The fine earthenware factory in Septfontaines

The fine earthenware factory in Septfontaines

In the 18th century, fine earthenware, a new type of ceramic, was developed to meet the growing demand for robust white crockery that was more affordable than porcelain. Originally from Lorraine, the Boch brothers founded in 1766 a fine earthenware factory in Septfontaines on the outskirts of Luxembourg City. It was the first of its kind in the Austrian Netherlands.

The invention of pipe clay, better known as fine earthenware when glazed, was driven by the growing demand for durable white tableware that was more affordable than luxury earthenware or porcelain. Porcelain had already been imported from China for several centuries, but there were only a handful of factories in Europe that, from the mid-18th century onwards, were able to produce it, and therefore, only the wealthiest could afford it. In the 18th century, fine earthenware, a similar but less expensive product was developed in England. This new kind of white-paste ceramic was finer and more robust than the coarse earthenware which had already been produced for many years in Europe.

Towards the middle of the 18th century, the first fine earthenware factories were established in France. Jacques Chambrette began producing a new kind of pipe clay at his factory in Lunéville in 1749. It involved adding lime to the paste and was subsequently adopted by the Boch brothers. After Lorraine became part of France in 1766, the region’s earthenware factories faced competition from French products. Hence, the Boch brothers decided to set up a fine earthenware factory in Septfontaines on the outskirts of Luxembourg City, the first factory of its kind in the Austrian Netherlands.

The new business was a great success. The Boch brothers were able to sell and export their goods across a vast area and establish themselves as the leading manufacturers of fine earthenware in the Austrian Netherlands. They were the first to produce fine earthenware with the blue and white decorations which were commonly seen on Chinese porcelain and had already been used by European manufacturers of coarse earthenware for some time. In fact, the Septfontaines factory drew on a great many foreign influences which it adapted to create its own distinctive shapes and designs. The most common motifs were the cloverleaf and the Chantilly sprig, otherwise known as à la brindille, which was used together with diagonally ribbed moulding. Combining these elements was typical of Septfontaines. The result was a unique style that influenced the other factories subsequently set up in the region.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the territories that now make up Luxembourg and Belgium played a unique role in pipe clay production. The factories in these regions shared distinct similarities and, thanks to the mercantilist policies of the Austrian Netherlands, managed to make a name for themselves and compete successfully with imported earthenware and porcelain. The factories in what are now Belgium and Luxembourg largely drew on the same repertoire of shapes and motifs. They favoured stylised decorations with naturalistic motifs; blue monochrome items made up the bulk of their output. They maximised profits by using highly simplified designs which were less meticulously applied. Having initially focused on selling to the nobility and the bourgeoisie, they later expanded their client base to include less wealthy consumers.

The Boch brothers’ factory was one of the most important in the region. Not only was Septfontaines the oldest pipe clay factory in the area, it also developed a great deal of expertise that enabled it to perfect the composition of its pastes and glazes. It manufactured more products than any other factory in the Austrian Netherlands, in terms of both volume and its range of different items and decorations.

The factory was destroyed in 1794 during the French Revolution, but Pierre Joseph Boch rebuilt it and became its sole owner in 1800. In 1809, his son Jean François Boch (1782–1858) founded the Mettlach earthenware factory. Septfontaines lost access to the French and Dutch markets following the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and production there declined while Mettlach flourished. In 1836, Boch merged his business with that of his competitor Villeroy in Wallerfangen (Germany). New factories were set up in La Louvière in 1844 and Dresden in 1856. The Tournai factory was acquired in 1850. As a result, Septfontaines was increasingly confined to the production of ceramics for construction.

The introduction of transfer printing in the early 1820s made decoration faster and cheaper. Hand-painting rapidly declined before becoming practically obsolete after 1850. But this period still produced a diverse range of items ranging from black pastes that imitated Wedgwood products to botanical decorations and coloured enamel pieces known as majolica.

The situation at Septfontaines continued to deteriorate throughout the second half of the 19th century and up until the end of the First World War. Architectural ceramics, which was then the factory’s speciality, was not a particularly successful business. Villeroy & Boch moved production of their fine tableware and new products away from Septfontaines to Mettlach, Wallerfangen and Dresden. Most of the goods produced during this period were fundamentally utilitarian, aside from some earthenware items with marbleised paste or marbleised enamel, as well as black pastes and majolica, which continued to be manufactured. Art nouveau was only a short-lived trend at Septfontaines.

In the 1920s, the Luxembourg factory decided to begin expanding its range of products. In search of new ideas, it signed contracts with Luxembourg’s national school of crafts, the École d’artisans de l’État, and sought commissions from abroad. It also drew inspiration from the objects presented at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris in 1925. The factory came to prosper again thanks to its extensive range of Art Deco products. The key to its revival was its collaboration with the French ceramist Jean Luce (1895–1964) and with the Parisian design company Robj, whose orders marked the first production of sculptures in fine earthenware. The items produced in the 1930s drew on a wealth of modern shapes and a broad range of decorative styles which bear witness to the exceptional imagination of the designers.

The style of the 1950s is reflected more in tableware than in the fluid figurines such as those of the Bambi Line. The introduction of vitrified porcelain in 1959 put an end to the manufacture of pipe clay items at Septfontaines. From then on, artists focused their attention on tableware with new styles of decoration.

Villeroy & Boch decided to close the Septfontaines site in 2009 following the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008. This was the end of over 240 years of industrial ceramic production in Luxembourg


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