Text and photos by Larissa Franczek
“We don’t see anything equal to these works of Russian folk art among other peoples’ sculpture or earthenware.” That’s what Alexander Saltykov, a prominent Russian art critic, historian and theologian wrote about Skopin pottery. In 1940 he worked with some unique collections at the Historical Museum in Moscow and noticed some very interesting sculptures, vessels and candle-sticks in the shape of fantastic creatures, birds and beasts. They were very artistically made. He thought this rather strange, as the creators of these works were not professional artists but ordinary, often illiterate potters.
There are several types of artistic pottery in Russia, such as Gzhel, Rostov, Pskov, and Kargopol, Dymkovskaya, Filimonov toys. Among them, Skopin decorative pottery is special, ancient, very unusual, versatile and even contradictory.
Some sources claim that the town of Skopin was founded in the 12th century, others cite the date of 1597. Anyway, it is one of the oldest towns in the Ryazan region with a current population of 31,000 people.
One of the legends about the name of the town explains that the town was named after a fish-hawk (skopa), a mysterious bird which apparently used to live in the vicinity of the town. That’s why, according to this version of history, there is an image of a fish-hawk in the town’s coat-of-arms.
From the town’s beginnngs to the middle of the 19th century, Skopin pottery didn’t differ from that of any other of the numerous potteries of Russia. Around the town there were large clay deposits which quite naturally encouraged the production of pottery. Craftsmen produced utensils that were in common usage in every peasant’s house: pots to leaven dough and churn butter in, vessels to keep milk and pickles in, jugs for kvas and other drinks, chimneys, bricks and tiles.
Skopin earthenware was different due to the quality of local clays. They were of a high plasticity that were of a white, yellowish or rosy color and rang when tapped after baking. Baking clay in a smoking flame without oxygen resulted in beautiful shades of black. Wash-stands, deep plates, mugs and bread boxes were molded on a low manual potter’s wheel. All these articles as well as their decorations were very simple. Masters scratched some geometrical ornaments on them and then they were glazed. After molding and drying they were brushed with some tar and sprinkled with lead powder. Different oxides were added to obtain different colors: ferric oxide for yellow, reddish and orange colors, cupric for green, cobalt for blue and manganese for grey, dark red and brown.
That’s how the craft had existed until the 1850s. It was a time when people in Russia started showing renewed interest to their national arts. Skopin pottery turned from the purely utilitarian into decorative sculptural ceramics. Not only did palettes became multicolored but the whole system of proportions changed considerably. Together with traditional, elegant forms, some craftsmen started experimenting. A jug, for example, was made with new proportions: its body became more trapezoid than round, its mouth got wider towards the top.
Simultaneously, the decoration became more complex. Craftsmen intuitively chose geometric patterns. It was simple, strict and meaningful and suited asymmetrical forms of vessels perfectly. The new Skopin decorative system became harmonious and complete.
The history of figured vessels is thousands of years old. Almost each epoch and country had their own types and kinds. Cups, vases, jugs in the shape of birds and animals were made of precious stones, glass, porcelain and often given as gifts to rulers of countries. Some of them are static, conventional and metaphoric. Skopin-figured vessels are of a different character altogether. They are not only alien to any strict laconism, they are also verbose.
If you try to make up a list of Skopin “personages” you’ll end up creating a whole fairy tale land. There you’ll have a fish-hawk, double eagles, wise roosters and cautious hens with chickens, ducks, a swan and other simple and important looking birds. You have bears, almost humanized by craftsmen, unusual monkeys, rather fat pigs, a sad fish. This is the “population” of the land. It is guarded by mythological creatures: strong and mighty wood spirits, dragons, and menacing but not malicious lions. Add some cute-looking people: an odd looking violinist, a funny soldier, a man with a stick in his hand, a mouzhik (bloke) in a sheepskin coat: the picture is more or less complete.
Being special is not enough for a vessel to be called a piece of Skopin pottery. Details are what matters. Kvas containers and kumgans (water containers) often have legs like pedestals and their mouths remind you of medieval columns. Lids look like tiered roofs and figures on their tops are ‘birds’ or ‘beasts’.
Skopin vessels are as exciting as Russian fairy tales. You read and reread them again and again and always discover some fresh details or gladly remember old ones. They talk their own language and their message is undoubtedly meaningful.
Very soon Skopin pottery became widely and unbelievably popular. It was sold in Ryazan, Moscow, southern Russian cities and Ukraine. People who liked “exotic” folk art, collectors and foreigners eagerly bought it. In 1902 and 1913 the pottery was displayed at several Russian craft exhibitions and in 1900, in Paris.
Nowadays the Ceramics Museum at the Kuskovo Estate, the Historical Museum (Moscow), the Russian Museum and the Ethnographic Museum (St. Petersburg) and the Art Museum in Ryazan boast marvelous Skopin pottery collections.
On the territory of former workshops a pottery factory was built in the town in 1976. Now 160 people work there – 10 of them are members of the Russian Union of Artists. The variety of articles is diverse. New items such as ceramic clocks, lamps, fire-place tiles and chess pieces have been developed. The most interesting and unique items are still hand made.
In 2004 the town of Skopin held the 2nd International Potters Festival.
The most curious thing about the factory is that it has survived, in spite of all the economic troubles in the 90s. A separate story needs to be told about the host of talented people who have devoted their work to try and save the Russia’s culture.
My visit to the factory was quite special. I not only enjoyed its wonderful collection but was lucky enough to enlarge my own. I collect souvenir bells. Have a close look at these three (shown in the photos). A certain dynamism, expressiveness, lots of details and individuality – hallmarks of Skopin pottery – can be noticed in them too.
In my opinion they have not only a certain aesthetic essence. They are some of the most optimistically and emotionally positive parts of my collection. Besides, bells can talk, they are ready to tell you lots of new things. The story of Skopin pottery is one of them.