In the industrial life of Hódmezővásárhely, ceramics has played a decisive role in the past centuries as well as today. In the 19th century, small pottery workshops developed the folk ceramics tradition, on which, in the 20th century, factories and plants were established alongside the surviving small workshops.
Hódmezővásárhely is recognised in the literature as the largest 19th century pottery centre in the country. Its prominent role was reflected not only in the number of craftsmen and the volume of production, but also in the influence it had on other pottery centres in the lowlands.
There are only scattered references to the existence of pottery in the 18th century, and the number of master potters at the end of the century was still estimated at a dozen. In the 19th century, however, the number of potters increased rapidly, from around 50 in 1836 to over 100 in the second half of the century and to nearly 200 by the turn of the century.
Unlike other craftsmen, they organised their guilds and obtained a charter of privileges rather late, in 1848. In the year following the abolition of the guilds in 1872, a ‘potter’s guild’ was formed, with 134 members, and in 1891 they joined the Industrial Association.
The written sources mostly refer to the craftsmen as potters, their own name being potters, because here most of the work was done from bowls and plates. They were also often called potters.
There are few surviving memorials of their work from the 18th century. Their number began to increase at the beginning of the 19th century and by the 1820s the characteristic shapes and decoration had developed. Anikó Füvessy pointed out that what is noteworthy in this early material is not only the outstanding increase in numbers, but also the impact of the types and decorations beyond the city limits. She stated that “most of the types of vessels that became popular in peasant use in the Great Plain first appear in the early material from Hódmezővásárhely.” These included the bait jug, the canteen, the butella, the jug, the butyko jug, the miska jug, the mirror ram, the glazed, scratched flowerpot and the inkwell. The earliest dated pieces are found among the decoys, with the Ethnographic Museum having a 1798 example and the János Tornyai Museum an 1801 example.
The first dated butler’s dish from Vásárhely dates from 1810 and has remained popular for over a century. The importance of this type of object is due to the fact that it originated here and spread from here to other centres in the lowlands. (Mezőcsát, Makó, Szentes, Tiszafüred, Debrecen, Mezőtúr.) The square brandy butellas with their mostly green glaze, floral or bird-shaped scratched decoration are thus typical of the vásárhely pottery.
In addition to the scratching, the typical decoration of early vessels is also inlaid, openwork and buttermilk. The decorations with a glaze are mainly characteristic of candlemaking vessels, openwork decoration can be seen on the rattle bowls and inkpots, while the most beautiful examples of butyric decoration are the butyère jugs, the earliest of which date from 1826. Their colours are defined by green, yellow and brown glazes.
The second half of the 19th century saw the appearance of newer types of vessel, such as flour pots, sewing baskets and moulded bowls. The period was characterised by an increase in production, with the result that the products of the potters of vásárhely were sold by coffers and merchants throughout the country and even beyond the borders. To satisfy the changing tastes of the customers, the pots had become more colourful. As a consequence, three different styles of pottery developed in the city, defined by the segregation of potters by neighbourhood.
The traditional yellow and green colouring has been preserved longest by the New Towners, especially on their pottery with the mazel flower kantas. In addition to the kanta, the New Towners also produced most of the butykos, kötschög, szilké and even butella, which is why they were called föntállós, kantás, szilkések. The Tabanians were called ‘tarkások’ or ‘yellowers’, because most of their pots were yellow, while others were decorated with coloured buttermilk on a red or black background. From the 1860s onwards, the white and cobalt-blue vessels of the craftsmen of the Spitshiki became widespread, reflecting the influence of Far Eastern porcelain and Western European faience. These masters were also known as whiteware makers, or porcelain makers. Their typical vessels, the moulded bowls, were particularly popular in the South.
The last heyday of ceramics for peasant needs was in the 1880s. The end of the century saw a change in pottery, with the emergence of cheap, factory-produced tin, hard pots and porcelain, which gradually replaced pottery in the household pottery. Craftsmen had to make a change in order to make a living, and this change was primarily in the production of decorative vessels. The first attempt to save pottery was the organisation of pottery workshops in several pottery centres in the country, including Vásárhely, where he started work in 1898. In the clay workshop, potters acquired new technical skills. They learned about plaster work, pressing, stamping and decorating with stencils. But in the long term, the biggest impact was the dominance of brush painting.
Of far greater significance was the attempt by local artists in 1912 to create a European standard of ceramic art, in addition to saving local pottery. The founding members of the Majolica were painters Béla Endre and János Tornyai, sculptors Ede Kallós, János Pásztor and Géza Rubleczky, architect József Smurák and Mihály Weisz. In addition, small sculptures by Ferenc Medgyessy added to the range of products of the first years. The style of the early works of the Telep was influenced by local folk ceramics, their forms, colours and motifs, but also by Art Nouveau and Transylvanian folk art. In the 1920s and 30s, the factory was exhibited abroad in numerous exhibitions, winning prestigious prizes. It was nationalised in 1950 and continued to operate under the name of Majolikagyár. In the 1970s, almost a third of the country’s ceramics production was concentrated in Hódmezővásárhely, with a significant part of it going for export. In the years following the turn of the millennium, Majolika was gradually liquidated as a result of privatisation. The tradition of 19th-century ceramics in Vásárhely can be traced back to the history of the Majolica factory, and its influence was particularly strong in the 1950s, when the factory was trying to revive folk art.
This was also when the revival of folk ceramics began in the small workshops, where decorative vessels had been made until then. A number of talented potters were at the forefront of the revival of these traditions, and their work was recognised with the title of Master of Folk Art. Sándor Vékony (1913-2000) was the first to follow this path, leaving behind a legacy of outstanding work. Another important master of folk ceramics from Vásárhely was Ferenc Mónus (1931-1999), whose rich memorial material is the most colourful, both in form and decoration. His brother Sándor Mónus (1909-1996) was also awarded the title of Master of Folk Art.
The tradition of folk pottery is preserved by half a dozen potters in our town, many of whom stick to the original forms and decoration, while some of them experiment with new forms and decorations to meet the needs of the times. János Szénási was awarded the title of Master of Folk Art in 2009. Sándor Ambrus opened his showroom in 2001 under the name of the Downtown Pottery House, which is one of the city’s major tourist attractions.
The folk ceramics of Vásárhely are preserved in a number of public collections, including the János Tornyai Museum in Hódmezővásárhely, which has a collection of around 3,000 pieces, and the Ethnographic Museum. Several private collectors also have remarkable ceramic material from Vásárhely.
In addition to small workshops representing folk ceramics, artistic ceramics are also playing an increasingly important role in the cultural life of the city. The Ceramics Centre in Nagy Sándor Street is the seat of this, and the Wartha Vince Ceramics Art Foundation, which organises exhibitions, summer ceramics courses and workshops, is based here. It is also the centre of the International Ceramics Symposium, organised annually since 1998, where participants can work in the city’s silicate factories. Every year, an exhibition of these workshops is held at the János Tornyai Museum.
As a good indication of the city’s role in the ceramics industry and ceramic art today, Hódmezővásárhely led the three-year EU project CeRamICA, which ended in 2011 and brought together eight European countries to learn about each other’s ceramic culture and exchange experiences to develop and promote it. The Association of Hungarian Ceramic Cities was founded in 2012, also on the initiative of Hódmezővásárhely, with a similar aim.