Though it is not French, Tournai porcelain is very close to French soft-paste, possessing the same charm and elegance. Since 1830 Belgian, the town of Tournai, on the banks of the Scheldt, belonged to the southern part of the Low Countries at the time when they were under Austrian rule. Prior to the establishment of a porcelain factory there, Tournai was known chiefly for its tapestries, its goldsmiths' art, and its cathedral.
Early in 1750 Francois Carpentier started a pottery factory in Tournai with the financial help of the town. Less than a year later, he felt obliged to sell his establishment to Francois-Joseph Peterinck, who was born in Lille in 1719 and had been a merchant at Ath (Hainaut) until he became interested in making soft-paste porcelain. Peterinck had as his partners for a period of two and a half years the brothers Dubois. They had worked at St. Cloud and Chantilly and later started the famous factory of Vincennes, and their advice proved of immense value in the development of the Tournai factory. Peterinck appealed to Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, to be allowed to call his establishment Manufacture Imperiale et Royale, and to have exclusive use of the tower and crossed swords with stars in the angles as his porcelain marks. The factory was permitted to sell to all countries under Austrian rule, and many pieces slipped into France, since Tournai was near the frontier.
From the beginning Peterinck employed skilled labor and the most accomplished decorators, and turned out fine ornamental work, including busts, groups, figures in biscuit or enameled in white or polychrome, perfume burners, vases, plaques, small boxes, polychrome table services, and so on. In the earlier days of the factory a most elaborate chandelier was produced. Economic considerations, however, forced Peterinck to manufacture also utilitarian tableware in blue and white such as was produced at Chantilly and St. Cloud. This was sold in great quantities and contributed towards financing the elaborate polychrome pieces, which were often ruined during the successive firings. Today in many Belgian families complete services, monochrome and polychrome, are still found in frequent use. Rival factories at St. Amand-les-Eaux and Arras tried to copy Tournai's blue-and-white services, but without great success.
Peterinck was constantly in financial difficulties, though, he was always helped by the magistrates of Tournai and the governors of the Low Countries. His enterprise developed rapidly, and he was soon employing over a hundred workmen. By the time of the factory's peak, in the 1770's and 1780's, the number had increased to
four hundred. Several of Peterinck's artists had worked at Chelsea before coming to Tournai, and others migrated to England after leaving his employ, so that there is a close link between the two factories. Henri-Joseph Duvivier, who was born in Tournai, was employed for many years at Chelsea and acquired there much of O'Neale's technique. He later did outstanding work at Tournai, executing fables, birds, and classical landscapes with figures, and in 1765 became Directeur de l'Academie de Tournai. Other artists who worked at Tournai after having been at Chelsea were the Paris-born Nicholas-Joseph Gauron, a master modeler, who made busts, groups, and statuettes, and Joseph Willems, a native of Brussels and a skilled sculptor, who made groups and figures.
Tournai never attempted hard-paste porcelain. The clay used was of an off-white color and finely grained. Clay from the same region near Tournai was used also by Delft, as well as by the faience factories of Lille, St. Amand-les-Eaux, and St. Omer. The paste in the beginning had a slightly gray appearance but was soon perfected to the finest quality, with a brilliant glaze. Like most eighteenth-century factories, Tournai reflected the influence of Chinese designs and the work of the great factories - Meissen, Chelsea, Mennecy, Vincennes, and Sevres. Beautiful designs of birds and fruit and the outstanding ‘camaieu rose’ characterize the productions of Tournai at its zenith, around 1775-1790.
Peterinck died in 1799, and was succeeded by Bettignies, his son-in-law. The Tournai factory remained in operation into the nineteenth century, but the output began to show signs of decadence. Tournai at this time was under Dutch rule. A considerable quantity of undecorated porcelain was sent to The Hague and decorated there, such wares bearing the mark of a stork.
Today France is the only country outside Belgium where collections of Tournai may be found. This is most unfortunate, in view of the beautiful pieces that were turned out by the factory in the eighteenth century. At the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Londoners were given an opportunity to see Tournai porcelain in an exhibition held at the Belgian Institute. Examples were selected from museums and private collections, and the showing aroused wide interest, since porcelain from Belgium had not been previously exhibited in England. Several examples of Chelsea were also on view, enabling visitors to compare the work of the two factories.