The past few months has seen a hive of activity at Château Des Tesnières as we near the completion of the first phase of our renovation project which will continue to stretch over the course of the next 18 months.
Along with our talented French team of artisans, we have invited specialist artists including Adriaan Boshoff jnr. and his wife Andri; the team from Paper Perfect Wallpaper Applicators Cape Town – Darren Sheldon and Marco Viegas, as well as Dries and Renier Pohl, along with Nicky Steyn to come onboard and assist us with the final details and finishing touches of the first part of our renovation project. The results to date have been exceptional and needless to say, we are delighted to share a few glimpses of their progress with you. In our next newsletters we will reveal each one of the four suites that have been completed, but for now we invite you to take a step back in history as we reveal the Queen Anne ceramic panel designed for our Neo- Gothic suite, crafted by Madeleine and Rhoda Henning from Rhoda & Madeleine Henning’s Pottery Studio.
Queen Anne Ceramic Wall Panel
It was nine months ago that I was first approached by Cobus, Mari and Chantel with a fairytale proposal. They are in the process of renovating a nineteenth century French chateau in Brittany and were looking for an artist to tell a story. The medium would be a floor-to-ceiling ceramic panel. The story was that of a young woman who, through her allure, acumen and poise, peacefully united two kingdoms and
advanced a time of artistic renaissance in France.
Now, after months of research, design, slab-making, engraving, painting, packing and installation, I invite you to join me for a visual journey through this unique and wonderful process. The destination: a wedding ceremony between Anne – reigning Duchess of Brittany and King Charles VIII of France, in the tower bathroom of the Neo-Gothic suite of Chateau des Tesnières.
The research and design
The panel was meant to immortalize and bring to life the spirit of Queen Ann of France. To this end, it needed to be historically accurate. The viewer, as they soak in their bathtub in the tower, taking delight in the artwork, needed to believe that they were viewing a fairytale made all the more fantastical
because it actually happened.
The amount of agreed-upon historically accurate resources available on the story of Anne of Brittany are limited to a few paintings, tapestries and texts. There exists, however, a most intriguing manuscript: the “Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne”. It is an exquisitely illustrated book of hours commissioned by Anne of Brittany in
the early 1500’s.
I obtained an electronic copy of this book from the National Library of France in Paris and used it as a source of design inspiration. The design of the dancers themselves was a lot of fun! I researched 15th century clothing, dance styles, instruments and painting styles to create an accurate scene. Once the design was finalized, it was printed in life size across six A0 posters.
The slab-making and engraving
The next part was the most technical of the process. The master copy on paper was divided into over 300 sections for individual tiles. Each tile would have a different shape and size and fits into the panel as a puzzle piece.
Since ceramic clay shrinks in size throughout the drying process, the individual tiles needed to be cut at exactly the right time so that they would still fit together in the end. After that, the cut slabs were covered in plastic and
left in place to firm up a bit more.
Once they were what is called “leather-hard” (firm but pliable), the trees and the panel frame were ready to be engraved.
After cutting, smoothing and engraving all the tiles, the panel was laid out to dry completely and then sanded to make sure every piece fits together.
When I choose a decorating technique, I inevitably end up engraving. There is something very satisfying about seeing a shape come to life from within the clay itself. Painting the characters in the panel, however, rekindled my love of underglaze (ceramic paints). The faces were a great challenge, but the parts I enjoyed the most were
the folds of cloth and the fur linings.
I had our entire selection of studio-developed underglazes to choose from and I ended up using more than 200 colours!
After being painted, the tiles were bisk-fired, dipped in transparent glaze and then glaze-fired. Now, as any potter will attest to, opening the kiln after a glaze-firing is nerve-racking. Did the tiles warp? Are there pinholes? Did
all the kiln furniture crumble into a heap?
As it turned out for one kiln, a shelf had indeed broken and sprinkled some cordierite (which looks like sand) into the glaze of two tiles below. Luckily, all that was required was the drill to remove the spoiled glaze and a reglaze
and everything was as good as new.
The last step in the making process was applying the lustres and firing one last time. For this part, it was back to mask-wearing to protect myself from the chemical fumes.
When the last tiles came out of the lustre kiln, I built the whole puzzle to see that everything fits precisely. At this point, a celebratory glass of champagne appeared in my
hand, as it does on such occasions.
That evening, with an audio book and ten cups of coffee, I wrapped each and every tile individually in at least four layers of bubble wrap. By the time the sun rose, I closed the last of the fifteen boxes, to be collected for shipping that same morning. It would be three months until I unwrap them again, each and every one perfectly intact.
As the ship sailed my tiles over the ocean, I spent two months in Paris at the Cité Internationale des Arts. Once September dawned, I arrived at Chateau des Tesnières .
It was a dreamy sight! A beautiful, elegant building with fantasy towers and sprawling lawns. I photographed every old oak tree from twenty different angles and I wouldn’t have been surprised if a peeved faerie shook its
finger at me.
With Rhoda’s anticipated arrival in Brittany, we started the unpacking, unwrapping and puzzle-building process. When the panel was once again assembled, we used a marker to draw a grid over it to prepare it for tiling. Its destination wall was mapped accordingly, tools and buckets readied and French cement packaging
translated. We were ready.
Suffice it to say, it took one whole week of intensive manual labour – during which we earned all of our framboise tartlets going up and down the many, many stairs to get the panel onto the wall. Whilst tiling and grouting, we experienced the chateau in the crisp morning, mellow afternoon, striking dusk, ethereal
evening and silky night.
It was an incredible process to see the image moving from a horizontal to a vertical sphere. We selected a dark chocolate grout and it completely disappeared into the image as a whole and binding everything cohesively.
Designing, creating and installing the Anne of Brittany ceramic panel for Chateau des Tesnières has been the most challenging, interesting and gratifying work of my artistic career thus far. I am eagerly looking forward to
similar projects in the future.
– Madeleine Henning, Ceramic Artist
Wallpaper Installation by Darren Sheldon and Marco Viegas from Paper Perfect Cape Town
Cornices, Frontons by Andri and Adriaan Boshoff jnr.
Wood Work by Nicky Steyn & team