The Ceramic History of Westerwald, Germany


The Origins - The Westerwald Clay Region


The vast and extensive clay quarries in the Westerwald region represent the largest connected deposits in Europe. Only a few other regions in the world are known to have clay sources of comparable size and quality. The Westerwald clay is distinguished by its exceptional ductility, virtually impurity-free composition, and excellent sintering properties. These clays are perfectly suited for stoneware production–a high-fired, waterproof, acid-resistant, impermeable clay.

The rich clay resources, together with abundant timber in the region, earned Westerwald the moniker "Pot Bakers’ Land" or Kannenbäckerland. The proximity of major long-distance trade routes such as the Salt Way and the Rhine, key European arteries, was pivotal in transforming Westerwald and its stoneware into an international success story.


Stoneware from Inception to the Renaissance


Kilns capable of reaching temperatures up to 1200 °C were documented in the Rhineland as early as the 13th century. The oldest documented evidence of pottery kilns in Höhr dates back to the year 1402. 

Extremely poor working conditions, warfare, and penury triggered migration movements across Europe, including the Westerwald region. Around 1600 skilled pottery masters from the Rhineland, Raeren in Belgium, and Lorraine began migrating to the so-called Pot Bakers’ Land (Kannenbäckerland). They infused fresh vitality into local craftsmanship, bringing new forms, decorative motifs, and new glazing and firing techniques. As a result, the pottery trade in the region experienced a major boost in the following centuries.

During this period, the distinctive pottery of the Pot Bakers’ Land developed: a grey, salt-glazed stoneware vessel adorned with cobalt blue painted decorations. The vessel shapes often show a carinated or angular shape achieved by the emphasized articulation of the different body parts through fluting or ridges. Cobalt blue painting was complemented by additional decorative techniques such as stamping and applications.

These vessels were embellished with depictions of prince-electors, bishops, biblical narrative cycles, and very mundane scenes featuring barn dances or mercenaries. Apart from everyday household ware produced for local sale, the potters also worked on commissions that were traded and sold internationally. Westerwald stoneware had become a product on the global market!


The Baroque Period


In Germany, the Baroque period, a new Italian style that developed after the deprivations of the Thirty Years’ War (1618 – 1648), had a significant impact on pottery. Westerwald experienced an economic upturn, leading to the establishment of new potteries everywhere. In 1771, the guild in the Pot Bakers’ Land (Kannenbäckerland) reached its zenith with six hundred master craftsmen in twenty-three villages. Aside from these, there were many so-called Schnatzer–individuals who, for various reasons– could not or should not be named master. The increasing number of competing potters led to a decline in quality, subsequently causing prices to fall. Faced with this situation, regional authorities were forced to take regulatory measures.

In addition to everyday pottery, craftsmen in the region specialized in creating drinking vessels, figurines, and ornamental pieces. Appliqué as adornment became popular—lozenges, medallions, rosettes, or blossoms were intricately and elaborately crafted and placed. Furthermore, new patterns were introduced, such as hatched lines or impressions made using a wooden stick and stamped decoration.

The products originating from the Kannenbäckerland were renowned for their high quality supra-regionally. Affluent clientele, including the aristocracy, entrusted and commissioned the potters with their specific wishes and needs. This is evident in the personal crests or emblems, such as "GR" for George Rex (King George of England).


Historicism:

18th to 19th Century


From the 18th century onwards, traditional stoneware products faced stiff competition from European porcelain and modern stoneware, gradually losing favor among solvent customers. Out of necessity, the potters focused on producing greyish-blue everyday household tableware up to the middle of the 19th century. 

A turning point occurred in 1864 with the recruitment of Bohemian modeler Reinhold Hanke. The long-desired technical and artistic change finally began as Hanke applied his skills to the hitherto traditional stoneware production, collaborating with

Peter Dümler, a talented designer in his company. By 1872, they developed a plaster vessel mold for repeated use, accommodating a thrown clay barrel. This new method enabled Hanke to create intricate, custom-made objects. Honored at world fairs and the recipient of numerous international awards, Hanke is seen as a legitimate heir to the long-standing Rhenish stoneware potters.

Progress now took its course. Driven by factory owners Friedrich Wilhelm Merkelbach II and Georg Peter Wick, improvements in industrialized production increased significantly. This marked a transformative era where traditional German stoneware could now be efficiently mass-produced.

Moreover, the educational reforms initiated by the Prussian government led to the establishment of three major technical colleges devoted solely to ceramics: in Landshut, Bavaria (1873); in Höhr–Grenzhausen (1879); and the former Silesian Bunzlau, now Bolesławiec in Poland (1897). The potter's craft transitioned from being solely passed down through hands-on apprenticeships to becoming a subject of scientific research and analysis, reflecting a broader spectrum of knowledge and skills beyond traditional workshop teachings.


Art Nouveau


During the increasing industrialization, an artistic counter-movement arose all over Europe at the turn of the 20th century, striving for a renewed strengthening of individualized craftsmanship.

To prevent the region's stoneware manufacturers from missing the boat, internationally renowned artists and designers were engaged. In 1901, Henry van de Velde (1863-1957) arrived in Westerwald, sparking a radical shift in stylistic approach. Simultaneously, Peter Behrens (1868-1940) contributed style drafts and templates, infusing the traditional greyish-blue appearance of Westerwald stoneware with a contemporary design.

Certain factory owners, including Simon Peter Gerz I, Merkelbach & Wick, and Reinhold Merkelbach, took an active role and established successful connections with renowned artists like Richard Riemerschmid (1868-1957). This collaboration ushered in a period of artistic renewal and innovation within the Westerwald stoneware industry.

To ensure their survival, the majority of companies continued manufacturing conventional household stoneware. Products embodying the Art Nouveau spirit appeared overly ornate for the average customer, leading to limited success for these new ceramic offerings. Only a select few companies achieved success with these new ceramic products.


Mass Production in the Post-War Period


After a reduction in output during World War II, pottery factories gradually returned to pre-war levels of activity in the 1950s, with a primary focus on the mass production of tableware. The Westerwald potteries emerged as the main designers and producers of the Fifties, experiencing a flourishing business that led to the creation of numerous new jobs. For instance, the Jasba company saw a sixfold increase in its workforce between 1948 and 1955.

Immigrant workers from Italy and Turkey also found employment in the concentrated pottery industry, centered mainly around the town of Ransbach-Baumbach. This economic miracle in the stoneware industry ushered in an era of prosperity for the Westerwald region, which endured until the 1990s.


Developments in Craft During the 20th Century


In contrast to other fields of fine art, the evolution of ceramic arts unfolded gradually and without sharp stylistic incongruities. This continuity was partly because handicrafts were not condemned as degenerate art by the Nazi regime; instead, they were supported for their perceived (Germanic) folksiness. 

Potters such as August Hanke (1875-1938) and Elfriede Balzar-Kopp (1904-1983) received high acclaim in national and international competitions for their traditional craftsmanship.

In the post-war period, Westerwald potteries survived by producing crockery in the style of the Thirties. As economic conditions improved, potters began to experiment once again, seeking more individualized forms of expression. The ceramic vessel started to free itself from its traditional role as a functional object, evolving into an autonomous art object. Creative principles from the fine arts and performing arts, such as assemblage, repetition, rhythm, or deconstruction, were applied to ceramics.

Elfriede Balzar-Kopp carving pattern, probably 1930s - photo courtesy:
Kreisbildstelle des Westerwaldkreises, Foto Georg Gerlach

Contemporary Art in Höhr-Grenzhausen


Those working or studying at the State Technical College for Ceramics (Fachschule), the Institute for Ceramic and Glass Arts (IKKG), or those active in the many workshops of the region share a common curiosity about what ceramic and glass materials can convey and how to express the art form.

But, the long history of Westerwald stoneware also calls for reflection: What does this place and region mean to us? How does our ceramic culture relate to neighboring regions or other cultures? Many artists employ century-old pottery techniques like wheel throwing or salt glazing to create new and contemporary objects. Every two years, students carry out a firing in the last functioning traditional salt kiln. By immersing themselves in this historical continuum, the region remains vibrant and well-prepared for its artistic future. The narrative of Westerwald pottery continues!


CONTRIBUTOR

Nele van Wieringen has been the Director of the Keramikmuseum Westerwald since 2018. She completed her master's degree at Koblenz University, Institute for Ceramic and Glass Arts in Höhr-Grenzhausen. There, she earned her doctorate in collaboration with the University of Art and Design Linz with a thesis on the art-theoretical conception of color in ceramics.

Terra Sigillata (Re)imagined with Shamai Gibsh

Shamai Sam Gibsh is an expert ceramicist, teacher, and owner of a ceramic studio in Jaffa, Israel. He has exhibited in the United States, Israel, and London and teaches workshops worldwide. Gibsh recently published his book titled “Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay,” which explores the history, chemistry, and various methods of using and firing terra sigillata–an ancient technique where a thin coat of clay slip acts as a glaze to produce a beautiful idiosyncratic effect. MoCA/NY’s writer Ilsy Jeon speaks with Gibsh about his inspired research that has already sparked great interest and enthusiasm.
ILSY JEON (IJ): Congratulations on publishing this educational book! I was impressed by how much you’ve explored and excelled at using terra sigillata (TS) in your works and how knowledgeable you are about it. Before discussing the book, can you explain to our readers what terra sigillata is?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Terra Sigillata, meaning sealed (stamped) clay, is a very fine clay particle slip that was originally used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to seal, stamp, and decorate vessels and artifacts. Using TS involves the process of making TS, as well as its application on clay objects. Preparing TS is achieved by collecting the smallest particles (platelets) of clay, resulting in a mixture of suspended particles that do not settle, like whipped cream. TS, which can be made of any clay, from wild clay collected in nature, as well as from industrially processed clay, is classified into two categories according to the sintering temperature: low temperature like earthenware clay, and high temperature like stoneware or ball clay.

Applying TS to a bone-dry surface is usually performed by brushing, spraying, as well as dipping, or even pouring it over the surface. The fine platelets set according to their electric charge when burnished with a cloth, resulting in a smooth and unique shiny surface.

IJ: The book includes wonderful images of your artwork and the diverse ways you’ve sculpted, decorated, and fired your terra sigillata pieces. You go in-depth and provide directions on techniques like sgraffito, cracked effects, and luster. You also include numerous illustrations, recipes, and in-progress images. How long have you been working with this medium and what about TS made you spend much of your career studying, using, and perfecting it?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Terra sigillata has been my fascination starting early in my career. Being intrigued by the effects of TS when first exposed to it in museums exhibiting ancient Greek and Roman ceramics, I investigated it and found out that TS can be made on my own by collecting clay in nature worldwide. Unlike glazes, TS represents a natural way of covering and decorating clay artifacts. Using this ancient technique, and expanding it with dozens of TS preparations, made of different clays collected worldwide, enabled me to bring the world into my work and to create an impressive palette of hues, which enriched the surfaces of my work.

IJ: All your experimentations, workshops, and historical research using terra sigillata have led you to become an expert and share your knowledge with the ceramic community. What was your approach in writing this book? Were there any surprises about TS that you weren’t aware of?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: I believe that it is very important to share knowledge, skills, and expertise. Throughout my career, I realized that many of my colleagues possess vast, sometimes unique, knowledge; however, some of this experience and knowledge had been lost since it was generally not shared and was never published. This, in fact, was the main motivation to write this book. While undertaking this commitment I was compelled to evaluate and reevaluate my own work and ponder on new ways of addressing terra sigillata; thus, a novel idea of shortening the process of making TS emerged as described in the book.

IJ: Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay is so informative - it’s almost like taking a course in terra sigillata as you provide significant historical, cultural, and scientific context about the medium and how best to incorporate it into one's practice. Can you elaborate on your historical research for this book and how significant it was to include this context? 

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: I have been working and researching alternative firing techniques for many years and was very privileged to have met many wonderful ceramic artists over the years who shared their knowledge with me while actually, encouraging me to continue researching and developing new ways of looking and addressing the ceramic world. One example of such a master is Allan Cagier Smith whom I was very fortunate to have met at the Harvard ceramic program many years ago, assist him, and learn from him the way he employed luster. So, in essence, my book summarizes both my experience and the ongoing research.

IJ: Your book covers all facets of terra sigillata and includes chapters on how to build and fire smoke, pit, and raku kilns and step-by-step guides and tutorials on how to incorporate various decorative techniques like horsehair, milk and egg, and obvara.
How do these techniques affect TS and what was your decision in choosing these particular topics? Were there any chapters you wanted to include but couldn’t due to limitations?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: It was obvious for me to include some of my research on the origin of TS and Greek/Roman firing techniques. Organizing the book required several chapters, starting with terra sigillata. This was followed by instructions for building the kilns which serve most of the needed firing for all other chapters. These included TS layering techniques, saggar and other firing techniques, such as pit firing, raku, naked raku, horsehair raku, milk & egg decorating & firing, obvara, and finally Greek & Roman TS and Luster. 

For me, all these are considered alternative firing techniques. Naturally, there are other “Blackening” techniques that were not included in this book and wait their turn in a future continuing project.

This book is not only geared toward those first encountering clay but also for artists who have decades of experience with ceramics. Was it a challenge to cater to both the novice and expert and what do you hope readers gain from reading your book?

IJ: This book is not only geared toward those first encountering clay but also for artists who have decades of experience with ceramics. Was it a challenge to cater to both the novice and expert and what do you hope readers gain from reading your book?

SHAMAI SAM GIBSH: Indeed, the challenge was to reconcile my wish to incorporate as many details and instructions aimed towards new ceramic artists, while keeping the more experienced readers interested. I believe that my efforts were fruitful, as they were rewarded with many positive reviews from both novice and experienced artists. As to what I hope the readers gain from my book: first to share their knowledge for the purpose of preservation; second, to open one’s mind, research and dare to experiment with unorthodox ideas and practices; and finally, maybe the most important of all, explore what you like and enjoy it to your utmost ability.


To explore and learn about Shamai Gibsh's and his work, CLICK HERE
To purchase Terra Sigillata: Smoke, Fire & Clay, CLICK HERE