Porches Pottery is a producer of hand-painted pottery in the town of Porches, in the Algarve region of Portugal. The pottery was founded in 1968 by artists Patrick Swift and Lima de Freitas, in order to revive a traditional Algarve pottery industry that was rapidly dying out in favour of more modern techniques. Swift and de Freitas chose Porches for its history as a pottery centre, dating back for many centuries, and for its clay pits.
The origins of Porches Pottery date back to the early 1960s, when Irish artist Patrick Swift first came to the Algarve and encountered a region with a system of commerce and production based around craft activities; a way of life, in fact, that had changed little since the Middle Ages. However, despite its remoteness, the region had begun its inevitable march towards "modernity", leaving behind a once thriving pottery industry. As mass-produced plastic and metal wares flooded the market, the potters found it increasingly difficult to compete and were reduced to making nothing but simple flower pots. In his book, Algarve: a portrait and a guide (1965), Swift had noted this decline, saying of the dishes he would insist on using: "All the basic dishes were of the local Lagoa pottery — easily breakable and poorly glazed. But aesthetically pleasing and so cheap that breakages were no tragedy. Replacements after all helped to encourage an industry threatened with extinction. Even now some of the nicer old kitchen objects can no longer be obtained at the pottery. ‘People don’t buy them anymore,’ say the potters, ‘so we’ve stopped making them.’" An indication of this decline is that the pottery in Lagoa that Swift mentions closed shortly after his book was published — Lagoa does not having a working pottery to this day.
Saddened by this decline, Swift was determined to revive this ancient craft and realize his idealistic dream; to prove that the traditional craft-based form of socio-economic production, that had existed throughout Europe until the Industrial revolution, could be successful in the modern world. The artist eventually wanted an arts & crafts centre where traditional craftspeople could ply their trade and sell their goods. He was soon joined by Portuguese artist Lima de Freitas who shared his views and helped him found the pottery. Swift in his book on Lisbon: "My reason for meeting Lima on this occasion was not to talk about art. It was something much stranger stemming from our basically sympathetic view points, we had embarked on a scheme so foolhardy that, looking back on it, I do not know how we had the temerity to start. This was nothing less than to try and resuscitate the local pottery industry in our part of Algarve." Having contacted local potters, the artists discovered that the craftsmen could still produce a great variety of forms that had been passed down to them by their ancestors. These pieces conformed exactly to those they had previously seen in museums, possessing the simple strength of ancient pots relating to the oldest Iberian civilizations.
To realize the venture in practical terms the two artists first approached the master potter, Mestre Gregório Rodrigues, who agreed to work with them (his son, Mestre Fernando Rodrigues, worked alongside him at PorchesPottery). Swift purchased common oxides from the local hardware store, constructed a wood burning kiln and proceeded to decorate Gregório's pots. The initial results were discouraging, but undeterred, they sought professional technical advice from ceramists in Lisbon, acquired an efficient kiln and soon the first distinctive pieces of Porches Pottery began to emerge. Their workshop was a small 17th-century farmhouse — today a ceramics workshop called Olaria Pequena — just at the EN125 entrance to Porches. The pottery was soon relocated to a larger building, designed by Swift, a little further down the EN125 on the western outskirts of Porches, where it stands today. They trained local people in the mastered control of the brush, painting freely and directly onto tin glaze in the traditional majolica technique, with the girls displaying a natural ability. Very soon residents and visitors alike showed great interest in the pottery and, what began as an experiment to revive a dying craft, quickly turned into the successful venture that it is today.
Craft: The ceramic technique used to craft Porches Pottery is known as majolica. Majolica is the name given to tin-glazed earthenware which is made by dipping fired earthenware or 'biscuit' into a tin based glaze which provides the brilliant opaque white base onto which the decoration is applied. The technique is thought to have originated in Persia though was definitely well established in Mesopotamia by the 9th century where it became a prized alternative to the much esteemed porcelain that was beginning to appear in China. Introduced into Europe by the Moors, Iberia became famous as a centre of excellence for this type of pottery which due to its popular appeal was soon spread throughout the rest of Europe. At Porches the pottery is hand crafted and each piece is individually painted in a free flowing style. The glazing, painting and firing is all done on site.
Style: The two artists researched the designs and motifs of ancient pottery, visiting museums throughout Europe, until finally some basic patterns began to emerge as being typical of the influences imposed by past civilisations that had once dominated the Algarve. These designs include the various animals, flowers and foliage that have become associated with Porches Pottery. Swift, having compiled a series of patterns the decorators at the pottery would work from, forbade slavish copying, instead insisting upon free flowing painting within the established style, which is a fundamental characteristic of Porches Pottery decoration
The Pottery: Swift designed the building that houses Porches Pottery to resemble a 17th-century farmhouse. (In Porches he also designed the interior of a 17C building, which he helped restore, that today is the O Leão de Porches restaurant; the original building and entrance to the International School of the Algarve, which he was instrumental in founding; the stations of the cross at the Igreja Matriz (Porches), where he is buried.) It is in a long low white building. The steps leading up are faced with tiles depicting hares, hounds and birds which lead you into a walled garden with a fountain. More steps take you to an archway decorated with plaster mouldings by Swift; this is the entrance to the pottery. The pottery has an adjoining Café, Bar Bacchus, which is decorated with tiles painted by Swift. There is an outside eating area decorated with tiles designed by Swift’s late daughter, Katherine Swift, who managed the pottery following her father's death and who, in the early 1990s, left the fold to found Estudio Destra in Silves- which continues to operate as a ceramics workshop. Porches Pottery is still run by the Swift family today. Porches Pottery's role in the revival of the regional craft has been recognised.