In October 1875, John and Frances Glessner attended the Interstate Industrial Exposition, located in a cavernous W. W. Boyington designed building on the present site of the Art Institute of Chicago. It was here that the Glessners saw a collection of artistically designed furniture organized by Peter B. Wight and William Le Baron Jenney, much of it carved by Isaac Scott. The long collaboration between the Glessners and Scott that began at the exposition is well-known. Often overlooked, however, is the fact that the Glessners acquired one of their favorite pieces of faience earthenware at the exposition.
The Glessners purchased several photographs of the furniture they saw at the exposition, including a sideboard designed by architect Asa Lyon and carved by Isaac Scott (shown above). Prominently displayed at the center of the main shelf is a stately ewer and basin which the Glessners acquired soon after and placed at the center of the mantelpiece in their Washington Street parlor (shown below).
The piece was manufactured by the French firm of Gien, considered one of the finest faience manufacturers in the 19th century. The company dates back to 1821 when Thomas Edme Hulm (or Thomas Hall) left his factory at Montereau, which had been operated by his family for nearly half a century, and purchased the property of the old convent of Minimes. It was here that he opened his new factory to produce faience using English methods.
The earliest pieces were more utilitarian in nature such as crockery, but later he began producing decorative pieces and dinner services, often copying older objects that combined both old and new decoration inspired by other manufacturers in Europe as well as pieces from the Far East.
The Glessners’ piece is a close copy of Rouen ware produced in the late 17th and early 18th centuries which made Rouen a major center of French pottery. A ewer that is very similar to the Glessners’ piece was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2012-2013 as part of their exhibit “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection.” Shown above, the piece was made about 1700 and is virtually identical in shape including the applied handle, although some freedom was taken in creating the decorative designs on the Glessners’ ewer.
The period between 1855 and 1900 is generally considered to be the pinnacle of faience production in Gien. Their pieces became known around the world as the firm won many awards at international exhibitions in 1855, 1867, 1878, 1889, and 1900.
The mark on the underside of the basin, consisting of three crenelated towers with a ribbon beneath bearing the name GIEN, indicates that the piece was produced in the first half of the 1870s. The three towers design was introduced as a mark for the firm in 1856, and in the Glessners’ piece, it also features prominently in the decoration. The three towers motif is painted into a medallion beneath the lip of the ewer, and also serves as the central motif in the basin.
Additional decoration includes a royonnant design inside the basin and a variety of richly detailed floral decorations and foliate scrolls across the body of both the ewer and basin. The heavy lip of the ewer is decorated with a twisted rope design.
One of the most unusual features of the piece is the pair of grotesque masks forming handles for the basin, which sits atop four pyramidal peg feet.
During the decades that the Glessners lived on Prairie Avenue, the ewer and basin appear to have always been on display on the south bookcase in the library near the doorway to the cork alcove, as shown in the photo below, taken in 1923. Today, the piece is displayed on a side table in the courtyard bedroom.
In 1986, the Gien Museum opened in an old clay body cave dating back to the 16th century. Telling the story of Gien from 1821 to the present, it consists of two large rooms showing both popular and artistic faience, along with special pieces created for the various World’s Fairs. Click here for more information on the museum, located in Gien, France, 78, Place de la Victoire.
Gien is still produced today and is considered among the highest quality earthenware in France.