Two Santons with well modeled lace pillows from the workshop of Maryse Di Landro in Aubagne. Occasionally Santons are accompanied by an accessory such as the lace-filled basket in the left-hand photo. I’ve never found two Santons by the same maker dressed identically. The figures themselves are often reused in other occupations.
My personal nomination for the best French lacemaking figure is the folk art Santon (little saint), meant to be part of a Christmas creche. Along with the Holy Family, Angels and other traditional characters, ordinary people involved in their everyday work activities are modeled. Elaborate nativity figures have been made in France for many centuries, but the more modern Santon seems to have originated with the 1792 closing of the churches during the French Revolution. Without access to formal church displays, people started making their own creche figures at home. In 1798 Jean Louis Lagnel of Aubagnel, Provence is credited with marketing the first Santons entirely out of clay (santons d’argile). Simone Jouglas (1908-2004) appears to have been the first to dress the clay figures. In dressed figures (santons habillé), the terra-cotta clay is usually molded for the head, forearms and hands, and lower limbs and feet – the rest is generally a padded wire frame. Today the clay elements are fired in a kiln, prior to 1900 they were air-dried, producing a more fragile product. The final product is hand painted. Many of the faces are quite detailed portraits of elderly women. The arms of the figures often seem overly long, which is an intentional effect.
Santons are primarily a tradition of Provence, which does not have a history of lace-making, but that doesn’t stop the santonnier from making them. Three types of Santon are of interest to lace collectors. First are the bobbinlace makers – always a seated figure, although the design of the pillow and pillow stand varies greatly among makers. Some pillows are modeled in great detail, others are only a padded square held in the lap. I have only been able to find one bobbinlace maker fashioned entirely of clay. It was made quite recently and is shown below. The pillow here is more a Flemish design, although such pillows were used in Bailleul, near the Belgian border.
Few santonniers have attempted the bobbin lacemaker figure. Amy Sylvette is one often found – with the name usually marked on the back of the chair. Others are not marked, and it can be a challenge to discover the maker.
A second category is the crochet Santon. These normally hold a piece of lace, and a small piece of wire representing the crochet hook.
Left: A lovely crochet figure in traditional Breton dress – from the heart of the French crocheted lace industry. Signed on the base, ‘La Santonierre’.
Right: A crocheting woman, but with a more elaborate, non-traditional dress. By Yolande.
A very beautiful seated figure, which may represent a crocheter, or perhaps a Lace Merchant. The basket is full of skeins of thread. It isn’t entirely clear what she is doing, but the string attached to the doily indicates that it is unfinished. By J. Macquet.
The third class of interest to lace collectors, and the one that is easiest to find is the Lace Merchant. This is usually portrayed as a standing woman with lengths of lace draped over her arms. She sometimes carries a basket filled with lace.
The Lace Merchant can sometimes be found with an accompanying piece of furniture, such as a chest or dresser overflowing with lace. The set on the left is by Yolande, and the one on the right is by Simone Jouglas. The soup toureen is original to the set.
Prices for lace-related Santons are generally under $100, a little higher for better items by more famous makers like Jouglas.
In 1995 the Santons de Provence were honored with a series of eight postage stamps by the French government. Monaco also issued a series of nine stamps in 1984, and an additional three per year from 1990 to 1995. Unfortunately none of these were of the lace figures.