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I am sad to say that many of my Slovak friends living in Vancouver aren't aware of this beautiful ceramics exhibit donated to the museum by Dr. Koerner in 1988. His roots are in Czecho-Slovakia and his family emigrated to Canada in 1939. On December 2, 1988, Dr. Walter C. Koerner wrote a letter to Dr. David Strangway, president of U.B.C.

This is excerpt from that letter.

"I am happy that the collection should find an appropriate home here at the University of British Columbia. Its gathering has been delightful past time for most of my life, covering the span of nearly of 80 years. Since I was a boy, at school. At that distant time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled central Europe, I first got the bug for decorative ceramics objects, usually plates and jars created by the Czecho-Slovakian peasants potters. These were sold usually for little money on market days. With the encouragement of my mother, who had an unusual feeling for color and life of the people of our native land I slowly began to build my collection. Gradually this expanded to more sophisticated forms of Baroque and Anabaptist ceramic art, derived initially from Italian majolica of renaissance and also to other European decorative art forms. Long ago while I was still gathering I came to the conclusion that the collection should be kept together, be given permanence and stability and made part of the public domain in trust for the community and the nation by being displayed and studied by scholars in the public institution.

What more fitting an institution than the University of British Columbia with which I have been for so long partly identified and to which I also mach it's stimulation and inspiration. It is particularly fitting that the collection should be part of this museum in whose creation I was fortunate to be involved.

Hitherto, the museum's art has been predominantly North West Coast Indian and Asian. Now European decorative art will also be substantially represented."

Walter C. KOERNER, December 2, 1988


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In the 16th Century Italian potters took the making of tin-glazed earthenware Majolica northwards to central Europe where it became known as a faience. Some left Italy because of religious persecution and choose to join the non conformist religious sect known as the Anabaptists. The pottery produced by the Anabaptists is generally known as Haban faience. Their early work beginning in about 1590 was quite different to that made in Italy. Their fate with its demand for utter Simplicity in all things affected the form and design of their pottery.

They questioned the authority of Pope and they practiced adult baptism, were persistently non violent and believed in the concept of the community of God where there was no individual ownership. Reject the hierarchical organization of the Church the Anabaptist lived separated from local population in communes and their lives were guided by their own social and religious codes taken from the Bible. This way of life (embodying principles of simplicity and communal fellowship) is reflected in utilitarian forms and sparse design of the earthenware sold outside the community. Profits made from sales, returned to the commune, rather than to the individual makers.

The pottery the Anabaptists made is commonly known as Habanware. The early Anabaptist potters in Moravia dug for clays, mined for lead, built their own wheels and kilns. Prepared pigments from local materials, used water power for their mills and started producing fine tin-glazed earthenware faience by about 1590.

The Anabaptist potters of 16th and 17th Century, alone possessed the secret of the famous tin-glazed earthenware faience.

They also had the merit of being more hygienic than existing lead-glazed pottery. They did not scratch or stained and could store both liquids and dry foods. The names of the Anabaptist potters are not known. The name or initials typically framed in a green laurel wreath on a vessel belonged to who ever commissioned the piece. These named and dated pots were a specially of the Anabaptists.

Their fate with its demand for utter simplicity in all things also deeply affected the form and design of their pottery. Vessels were decorated with either heraldic designs or uncomplicated floral motives. It wasn't until the end of 17th Century when the communes started to break apart under the pressure of determined Catholic priests. Many of the potters had converted to Catholicism and no longer feeling bound by the ordinances, animals, people, birds and religious symbols started to appear in their designs. Converts to Catholicism were granted a considerable number of privileges and some of the most accomplished craftsmen accumulated large private fortunes. Some of those who migrated away from persecution eventually moved to United States and to Canada Here the descendants of the Anabaptists are known as Hutterites.

By about the 1700 the Anabaptist began to merge with the local Slovak population and their pottery traditions and methods were quickly taken up by naive potters. The Haban-Slovak ware of circa 1700-1750 reflects the mingling of the two strains. The discipline of tradition was left behind and the potters responded more directly to the wishes of their customers. These later wares were often painted with everyday scenes. Special events, symbols of the guilds, or trade association and a great variety of decorative beasts and birds.

During the 18th Century a few factories manufactured tin-glazed earthenware faience were established in central Europe. The Holitsch factory (Slovakia) was founded in Hungary in 1743 by Francis of Lorain consort of Empress Maria Teresia. The factory concentrated on the production of richly adorned sets intended to emulate the wares used by the aristocracy in the large western European centers. By the 18th century these local potters were in decline and the Holitsch factory served as a revitalizing force. The factory's prominence was also secured when it bought together experts from different countries in co-operative effort to produce wares from which later central European factories derived their inspiration. Responding to an eager market and following patterns established at the Strasbourg factory, the Holitsch factory produced remarkably life like pieces imitating fruits and vegetables. These fine examples of modeling were further distinguished by the brightness of the colors used in their decorations. The potters also created sculpture vessels of human or animal shapes that were intended for a practical as well as decorative use such as salt dishes, parrot bottles and lidded containers.

There are about 600 European ceramics in this gallery. They range in dates from 1500 to 1900. They represent three types of wares: stoneware, lead-glazed earthenware and tin-glazed ware. They were found on the table, on the pharmacy shelf, in the Church, stored in the cellar or mounted on the wall. Some were prized and some were not. In their many variations they represent an integral part of human activity. The total collection is displayed.

Some of the pieces are considered to be finest in North America.

I have visited the gallery numerous times and learned a great deal about the Habans and the pottery and all I can say that if you are traveling through Vancouver, make sure to visit this great collection of ceramics at the Koerner Ceramics Gallery at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Dr. Koerner passed away in 1995.

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Published in the Slovak Heritage Live newsletter Volume 2, No. 1, Spring 1994
Copyright Vladimir Linder 1994 
3804 Yale Street, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5C 1P6
The above article and photographs may not be copied, reproduced, republished, or redistributed by any means including electronic, without the express written permission of Vladimir Linder. All rights reserved.