are undoubtedly the most artistic and unique, with hand-painted detail and design. These rare pieces show scenes from nature and traditional Quebecois village vignettes. Examples can be found in the collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec.
The 1950s brought industrial production methods and designs that mimicked the style of McCoy pottery from the U.S. A line of Beauce figurines that included swans, dogs, fish, birds and deer glazed in aqua, peach and rose can only be described as kitsch. A specialty souvenir item was the popular Quebec Bonhomme Carnaval, a red-capped snowman whose rotund figure graces ashtrays marked with the "Craven A" cigarette logo.
In 1970 Jean Cartier, a well-known Quebec ceramist, was appointed as Director of the design department at Beauce. Cartier's creations added an international flair to Beauce lines, including hotel and restaurant ware as well as domestic casserole dishes, coffee pots, lamp bases and dinner sets. These pieces are sometimes signed on the bottom with the signature "Cartier" next to the "cb" Beauce logo.
I found that the black planter was just the beginning of a personal interest, and now that I know what to look for, every flea market in the province of New Brunswick seems to offer at least a few examples of Beauce. The retro look of Beauceware may be elegant or sometimes downright tacky, but this brand of pottery will always be a conversation piece. Discussing the history of Beauce pottery at your next dinner party may spark a lively debate about the benefits and drawbacks of socialist projects and capitalist ventures.