Walking down Lanc Utca in the southern Hungarian town of Hódmezővásárhely, you could easily pass by No. 3 without stopping. Yet behind the bright white façade and beautifully molded doors, marked only by a traditional blue-and-green on white platter and a bronze house number, is the home and studio of master potter Mr. Sándor Ambrus. I had the opportunity to interview and work alongside Ambrus for the day while visiting family in Hungary. As he does not speak English, I owe a debt of gratitude to my husband John Balla and his cousin Albert Széplaki for their many hours of patient translation; and to their aunt Irén and uncle Lajos Cseri who arranged for our visit.
On August 21, 2013, Ambrus celebrated his 50th anniversary as a potter. He laughs as he tells the story of how he got started. “When I was 14 years old, my father told me to get a job. When I asked where, my father pointed in the direction of a nearby ceramics factory and told me to get a job there, adding, ‘making pots looks like an easy job to do.’”
Ambrus got the job and says, “Working with clay is not so easy but it is like playing!”
From 1963 to 1986 he worked as a production potter for the majolica factory in town, making tourist saucers and other items that were exported to Western Europe and California. The factory was prolific. Each week five rail cars were loaded with pottery. Ambrus left the factory in 1986, worked for a pottery in Budapest, then returned home to open his own studio in 1989. In 1988 the majolica factory closed, ending hundreds of years of large-scale ceramics manufacturing in Hódmezővásárhely.
Materials and Process
Ambrus’ home and studio are one. Upon entering the main courtyard door, you are greeted by a beautiful wall filled with hanging Csúcsi platters and a yard full of flowers and planters. A separate building houses the studio, while the first floor of his home and a wine cellar serve as display and sales areas for his work. When he first opened his studio, his wife was in charge of the sales, but after he lost her he says, “I earn as much from talking as from pottery these days.” Visitors pay a fee for his time—an investment well worth it. He generously shares his deep understanding of ceramics and of the regional folk pottery traditions that have existed for millennia. Ambrus sells his work directly and in selected local stores. He proudly gestures to the home and studio and says, “I built this with my own two hands . . . quite literally, by making pottery.”
Ambrus uses pre-mixed clay which he wedges using the rams-head technique. To throw, he uses a motorized kick wheel. He has one electric kiln that he uses for both bisque and glaze firings. While he produces all of his own work, part-time assistants do some of the slip trailing and painting.
Clay sources in Hódmezővásárhely were depleted in the 1980s. Afterwards clay was sourced from areas west of the Danube river. Today Ambrus’ clays come from Szekszárd, Bátaszék, and sometimes from Croatia. He adds, “when Hungary joined the European Union (EU), it disrupted the supply chain for Hungarian potters. A source of glazes in Zalaegerszeg was closed down due to EU restrictions on hazardous materials. That created a problem because the glazes were essential to traditional Hungarian potters. The EU guidelines for production input sourcing require Hungarian potters to use EU sources for glazes and other materials. Fortunately, glaze sources from Portugal are available, but at three times the price of the original Hungarian sources.”
When people think of Hungarian pottery, they often think of Herend porcelain, but there is an extraordinarily rich and diverse folk pottery heritage and much of it was centered in and around Hódmezővásárhely. Located in the Great Hungarian Plain, the area was rich in clay deposits, vestiges of the Pannonian Sea, which left 9 million years of sediment before breaking through to the Danube and draining 600,000 years ago. Pottery fragments dating back to the Neolithic period (6000–5400 BCE) have been found nearby.
Ambrus explains the history of ceramics in the area, “The soils in and around Hódmezővásárhely included some of the richest fatty clays in the Carpathian basin, perhaps in all of Europe. The clays were easy to work with and became quite hard once fired, so they were suited to large-scale production of high quality pottery.”
He adds, “In the 1700s–1800s, Hódmezővásárhely had the highest concentration of potters in Hungary—if not in the world. The potting tradition in the area predates written history by approximately 7000 years.”
Preserving the Hungarian Folk Pottery Tradition
Ambrus’ repertoire is extensive. He produces hundreds of different types of pots in the three folk pottery glaze styles that are typical in Hódmezővásárhely. These glaze styles correspond to the three main districts where the potteries were located: white pottery with blue and green accents, known in Hungarian as Csúcsi pottery; the yellow-brown tradition with some green elements, referred to as Tabáni; and the green pottery from Hódmezővásárhely, referred to as Újvárosi.
He continues, “All the pottery was created for everyday use. It was common in an average household to have 300 different pieces of pottery fulfilling various functions. People would keep valuables in their pots, make jellies and preserves, hold liquids, and so many other purposes.” Ambrus highlighted a few of these types of pots. Some are now outdated in terms of practical use, while others are still relevant today.
The following descriptions are told with his tell-tale humor.
The Brandy Jug
“Once the peasant man made his brandy, he would keep it in a nice big jug such as this one. They would usually have many such jugs because peasants would produce a lot of brandy—usually to last the whole year. They would usually use a corn cobb wrapped in a rag as the cork for the jugs, and then would store the jugs under their bed—the most secure place in the house.”
The Butellak or Brandy Flask
“The large jugs would be for large-volume, long-term storage and then they would dispense the pálinka (a shot of brandy often served as a greeting or toast) as needed into smaller flasks called butellák. These flasks were popular because glass was too expensive and ceramic flasks were much more easily accessible to the average family in rural Hungary. The nice, portable size made pálinka as close to the peasants as their coat pocket.
The butellák almost always had some inscription that rhymed in Hungarian, for example:
If you do good (for others), you can expect good in return, however, beware of drinking too greedily (from your flask).”
The Crown Pitcher
“The koronás korsó, or crown pitcher, which has an elaborate handle forming a crown above the pitcher was also made for wine consumption, but the trick was first to get the wine into the pitcher. Rather than simply pouring it into the top, a crown pitcher usually had an opening on the bottom to pour the wine in. When wine was in the vessel, each person would choose and become the owner of a spout; no one else could touch it. As a result, if you had a spout further up a handle from a spout that’s already owned then you’d need the permission of the spout owner to cover it up so you could drink. The other reason for the name is that if the potter was talented enough to create crown pitchers, they referred to that potter as a king, [deserving of a crown]. Among Hungarian potters, a crown pitcher is considered the pinnacle of achievement.”
The Brandy Book
“The pálinkás könyv, or a brandy book, was popular among peasants to ward off the chill of the drafty churches. It was also popular because it made for a discreet form of entertainment: it could be disguised as the person carrying a bible. Oftentimes, the priests might see the peasants sipping from their brandy books and might have been tempted to banish them from the church, except that it would mean that all the parishioners would have to be banished from the church, which of course, is not practical.
Another likely reason is that the priest himself had his own brandy book, so it seemed that everyone needed to ward off the chills of the drafty old churches. Another name for the pálinkás könyv was az ördög bibliája, or the devil’s bible.” One of Ambrus’ brandy books has a 300-year-old poem inscribed in Hungarian on the back:
God, please grant three Bs, three Fs, and three Ps
wine, wheat, and peace
hay, wood, and a wife
money, a smoking-pipe, and a steed
and a nice flask of pálinka
With those needs granted, the peasant would be fulfilled.
Ladies’ Brandy Book
“It also turns out that the mommas also liked pálinka, but it would be very shameful for the family if she were caught nipping at a flask during church. So, a popular version was the lady-sized mini-flask, which could fit nicely in the woman’s brassiere and under the folds of her head-scarf for discreet consumption. Such was enough to put a grin on momma’s face as well.”
“In Hungarian, this is referred to as the kalamáris. It’s a veritable writing station, comprised of a small container for ink, a place to hold a goose feather, a third small container for sand or ashes, and a small place to hold papers. There were also places to hold candles. These elaborate pots were prized as gifts for those who were literate because of their beauty and utility.”
“Wheel-thrown serving platters were made, often with a place to hold a candle in the center to illuminate the food in dark hours.”
“A delicacy in rural Hungary is to make natural gelatin (similar to aspic) and the containers for that food needed to have ribbing on the internal parts of the bowl to prevent the gelatin from spinning in the bowl while serving it.”
Other Liquor Containers
“Not all liquor bottles were disguised as books. Other popular forms included a violin, as well as the shape of a wheel with a hollowed out inner space (not holding any liquid) that was sometimes embellished with decorative flourishes. The variety and popularity of liquor vessels indicates the vast quantities of wines and brandies available in the fertile Carpathian basin. Hungary has a long history of agricultural bounty, reflected in its varied and rich cuisine. Even during the Soviet occupation, Hungary was well known as the breadbasket of the Soviet bloc—always exporting tons of fruit, grains, meats, and other produce and never having to endure the famines that plagued other countries.”
“Specialized pots with long handles and perforated bottoms were created to allow the peasants to harvest cracklings from the lard rendering vats, which needed to happen while the lard was still liquid and therefore very hot. These are ceramic strainers that look like giant round spoons, much like the long-handled mesh strainers we use today.”
“Stoneware forms for making baked doughnuts (tarkedli sütő or cseh fánk sütő) were conjoined circular forms that enabled multiples to be made at the same time.”
“Similar to the watering cans we use today for our flowers, these vessels have a wide spout with little holes to simulate rainfall. Hungarian peasants used them to clean their packed-dirt or adobe floors by wetting the floors a little and sprinkling sand on top to absorb the accumulated dust and dirt, enabling them to sweep the floor without raising clouds of dust. A testament to the depth and breadth of the potting culture in Hódmezővásárhely is that over 100 motifs were developed for the perforated tops of the watering cans.”
His Own Style
In addition to making pottery in the vernacular style, Ambrus has developed his own unique glazes and styles. One example is his red and yellow glaze speckled with beautiful grey amoeba-like crystals. He has received many awards and in 2004, the Hungarian Chamber of Industry and Commerce awarded him the title Master of Hungarian Craftsmanship.
Ambrus’ years of dedication to the art and craft of pottery are apparent everywhere in his home. While glass and metal have replaced many of the domestic functions of pottery today, thanks to potters like Ambrus, we are afforded a glimpse into the everyday lives of those who came before us.
the author Lauren Brockman is a potter and corporate consultant living in Raleigh, North Carolina. She teaches wheel throwing and handbuilding classes for the City of Raleigh and has been making pottery for 30 years. Follow her on Twitter at @ncpottery, Facebook at Lauren B Pottery or visit her website www.laurenbpottery.com.