Monday, 22 November 2010

Letters…we get letters…we get stacks and stacks of Adela Meadows

Well, not really stacks…but they didn’t have e-mail back when Perry Como was writing the lyrics to the song he sang when opening mail on his 50s-era television show…and since a great many of you have no idea of who or what I’m talking about…let’s just say that we get a lot of e-mail requests from people who want to know more about a piece of French faïence in their collection.

Here’s one we received this month…

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Meadows,
I have enclosed pictures of a decorative platter I inherited from my grandmother. I have spent a number of years trying to find out what the scene depicts. I was once told it was a party with whores, but I thought it looked like a wedding party. Either way, I am curious about its content. Can you enlighten me?
- - -

Over their three hundred plus years of modern existence, the potteries in Quimper did produce an erotically-decorated example here and there, but they are quite few and far between. The letter writer’s description struck a bell…I was fairly sure that I knew the piece and, after opening the first photograph, my suspicions were confirmed…

The photographs showed an HR Quimper platter… mail call platter overall
My reply:

Dear - - -
I commend you for your perseverance…and after your years of trying to find the answer, I’m delighted to be able to finally clarify the situation for you. The correct answer is an emphatic “No!”…the scene on your grandmother’s platter has nothing to do with prostitution!

It is, indeed, a celebration…whether of a marriage or another festive occasion, such as the secular days of a religious pardon, one couldn’t say for sure. That’s Quimper’s Cathedrale Saint-Corentin in the background and the participants are for the most part dressed in the “Sunday Best” costume worn in the Kerfeunteun neighborhood of Quimper…although some of the guests are dressed à la Fouesnantaise…signifying an inhabitant of the area of Pont-Aven, Concarneau, Fouesnant, etc.

Being, by nature, rather curious, I began to wonder how someone could come up with such an erroneous conclusion. The people advising you were probably not totally familiar with the traditional customs and heritage of the Brittany region and perhaps just looked in a dictionary of the Breton language. The problem is that historically there were many different dialects throughout the region…some so different that it was difficult for folk from one village to communicate with those from another. (Picture the inhabitants of the Bronx speaking a totally different language than the residents of Queens).

For example, the word for wine in some parts of Brittany was aguin, while in others, it was guin…cider was jistr in some area and gist in others…whereas today, it’s sistr. The language has evolved over the years and the current Breton is comprised of a blending of the various dialects. The Breton word in use today for prostitute is gast, but the plural is gisti and that may have been the source of the misunderstanding.
mail call platter detail
The tent in your platter served as an ostaleri…the Breton word for bar. Gist means cider, mad means good, and gwin-ardant is eau-de-vie or brandy…so the sign on the tent reads “Good Cider and Brandy”!

I’m glad I was able to answer your question and in so doing un-besmirch the reputation of those depicted in the scene…and I hope this adds to the enjoyment of your Grandmother’s lovely platter!
Best Regards,
Adela and Mark Meadows
The Meadows Collection

And while we are on the subject…

Some examples…

mail call creston pitcher 
… on a wine pitcher designed by René-Yves Creston for the Henriot factory…

Jistr Mad
mail call brisson justr mad
…a petite bretonne serves some “good cider” on this Georges Brisson plate made at the HB factory…

…and here’s one where I was tripped up by the dictionary…
mail call enseigne wine pitcher
…an Henriot pitcher with a French motto that I had difficulty translating…A Bon Vin Point d’Enseigne. At first I thought it meant something on the order of “a good wine is the sign of a good establishment”…until the day I somehow happened to be reading fifteenth century French proverbs and came across that very phrase. I hadn’t been too far off…in today’s French, the word enseigne means sign, but back then someone speaking “old French” used that word to signify advertising or publicity…so it really means “Good wine has no sign…a centuries-old proverb to convey the idea that an excellent product doesn’t need publicity; quality speaks for itself, etc.


  1. Well the writer/owner certainly turned to the right person for answers! What a treasure she had and how interesting is your post!

  2. Dear Adela, This is just fabulous! You know SO much about the Breton culture, Quimper pottery, and even the Breton language and dialects! I am just amazed!
    I love the way you handled this quest, and the very informative and kind way you answered the letter. Thank you for sharing all your expertise.
    Salut! Hugs,

  3. Loved the back story to this blog and the unusual Henriot jug and motto.
    Thanks for another interesting post.