Ceramic tile mural

Chemla Pottery (circa 1880-1966)

Tunis, circa 1920

Polychrome ceramic, 121 x 68 x 4 cm

Ceramic tile mural, Chemla Pottery (circa 1880-1966), Tunis, circa 1920

Polychrome ceramic, 121 x 68 x 4 cm

Ceramic tile mural, Chemla Pottery (circa 1880-1966), Tunis, circa 1920

Polychrome ceramic, 121 x 68 x 4 cm

The Chemla Pottery was a family business active in Tunis from the 1880s to 1966. In the 1860s the Bey appointed Haïm Chemla tax collector for the potters of Tunis, who would often pay in kind. He then paid the Bey the equivalent tax in cash and resold the pottery he had collected.

Twenty years later, his son Jacob (1858-1938) began producing ceramics in the tradition of the potters in the Qallatine quarter in Tunis. In 1910 Jacob began using cobalt oxide in glazes to obtain their distinctive dark blue colour. Jacob contributed philanthropically to the local Jewish community, and was also a journalist, novelist and translator of several books in Judeo-Tunisian Arabic, including The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.

Between the wars, he was joined by his three sons, Victor (1892-1954), Albert (1894-1963) and Moïse, known as Mouche (1897-1977), and renamed the firm “Sons of J. Chemla” (Awlad Shamla in Arabic). The factory prospered, exporting to Algeria and especially to the United States, where there are still large Chemla architectural decorations on the West Coast. The firm also showed at the colonial and universal exhibitions in Marseille and Paris in 1925, 1931 and 1937, winning several awards. Chemla polychrome glazed terracotta tiles adorn numerous houses in Tunis’s new quarters and summer homes at Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa, including Dar El Kamila, the residence of the French governor during the protectorate and now the residence of the French ambassador. They also decorated most of the mosques in Tunis, the main synagogue in the Hira, Tunis’ Jewish quarter, and a synagogue on the island of Djerba.

This floral mural is composed of 94 terracotta tiles with a stanniferous glaze. The large central archway is characteristic of the Chemla brothers’ production in the 1920s. An illustrated article on the factory in the review The Sphere in November 1924 features a photograph of Jacob Chemla standing between an identical panel and a large jar. Combining Hispano-Moorish, Ottoman (notably the tulips) and Italian influences, it illustrates the revival in Tunisian ceramics under the protectorate (1881-1957). The development of new districts outside the old city of Tunis and the growth of seaside resorts stimulated the production of the artisans of Tunis and Nabeul, then threatened by imports of Italian industrial tiles. This mural also illustrates the perfect economic and cultural integration of a Jewish family, employing both Christians and Muslims in a cosmopolitan enterprise working in a hitherto exclusively Muslim field.

Acquired at auction in 2018, it complements the major donation to the mahJ by the descendants of the Chemla family, comprising crockery, tiles, models for decorations and pounces (the copper plates perforated with small holes used to transfer motifs with pumice powder onto pieces during production).

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