Friday, September 24, 2010

Snakes in Clay

Right now somewhere in the Carolinas, I believe a potter lovingly is molding a snake onto a ceramic jug or pot. Although he assumes a ready sale for this work of his hands, the artist may be unaware that he is following a tradition almost 500 years old. In fact, this year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of the artisan who early conceived the idea of creating snakes in clay.

His name was Bernard Palissy, French, born in 1510. Shown here, Palissy was a early biologist during a period of great interest in the natural world. Also a potter, he made casts of actual specimens of animals and sea life and reproduced the forms on ceramic platters. Rampant on his dishware are fish, frogs, lizards, crayfish, shellfish, and -- most prominent -- snakes.

Palissy’s pottery developed a cult following in Europe and America during the 1800s. Many potters copied his plates and created ceramics in his “rustic” style. Two Americans were among them. In 1859 Cornwall Kirkpatrick (1814-1890) and his brother Wallace (1828-1896) founded the Anna Pottery in the southern Illinois town of Anna. Although their production included a wide range of ceramic items they have become best known for their snake jugs. Two shown here are among several dozen known specimens.

The traditional view of the Anna Pottery snake jugs has been that they were a temperance artifact and a warning against strong drink. More recent interpretations, with which I am in accord, have a different view. They point out grotesque, sexual and scatological aspects of the jugs, their humor and satirical “over the top” style. Moreover, the Kirkpatricks regularly supplied ceramic jugs and other containers for the whiskey trade. The conclusion is that the Anna snake jugs really are an attack on Victorian values and that the brothers were, like their contemporary Mark Twain, misanthropic humanists.

Whatever their motivation, the Kirkpatricks created snake jugs that fetch tens of thousands of dollars in the rare instances when the ceramics come up for sale. They also inspired generations of future potters to create serpent-featuring jugs, right up to our own time. Shown here are three contemporary examples.

The first is the product of W.A. “Bill” Flowers. Flowers, a North Carolina resident, specializes in ash glazes that impart a “tobacco spit” look to his ceramics. His jug shown here features a single large, smiling snake that seems to be guarding the contents of the jug.
The originator of the second ceramic is Marvin Bailey, a folk potter and artist from South Carolina. He works with salt glazes and often uses color to “dress up” his reptiles. His jug appears to bear the replica of a coral snake.

The third contemporary jug shown here is by a Kansas City artist, who signs his work, “W. Painter.” Known particularly for his mini-jugs, Mr. Painter is a student of earlier potters like the Kirkpatricks and tries to recreate their techniques and motifs. He has given his jug a surface approximating tree bark and looped a thin snake around it that eventually becomes its handle.

The tradition Bernard Palissy began a half millennium ago still is being carried on in small ceramic studios throughout America. For a long time to come we can be assured of viewing snakes in clay. Of Palissy himself, after a lengthy career as a favored potter to royalty, an intemperate outburst led to his being thrown into the Bastille. Although the French king offered Palissy freedom if he would recant, he refused and died in a dungeon cell in 1889 at the age of 80.


  1. Where are the signatures usually located on the jugs? I have one VERY similar to the one that looks like a stump. Except mine has snakes(one is wrapped around the handle), lizards, frogs, a turtle, and spiders. It has a tombstone on it "Died" and looks like "1886 9/1". The cork has a frog on it. It also has a man's head on it wearing a hat. But I can't find any signature.

  2. Signatures are usually on the bottom or the back of the jug. Not all potters signed their work though.