A Puzzling Construction

This particular jug is a simplified version of a classic ‘puzzle jug’, which hides many features that make its basic functionality of pouring less straightforward and more playful. The user is invited to find out how a puzzle jug works by observing the object closely and pressing certain holes – usually found in the spout and the handles. When pressed, the liquid is released and the jug pours. The Courtauld’s jug might not be quite as intricate but retains its essential ‘puzzle’ quality, as the user is led to believe that liquid will leak out of the perforations.

The jug is made of ceramic, or fired clay. The body of the jug is composed of two main elements: an outer shell, and an inner vessel suspended within the outer shell. Both of these parts were thrown on a potter’s wheel. The body, neck, spout and handles, all of which are separate elements, were then assembled before decorating, glazing and firing in the kiln. From observation, it is possible to decipher the order in which the various areas were decorated. For example, the spout was pierced with what was probably a simple wooden tool, called a ‘potter’s needle’, from the outside after it was attached to the jug. The angle of the pouring holes tell us that they were made from the outside, suggesting that the potter would have had to assume an awkward position in order to pierce them.1

The outer shell is decorated with medallions made from the same clay. These were probably pressed in a mould and then applied to the unfired clay body of the jug. The motifs on these medallions were often repeated on the ceramics from this period. This particular jug is decorated with three medallions: a figure of justice, a lion rampant (a lion on its hind legs) and a mask surrounded by the French royal symbol of fleurs de lys. The lion rampant features on the regional flag, while the fleur de lys motif appears on the coat of arms of the city of Saintonge. Other green-glazed jugs of the same type and with similar medallions can be found in the Musée du Louvre in Paris (MR 2350 and OA 1415), the Musée National de la Céramique in Sèvres (MNC 3524) and the Musée National de la Renaissance in Ecouen (E.CL.7693).

From observing the handmade and irregular quality of the pierced sections of the outer shell, one can imagine the action of cutting the clay whilst it was leather-dry (before firing in the kiln). Whilst cutting out the decoration of the Courtauld jug, a small rectangular-shaped piece of clay accidentally fell inside. The fact that there are not more pieces rattling inside the jug suggests the skill of the potter in letting the discarded shapes fall to the outside rather than the inside of the jug. The piece that fell inside might also suggest the speed at which the potters were working.

The final stage in the decoration is the application of a glaze containing lead and copper, resulting in the vibrant green glaze, which is a prominent feature of Saintonge pottery until the mid-nineteenth century.

For other examples of how a more complicated puzzle jug was made, please visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nabSueXKdU

  1. Information on the jug’s manufacture provided by ceramics conservator Tiago Oliveira at TO Conservation.