Five Centuries of Talavera

Of the tin-glazed earthenware made in colo­nial Spanish America, the variety known as Talavera Poblana is perhaps the most important. It has certainly enjoyed the longest con­tinuous tradition and is still manufactured today as it was .several centuries ago. It was also the pottery that achieved the widest distribution in America, precisely because it was one of the most important products in the trade established between colonies.

Puebla’s pottery workshops were held in especially high esteem and their production included objects of everyday use, as well as orna­mental pieces of particular artistic value. During the eighteenth century some workshops in Puebla even took part in decorating certain buildings in tile which consequently gave the city’s architecture its unmistakably local color.

The origin of earthenware production in Puebla has interested authors for decades. In his book entitled The Majolica of Mexico (1908), Edwin Atlee Barber upheld the popular belief that Talavera was instituted in the recently found­ed City of Puebla by monks at the Santo Domingo Monastery. It was thought these friars had sent for potters from Talavera de la Reina in Spain to circulate their techniques for producing ceramics.  This theory has long been prevalent and is still reiterated, if often spiced with a dash of legend.

MH473a  - Talavera Plate

The archival research published by Enrique Cervantes affirms that the production of earthen­ware in Puebla began in the sixteenth century. Cervantes appropriated the hypothesis advanced by Antonio Peirafiel which states that among the first citizens of Puebla were several artisans from Toledo who established the pottery industry in 1531. Completely discarding the myth that the first potters were commissioned by monks at the Santo Domingo Monastery, Cervantes concludes (without citing his sources), that there is enough information to assume that pottery began to be manufactured between 1550 and 1570; and that moreover, between 1580 and 1585, Gaspar de Encinas, a potter from Puebla, had already set up a workshop on the Calle de los Herreros. Closely examining these documents, however, we can only affirm that by 1573 the potter Alberto de Ojeda began working in Puebla and that the fol­lowing year he and Bartolame de Reina estab­lished a business partnership to make earthen­ware of all varieties, including tiles.” In 1573, another artisan from Puebla by the name of  Diego Rodriguez (referring to himself as a master potter), effected a contract in Mexico City with the friar Hernando de Morales to make 1500 tiles and verduguillos (rectangular tile pieces) for the Santo Domingo Monastery. That same year Rodriguez made arrangements for ceramics-painter Domingo de los Angeles to decorate the tiles that had been bought for the monastery. Rodriguez remained in Mexico City until at least 1582 which allows us to assume that he was the first to bring earthenware and tiles to Mexico City, and later to Puebla.

In 1579, “a master potter” by the name of Antonio Xinoves began working in Puebla and by the following year formed a seven-month partnership with JerOnimo Perez to do business, and profit from making earthenware.” That same year he contracted the services of someone named Juan Portuguez to help him with the work.

By 1580 many other potters had begun to set­tle in Puebla where they not only found the materials needed to produce quality earthen­ware, but were also furnished with a business center which facilitated the sale of their products to various cities in New Spain.

The production of earthenware became so important that by the late sixteenth century it sparked the interest of ecclesiastical authorities at the Bishopric of Tlaxcala who wanted to impose a tithe on these products. Potters were naturally opposed and eventually won the dispute by arguing that in Spain earthenware was not subject to any tithe.

MH461a -  Talavera Plate

It is hard to determine exactly how many “white ceramic workshops” could be counted in Puebla during the first half of the seventeenth century. Though quite a number of potters and craftsmen are mentioned in archives, many of them established companies to produce pottery and tiles for varying—often very short lengths of time—which makes it difficult to specify how many workshops there were, and how long each lasted. Nonetheless, documents regarding commercial operations and services (as well as personal letters and those drawn up to contract apprentices) give us a partial idea of their activities.

In the early seventeenth century, some pot­ters must have produced their earthenware with the help of only a few apprentices and craftsmen. By the end of the century, however, this began to change as the number of craftsmen gradually began to increase. These artisans were primarily Indian and in some rare cases, black or mulatto slaves. By the eighteenth century, workshops be­gan evolving into actual factories, including a master potter and artisans and apprentices under the control of an owner who wasn’t always a pot­ter himself—or herself, as was often true when ceramic workshops were run by the widowed wives of potters with the help of craftsmen and servants.

Article excerpt from Artes de Mexico Magazine – June 1992

Talavera: A Lesson in Fantasy and Sensibility

Talavera Ginger Jar Handmade in Puebla MexicoA glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a buipii of coarse cotton cloth, a wooden bowl—handsome objects not in spite of, but because of their usefulness. Their beauty is an added quality, like the scent and color of flowers. Their beauty is insep­arable from their function: they are handsome because they are useful. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful.

The industrial object tends to disappear as a form and become one with its function. Its being is its meaning, and its meaning is to be useful. It lies at the other extreme from the work of art. Craftsmanship is a mediation; its forms are not governed by the economy of function but by pleasure, which is always wasteful expenditure and has no rules. The industrial object forbids the superfluous; the work of craftsmanship delights in embellishments. Its predilection for decoration violates the principle of usefulness.

The decora­tion of the Talavera object ordinarily has no function whatsoever, so the industrial designer, obeying his implacable aesthetic, does away with it. The persistence and proliferation of ornamentation in handicrafts reveal an intermediate zone between utility and aesthetic contemplation. In craftsman­ship there is a continuous movement back and forth between usefulness and beauty; this back­and-forth motion has a name: pleasure. Things are pleasing because they are useful and beauti­ful. The copulative conjunction and defines craftsmanship, just as the disjunctive defines art and technology: utility or beauty. The handmade object satisfies a need no less imperative than hunger and thirst; the need to take delight in the things we see and touch, whatever their every­day uses. This need is not reducible to the math­ematical ideal that rules industrial design, nor is it reducible to the rigor of the religion of art. The pleasure that works of craftsmanship give us has its source in a double transgression: against the cult of utility and against the religion of art.

Talavera Snack Tray handmade in Pueblo Mexico

In general, the evolution of the Talavera industrial object for daily use has followed that of artistic styles. Almost invariably, industrial design has been a derivation—sometimes a caricature, sometimes a felicitous copy—of the artistic vogue of the moment. It has lagged behind con­temporary art and has imitated styles at a time when they had already lost their initial novelty and were becoming aesthetic cliches.

Contemporary Talavera design has endeavored in other ways—its own—to find a compromise between usefulness and aesthetics. At times it has managed to do so, but the result has been paradoxical. The aesthetic ideal of functional art is based on the principal that the usefulness of an object increases in direct proportion to the paring down of its materiality. The simplification of forms may be expressed by the following equa­tion: the minimum of presence equals the maxi­mum of efficiency. This aesthetic is borrowed from the world of mathematics: the elegance of an equation lies in the simplicity and necessity of its solution.  The ideal of design is invisibility: the less visible a functional object, the more beautiful it is. A curious transposition of fairy tales and Arab legends to a world ruled by science and the notions of utility and maximum efficiency: the designer dreams of objects that, like genies, are intangible servants. This is the contrary to the work of craftsmanship, a physical presence that enters us through our senses and in which the principle of usefulness is constantly violated in • favor of tradition, imagination and even sheer caprice. The beauty of industrial design is of a conceptual order, if it expresses anything at all, it is the accuracy of a formula. It is the sign of a function. Its rationality makes it fall within an either/or dichotomy: either it is good for some­thing or it isn’t, In the second case it goes into the trash bin. The handmade Talavera object does not charm us simply because of its usefulness. It lives in complicity with our senses, and that is why it is so hard to get rid of—it is like throwing a friend out of the house.

Article excerpt from Artes de Mexico Magazine – June 1992