|Royal patronage: Cambodian crown prince Norodom Sihanouk visits the Thanh Le lacquer workshop. — Photo courtesy of Pham Cong Luan
by Nguyen Dinh
There is a network of traditional craft villages in the southern province of Binh Duong specialising in ceramics, lacquer, sculpture and bass casting.
Its ceramic industry has, for generations, produced many types of ceramics and outdoor pottery that are still sought by collectors.
Ceramics production appears to have originated in Binh Duong in the 18th century. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the Lai Thieu region of the province emerged as South-east Asia's central ceramics market due to its accessibility by land and river.
Lai Thieu pottery, beginning in the middle of the 19th century, is said to be a fusion of three lines of southern Chinese ceramics - from Chaozhou, Guangdong and Fujian.
The Chaozhou line includes household commodities, such as bowls and plates decorated with the images of Bat Tien (the Eight Fairies), or the legendary stories of Chaozhou.
The Guangdong line is made up of ornamental pieces, including vases and flower pots, while the Fujian line includes vases and small jars that are enameled and painted brown.
However, there is a pottery brand that was developed in Lai Thieu, but is not called Lai Thieu pottery. Instead, it is known as Thanh Le pottery.
|Historic: The flower vase "Trung Sisters fight the Han invaders" - the largest vase made by Thanh Le pottery
Thanh Le pottery was created in 1950, named after its founder, Nguyen Thanh Le - an artist who graduated from Thu Dau Mot Applied Fine Art School.
When it came to Thanh Le, people in the south recognized the renowned lacquer manufacturer, operating from 1940-70. His fame also reached Europe and America.
Le attracted talented painters to his workshop, using their drawings on lacquer products.
One of the first workers at Thanh Le Lacquer workshop, Tu Phep, said that painters and artisans working for Thanh Le were primarily well-known.
Artist Ngo Tu Sam was famous for drawing landscapes and characters from Chinese tales while other artist Nguyen Thanh Nam, was famous for reliefs and for scenes of Angkor Wat.
Tu Phep, in his eighties, says that early 1950s, Le expanded his business to pottery as seeing the golden age of Lai Thieu pottery.
"It's a milestone for Thanh Le," Tu Phep said.
He noted that Lai Thieu pottery was largely made by ethnic Hoa (Chinese origin) artists, at that time, as the subjects of the patterns on his ceramic products were Chinese styled.
"Thanh Le joined the pottery market, in which the ethnic Hoa were major players. He faced challenges in a tough competition to survive and develop," said Tu Phep.
He added that Thanh Le was confident about entering this new field because of his many advantages.
Le had talented artists and artisans who made unique forms and subjects for pottery products. Thanh Le pottery was different from what was created at that time.
He preferred to make large-sized products, decorated with combined techniques and representing Vietnamese tales and historic battles fought by the Vietnamese.
For more than 50 years, Tu Phep displayed a large flower-vase entitled, "Trung Sisters fight the Han [Chinese] invaders".
The vase, with its blue-and-white glaze, is one of the first Thanh Le pottery products. It's also the largest vase made by Thanh Le pottery.
He said that the frame for the vase was made by Bay Van on a turning table. The frame was made up of three parts, causing the vase to have a height of nearly 80cm. On the shoulder of the vase, there are four heads of dragons, featuring big noses and powerful horns.
|Aesthetic: Thanh Le pottery products.
"The embossed work makes it different from other pottery products from the same time," Tu Phep said.
Meanwhile, two artists, Duy Liem and Thai Van Ngon, drew directly onto the pottery frame, while glaze makers coloured them with three shades of blue.
"It represents the Vietnamese soul," he said.
Pottery researcher Ly Than said that Thanh Le took advantages of the staff, techniques and pottery kilns in southern Binh Duong Province's pottery industry at that time.
He intended to create large-sized products to place in large halls, gardens, and display his glaze-making techniques.
"Products for sale had to be perfect," Tu Phep said, adding that any product with even the smallest flaw would be destroyed.
He recalled that once they created 100 pottery elephants, though he destroyed 80 of them after finding errors in their colours or forms.
That demand for perfection guaranteed that the brand Thanh Le Pottery would remain distinct throughout the history of Vietnamese pottery. The pottery was developed on Lai Thieu - the land of pottery, though not hidden by the famous name. — VNS