Sunday, 28 June 2015

Thames Mudlarking — A Georgian Fob Story (Pt2)

There's times when a discovery is so unusual and interesting that it demands that you sit down straight down on the ground, and stop. I was arrested and taken into custody. It was such handsome thing to have found that I couldn't quite believe I had. It didn't seem possible that such a delicacy could have survived two centuries in a puddle of mud without breaking apart into hundreds of tiny pieces and utterly destroyed.

Holding it up to the light and turning it over in my hands was one of those rare transcendental moments that mudlarks and detectorists experience just a few times in long careers. You know what I mean, I'm sure, because you've had them too. When you flipped up your first Celtic stater, or that lovely gold posy ring that now sits gleaming at the summit of the mountain of junk you've amassed. That was one of them, wasn't it?

On the shingle I sat for what seemed an age in reverie before the rising tide forced a move. When I got up I climbed Trig Lane Stairs, walked through the winding streets of the city to Liverpool Street Station, and there caught the fast train back home to Romford. Hurtling through Ilford at 100mph I realised I should have stayed on a little longer and worked at finding its missing parts...

Hardly a thing in this square yard of the forshore is natural. It's 95% man-made

Returning next day I wasn't sure I'd find more of it but I trawled through the pocket of mud it had emerged from and scanned the rocks nearby. Sure enough I did find another length of chain, a single link and part of a sprung hook. But it was still incomplete. After an hour or two spent dissolving mud in the Thames, sifting through the sand and gravel that remained behind, but without success,  I finally resigned myself to the certainty that I never would find another fragment. What was missing was probably missing when it was thrown in the river two centuries before.

It was quite some time before I had any notion about what might have happened just before it was discarded and why such a pretty bauble would under certain imaginable circumstances be too hot to handle. 

It is a gentleman's watch chain. At the time of its disposal it would have had the appearance of being made of solid gold, but it isn't. Gilded with a very thin skin of 18-carat gold (the only quality sold at the time) it would have appeared to be, but beneath the surface the time has exposed a sham because it's actually made of the eponymous alloy, 'pinchbeck'. This is a copper zinc alloy invented in the early 18th Century by the Fleet Street watch and clock maker, Christopher Pinchbeck, and so so closely does it resembles 18-carat gold that when the gilding rubs away, as it had with this piece, you wouldn't be able to tell.

Pinchbeck didn't intend to deceive anyone, It was simply his solution to a problem. Gold is too expensive to make large objects from so when a client such Louis XIV requires a musical clock but only wants to pay £500 for it, then a clock in pinchbeck is what he got from Pinchbeck. Of course it wasn't long before the jewellery trade was making items from it, and crooks passing their wares off as solid gold.

The metal became very popular with the gentry who would wear items made from it whilst travelling the thief infested roads of England. If they were waylaid and their possessions were stolen then the miscreants got away with metals worth almost nothing as scrap. It must have been a comfort for the victims to know that when the gang flew the scene of the crime and arrived back at the rookery, they'd set to work on the haul and discover that apart from what coin of the realm they'd pilfered, the exercise had been a waste of their time in terms of jewellery.

Of course they could still sell the pinchbeck items to their fence who'd pay pinchbeck price. However, when an item is marked with a monogram as this is, then no thief or fence in his right mind would have it. 

Traceable directly back to the victim it would have been stripped of its anonymous and saleable pendants and disposed of hastily. Failure to do so promptly may have meant lodgings in Newgate followed by a short a trip up the road to Tyburn...

I think that a plausible explanation of how this watch chain came to be where it was found. Criminals have always used the Thames as a convenient dumping ground for incriminating evidence and that is as true today as it was in the past. Every year I imagine there's an arsenal of firearms ditched over the bridges of London that are never found because they fall in the central channel. In Georgian times, though, there was only the crowded bustle of one bridge but plenty of silent and secret access to the riverside where hot property could be safely disposed of. 

I wonder if it's just coincidence that it was found in a puddle of mud about as far from the present day embankment as I could possibly throw it? 

Well, perhaps it is. 

But there's more to examine before I admit a riotous and unruly imagination and pitch this pretty chain of evidence into the Thames... 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Thames Mudlarking — A Georgian Fob Story (Pt1)

The Thames Foreshore in London is a very peculiar place. Running through one of the worlds greatest cities, one that boasts a half-million year prehistory, a two-thousand year history, and was until recently the capital of the largest empire the world ever saw, the Thames is peculiar not because other great cities don't have rivers. Most do. It's peculiarity resides in the fact that it is narrowly embanked but also tidal. And so on a big spring tide the river can rise to within a gnats cock of the top of the wall but at every low its ancient detritus laden bed is exposed and accessible to all.

Spring high at Custom House

But it's a long fall down. Let's put it this way. Unless my life depended on it, I would never use one of the vertical access ladders. Luckily there are less dangerous steps spaced at fairly regular intervals. That means that your average day tripper out on a hunt can go down, reasonably expect to find things old and unknown, and go home with a handful of bits and bobs to adorn the mantle-piece. It also means the seasoned mudlark may reasonably expect to find something every once in a while that is not only very old but fit for display in a museum case. 

The discovery I made one sunny afternoon in May falls somewhere between those two polar extremes. Therefore it resides carefully stowed in my collection cabinet. Once in a while I get it out and look at it. I can't ever remember showing it to anyone.

A chalk-rubble barge bed being laid at UDC Wharf, Chiswick on Easter Sunday, 1929. (MOL Collections)
The Thames was once studded with barge beds. Wharves that dealt in bargeloads rather than shiploads required them so that the flat-bottomed vessels would land gently at low tide on level hard standing where unloading would commence. Otherwise they'd tilt the load precariously making already hard work harder for the stevedors. The find was made on one. Nothing unusual about that — many finds are.

Thames finds, and the majority made on the North Bank in the City (which except for the opening at Queenhithe Dock was once an unbroken chain of barge beds) often aren't as many believe they are, direct losses. Stuff dropped by people over the sides of boats or thrown into the water when broken or unfashionable. Most often they got there indirectly and derive from these long redundant and derelict constructions.

Erosion begins when water having breached the wooden revetment begins its levelling work and begins to claw back its original course. The channel once begun opens ever wider at each and every turn of the tide till eventually the entire bed is reduced to loose rubble and shifting shingle, its stark oaken bones the only reminder it ever existed. A whole barge bed can be made nothing in a decade.
A barge bed at a busy Victorian wharf
They were made out of what was readily available nearby and the kind of stuff that others would otherwise have pay to have carted away. Compacted street sweepings, industrial and domestic rubbish and hearth tippings, demolition rubble and the spoil from new building foundation excavations (that in London will always cut through earlier layers and much older rubbish pits) and all kinds stuffs from all kinds of sources was piled in and rammed down hard. So much so that the beds are concreted throughout. All of this is very gradually loosened and freed by the very gentle but powerfully persuasive action of moving water.

The wood ash and fine coal dust is taken away in solution. The sand and gravel is washed here and there. The wood and the bone are light and are all taken elsewhere. The fragments of brick and stone, the shards of glass and pottery, are dense and heavy and remain behind. Amongst what's left will be bits and pieces of real interest and most of these are of metal often preserved so beautifully that they appear to have made the very day before.

However this find was made on top of the rammed rubble capping of a bed at Trig Stairs that at the time was fully intact. The revetment was whole and serious erosion had never taken place there and so the finds it contained were still locked inside.

How did it get to be there?

Well, I think that's quite an interesting question. To be on top I think it had to have been lost or thrown directly into the river, not dumped into a containing wooden frame along with a million and one other discarded things.

If so then its discovery was something of a miracle of chance, not because it hadn't been found by a modern day mudlark, but because in the past the Thames was scoured by daylight and lamplight by those with a rather more pressing and urgent need who weren't there to oik out a treasure but to eke out a living. And they'd hunt down every last valuable, saleable, useable, combustible (and God forbid, edible...) scrap they could find.

I always like to think of it as one of the many pretty trinkets from Fagin's lost treasure box. And it would have secured a poor mudlark's family food supply for a month, I'm sure. But they missed it. And so did everyone else for two long centuries. 

And then one day I was picking over a sloping shingle bed that had always been rather good to me and when I'd finished with it began walking westward across the intervening barge bed to another favourite hotspot, when the faintest glimmer of old gold caught the corner of my eye.

It was a fragment of chain. At least I thought that's all it was until I picked it up when I realised it was attached to something beneath the gloopy mud. Gently teasing the chain I couldn't quite get beyond five inches before it stuck fast so I plunged my hand right in, scooped my hand beneath the lot and lifted as carefully as I could.

The whole fistful came out quite easily so I walked back to the shingle bank where squatting at the water's edge, I immersed the grey lump in the Thames, and there began the careful job of washing whatever the hell that chain was attached to, out.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Pick O' The Day — The Found Piece

Very nearly a day having passed by I really don't think it'll be where I'd plonked it back down but it is. I still don't trust it, though. However, having biked into town (in what seemed a moment), I wasn't going away empty handed so I pay the tenner asked and the kind old lady behind the counter swaddles it in bubble wrap for me.

It's huge. And it's bloody heavy too! The shoulder bag I'd thought quite big enough to carry it home naked, barely had the room what with all that cushioning wrapped about it. Nevertheless, I sling it over my shoulder where it hangs precariously whilst I ride back home, one-handed, uphill for most of the way, and against the same tiring wind that'd carried me so effortlessly downtown.

On the way I compute my balance sheet. I'd put a tenner down that would be impossible to get back with that glaring chip in the rim — probably. That'd need to be repaired just to break even. Out of the question. The job would cost ten times that tenner. However, the 20p ladle would probably make £20, there or thereabouts, so that would cover the risk. And besides, the tenner would be have been well spent because I'd learn invaluable things about far eastern pots. Be it modern or ancient. The journey to discovering the which, the why, and the wherefore, would bring forth knowledge — because handling in this business, is everything.

At last I get the bloody great thing through the front door, unswaddle it, lug it up to my 'office' and set to work. First step, a simple Google picture search for 'Chinese vase', which may be akin to entering 'British teapot' and hoping to find 18th Century redware 'crabstock handled' ones — but I reckon it's worth a shot. It works better than 'British teapot', though, which of course yields Union Jack tourist pieces. Lots of antique Chinese vases and quite a few of similar form with those curious little side handles at the neck, but none in that peculiar green/blue hue this one has. At least 'Chinese vase' is a lead.

Nothing else seems to work though. 'Chinese vase big headed man speckled deer' gets me the Daily Mail, and the story of how a British woman missed out on a half million pound fortune because a relative once drilled a hole in the bottom of her Chinese vase to provide access for electrical cable for his Chinese lamp project, destroying the crucial mark that had been there in the process, and slashing the value to just a tenth of its market potential. Still, the £50,000 she got for it is quite a lot of money, so she was happy.

Well, the hole in the bottom of mine slashes the measly value I've already subtracted because of the chip in the rim, so I'm probably stuck with a proper lemon. Drat! At least I now have more relevant search terms. 'Chinese vase hole bottom' seems silly enough to work. It leads me to a nice tutorial on how to make lamps of Chinese vases — luckily the vase chosen for mutilation was not lovely Chinese Ming but minging British Chinese. No ten fold loss there then. Then I strike lucky. Page three yields a crucial fact. That peculiar colour is known as 'Celadon.'

'Celadon vase' yields hundreds of celadon vases. Page after page after page of greeny blue hued pots in all shapes and sizes but nothing even similar till page 21 and there, right in the bottom right hand corner, is exactly what I've been looking for. It's in a terrible mess but it is the same thing. Straight over to Ebay then, where I discover more of the same and most in America with eye opening asking prices in the thousand dollar range.

Blimey. What a find! Who'd have thought that possible from a ten quid blind punt?

The blood's up now...

But that rim chip will halve value if not quarter it from what I know of the antique ceramic collector's pernickitinesses. The hole in the bottom doesn't help either even though these pots never seemed to have been marked there. And besides, Ebay 'Buy it Now' asking prices in the 'antiques' category are often hopeful and usually based upon the last example of the thing that sold superbly well. I suspect that fairly recently one or two of these pots did, and I'm not wrong. I find one at Christie's which made a pretty penny.

Money, money, money. All very well and all that but now I want to know what the hell this pot means. Who is this strange old man with his huge forehead and why is there a speckled deer there, amongst other things?

Well, discovering what the vase was was hard work enough but discovering what it means is quite another thing. But eventually I get a strong lead and a new world opens before my very eyes. The old guy is no ordinary mortal; quite the opposite, actually. It's Shou Lao, the Taoist god of longevity. He rides a speckled deer too. And he has an attendant who often rides twos up on the poor deer with him. That'll be that fella behind him then. Almost there...

But what the hell is that strange looking vegetable he's being offered by the third character? Is it a Halloween pumpkin? A mangel-wurzel?

Well, neither. Turns out it's a peach. And though it seems a whacking great peach to my mind, it is one all the same because this peach is none other than the peach of immortality...

It's all falling into place now. But before I leave the computer I have one last shot at finding more and come across a thumbnail of a piece that looks very familiar. I click on it and am taken to one of my favourite sites for antiques research and there I'm presented with a startling sight for my now weary eyes...

Blimey. I've found the piece!

It's the very same pot sold at a provincial auction house in the home counties about a year ago. And guess what?

It didn't have a chip out of the rim then...

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Pick O' The Day — The MIssing Piece

The pretty blue thingamajig taking up a quarter of my desk space carries a back-stamp on the underside of the foot in the form of a smeared picture of a watery scene with the legend 'LAKE' beneath — but nothing else. I guess it isn't a makers mark because I've never heard of such a company and this is certainly British so I should have if it ever was one. It has to be something else, but I'm not sure what because I really don't have much of a clue when it comes to Victoriana.

I love the Georgian period but bore easily when faced with the Victorians. Pretty is the best term I can apply to their output. It seems to my eye that all elegance in the crafts was lost sometime in the reign of William IV to be replaced in many things by a certain swollen lumpishness that is never made so apparent as when two like objects from both eras are placed next each other. One wins hands down, and it's usually the earlier piece.

And what about all those company names inked upon everything and anything ordinary? My trouble is that I hate knowing exactly what a thing is so very quickly. It takes all the enjoyment out of it. Give me the Georgians any day. You have to work to understand what's what with them even when they bothered to mark things, and yet here I am with a piece of Victoriana that I have to work at. And it takes me the best part of a day's work to put together the pieces of an incomplete jigsaw to nail it.

I think it will fall under the general heading of 'blue and white china,' because that's what my granny would have called it, so, I google that only to be confronted with entirely the wrong kind of blue and white china. Seems 'blue and white' is the antique trade's term not for British willow pattern type crocks but rather Chinese wares. Undeterred, I refine my search over and over again till eventually I start to get somewhere and in the end arrive at what is a satisfactory answer to the puzzle even with a piece or two of it missing.

Ashworth & Bros  'Lake' pattern bowl, Circa 1870
Turns out that it's a late in the century soup tureen in 'blue transfer ware' production probably by a company by the name of Ashworth.  And the back-stamp refers to their transfer pattern, 'Lake'. Can't find a tureen in 'Lake' but an exact pattern match on another Ashworth ware with the same back-stamp and also without makers marks is fit for purpose. 

Sounds straightforward enough, don't it? But I tell you I rarely have to delve so deeply into Google's compacted dirt to find out facts like that. I can't complain, though. When I started picking many moons ago it would have taken a year in a fusty public library to excavate such a simple truth...

What's remarkable about this tureen is that it's in mint condition. I just can't see any sign of it ever being used. It's as if someone bought it the one day, put it in a hat box the next, every succeeding generation of the family ignored it and when the hatbox was sent to the junk emporium 150 years later, some other picker with a keen eye for hatboxes (but a blind eye for ceramics) removed it, put it back on the shelf, and walked away with their empty prize.

But that can't be the case. Originally the old tureen would have been part of a set including matching stand and ladle, both of which pieces are missing. Oddly enough, just a couple of days later a missing piece turns up in a local charity shop 30 miles away. A ladle, and it's a perfect fit for size. Shame about the slightly different pattern  Never mind. Someone will still want it on its own for what it is.

On the floor beneath the shelf that holds the pint mug that holds the ladle is a big fat filthy pot with a chip out of its rim decorated with an unintelligible scene including an old man with a very large head and a recumbent speckled deer. 

It is far Eastern, that is certain. But Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese or Siamese, I haven't a clue because I have absolutely no knowledge of their outputs, have never handled china of any age hailing from those parts of the world, and so I ain't got an eye for it. I think it probably modern, and a plant pot. Perhaps rejected from some local restaurant where it fell over and got an unsightly dink in it. The base has no mark either — just a perfectly circular hole drilled dead central which seems to confirm my gardenalia hypothesis.

So, I put it down, go about my business, and forgot about it.

Yet something about it has got under my skin. The break in the rim had revealed a bright white body which I thought off putting at the time, yet the thickly glazed interior of the pot was speckled with blackened indentations, and in the base it was pocked all over with them. Trouble was, I only realised something about it had it got under my skin whilst trying to sleep, so I couldn't rest.

Once again that meant a return journey...

And very early the next morning if I was going to get my foot in the door before you got yours in!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Pick O' The Day — The Lost Piece

'Picker' in American parlance is that hawk-eyed personage who trawls various junk emporiums in search of 'sleepers,' which in English slang are those valuables mole-eyed proprietors and their customers fail to notice. It might be shoes or frocks the picker specialises in. May be be watches, jewellery and bling. Records, books, cameras, kitchenalia, this, that, and the other, You name it, there's a picker out there who knows what's what but a thousand more who don't know their wozzats from their whatnots.

Between the bedrock of knowledge and the topsoil of ignorance lies an inexhaustible seam of treasure that the picker knows full well others with deep pockets will pay high prices for but the ill informed will disregard. There's the picker's happy hunting ground.

Last weekend Judy and I discovered a new and potentially rich seam that we didn't know existed in a place we could never have expected it to have. Now, I'm not about to give my game away telling every Tom, Dick and Harry where this is. Pickers get up early in the day and I live some time away. Soon enough that seam will run dry if I were to...

Judy specialises in homewares. She has the eye for rich fabrics, funky furniture, shabby chic plants pots and the knack with off-the-wall knickynackynoos. All of which go toward furthering her cause of making our home a more lovely place to live in, and in that quest she succeeds me because I'm blind to what works in that respect. I specialise in proper old school antiques because I have eyes for the form and the crucial detail — those little signs created by the process of making that prove in the absence of strident makers marks that a lovely shapely thing was made at a certain time in a certain place.

And with me that's a time and place set in the middle distant past.

Trawling the shelves I can't see a thing for some time. A million orphaned objects vying for loving homes takes a while for the eye to adjust to. So I go back round and round again until my eye gets in when I'm waylaid by a substantial pretty blue china piece, asking price, £3. I ignore it. Not knowing but suspecting it might be worth a punt I put it back, but only because I have no cash. We've not come here for the purpose of buying. I have a grand total of 17p in my pocket and Judy has left her purse at home. As I said. We hadn't bargained on finding such a place so we hadn't come prepared.

Brass candlestick, Circa 1730-60
And then, just as we decide we've seen enough, I go round again but this time with eyes adjusted to metals, when I see something I've always wanted to find but never have.

It's unmistakable. 

Time and place — England, reign of George II.

Fist gripped tightly round its elegant stem, I have to have it.  But the price is one pound and that is a pound too much because I don't have one about my person.

I walk about the place trying to figure out a strategy. Should I have them reserve it and come back later? 

I'm not about to put it back and have someone take it off my hands. After ten minutes of indecision I go to the car and mount a search for 'the lost piece'.

By a miracle there it is beneath the passenger seat. 

A quid!

At home I've quids 'aplenty. Now, my instinct says never leave behind what's pricked your picker's soul because minutes is what separates having a thing from not, and thirty or more have already elapsed. The nagging thought of that pretty thing in blue and white will not leave me and so I decide we must return. Judy is out the stalls before I am and off we set off armed with enough cash to buy a hundred things. 

She buys a stack. Linen, mirrors, wicker baskets, what have you. All stuff she'd spied first time around but hadn't the cash for. I buy a stack too. A pair of Arts and Crafts silvered planished copper candlesticks, damaged. A trio of onion scalloped porcelain tea cups and saucers with slop bowl — of unknown date — but very fine and handsome in plain white. This thing, that thing and the other thing too, but by sheer luck in amongst them all is my china piece.

I thought I'd surely lost it, gone forever, but it was still there!

George II brass candlesticks at Christies

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Our History, In Pieces — Sprigging Luverly

Here's a nice desirable sherd of pottery and one that I had wanted to find for years before I finally did. It turned up in the most popular place for a family fossick on the entire Thames — at Bankside, and right outside Tate Modern. Quite how it had eluded others is beyond me, but there it was, half buried in the shingle and better, that patch yielded a number of other finds too. But that's how the Thames works. You don't wander off having found one thing. You stick at it right where the first find was made in the certain knowledge that you have discovered an area of fresh erosion that will continue to be productive until that erosion stops.

This is Roman 'terra sigillata' more commonly known as 'Samian ware', of course. A deep glossy brick red in colour, smooth and fine in texture and decorated with what's probably a legionary eagle. Surely there's no mistake about that. But hang on — what's that hole in the knob for?

Romans didn't drink tea... 

Not so far as we know, but the Chinese certainly did and when we British found out we built an Empire to rival Rome upon it.

The rise of the British Empire was fuelled by the stuff. It was the quintessential British beverage for three centuries and at the height of our power and influence late in the reign of Queen Victoria we consumed an astounding 6lb per person per year of dried leaf and fashioned teapots the size of pumpkins to brew it in.

As you can see, the teapot filled by the servant woman is rather small.
Hogarth's 'Apprehended by a Magistrate' from 'A Harlots Progress', 1732. 

Mercurius Politicus. September 1658
But in the beginning, our teapots were more the size of an orange than a pumpkin. And that's because tea was prohibitively expensive. It was more commonly available in coffee houses in the third quarter of the 1600's. The London newspaper, Mercurius Politicus, September 1658 announced,

'That Excellent, and by all Physicians approved, China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee', is sold at the Sultans Head, a Coffee house in Sweetings Rents by the Royal Exhange'.

At the time tax due was calculated from its liquid form. They'd brew up in the morning, the tax officer would quantify the duty to pay on the total pints made, it was kept on the boil all day long and dispensed in tiny cups for an appreciative public of gentlemen. But in 1689 the tax rules were changed. The leaf form was taxed instead (at about 25%) when it became available to anyone wanting to brew at home, but only to those very few who could afford to pay £10 per pound (equivalent to £1,000 per pound today!) and just as importantly, also secure the teapot in which to brew it.

Yixing teapot, 17th Century. Later repairs.
Probably the first ceramic teapots Joe Public clapped eyes on were those imported along with the initial tea consignment the East India Company brought back from Java in 1664. The shipment contained 100lb of tea worth at least £1,000 and perhaps more, but just £10 worth of these pots.

Alien objects made of a vitrified red clay the like of which had never been seen before and decorated with strange relief motifs that must have been quite a sensation to our eyes, they sold out immediately. Imports increased as tea drinking caught on but there were never quite enough pots to go round and demand was increasing exponentially so John Dwight of Fulham set to work to create copies. He never got beyond experiments and seems to have never sold a single pot, but a couple of Dutchmen did.

Elers Teapot, circa 1690
John Philip Elers and his brother David came to England, found a seam of the right kind of clay in Staffordshire, and created the first convincing British versions of the Chinese pots. But they ran into trouble with Dwight who tried to enforce his patent. Ignoring it they carried on regardless.

They sold but few. And not because the demand wasn't there. It was. Their failure was down to the fact that they were paranoid in the extreme about keeping their methods secret, each hand crafted pot was extremely time consuming to make and their products just too expensive for anyone but the most wealthy to purchase. The Elers brothers were declared bankrupt in 1700.

However, the Staffordshire 'potbanks' weren't to be defeated. By that time the tea trade was becoming less of a legitimate business and more of a criminal operation because taxation was spiralling out of control finally reaching an astonishing 119% by mid century. The gap between those who could afford this luxury and those who wanted to enjoy it was widening so far that, of course, smugglers stepped into the breach and supplied it tax free cutting prices (and cutting it with all kinds of other noxious stuff) to the bone. The huge demand had been finally met so the pots just had to be made somehow.

 The Elers had destroyed all evidence of their secrets and methods so initially the potbanks made lead-glazed earthenware versions. These were what we had till 1740 when finally they cracked it. Solving the clay supply problem by improving refining methods they made stoneware versions available at last and better still, threw the pots quickly on a wheel. The market was soon awash with handsome red teapots 'just like' the Chinese originals and cheap enough for the middling and perhaps even working classes, to own and enjoy.

Staffordshire redware 'crabstock handled' teapot, Circa 1760

The sherd under scrutiny is a piece of that history. It is the lid from a teapot and of course it's not a Roman one but a British one made in Staffordshire circa 1740-70. The decorations are known as 'sprigs'. They were formed in a mould, released onto paper, then applied to the damp body of the pot with a little brushed on slip. The dense fine clay is very strong but also takes sharp detail very well and that accounts for a great deal of the appeal. The bird is as crisp as the day it was made, and yet the lid is in a sorry state.

It may have been finally discarded only when the owner grew tired of trying to keep from falling into the pot because they were so treasured that people would use them till essential parts were unserviceable. Unless the pot itself was broken in many pieces and beyond water tight repair it would be kept and mended with new parts fashioned in wood, silver, tin, brass, pewter, and even poisonous lead.

The decorations soon departed from strict copying of Chinese motifs. By mid-century, at the height of Rococo style and our insatiable taste for 'chinoiserie', a delightfully eccentric mixture of sprigs in all kinds of diverse (and increasingly English) designs adorned them. My little teapot lid's bird sprig may look Chinese enough but it may have been accompanied by of all things, a Tudor rose! 

It's just a broken old teapot lid but I reckon I could flog it for £20 on Ebay given the current buoyant market for interesting sherds. I certainly couldn't afford to buy the parent pot in the one piece, though, because an ordinary one would set me back £500 and a rare and fancy one a thousand or two more.

Maybe instead I should list it as,  'Roman Samian Ware Teapot Lid — Legionary Eagle — RARE!'  

And would probably get £30 or perhaps more in succeeding to convince many that it really was...!

But knowing just half the truth behind this little piece of our history is better than peddling a half-thruth to others, so I'll keep it by. Enjoy it for what it is.

Because I think it's just sprigging luverly.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Pot Sherds — Our History, in Pieces

Visiting the Thames Foreshore recently has been quite a disappointment. I only ever practise eyes only searching there and in the forty years since I made my first find in the shingle I have never tried any other method. I rarely scrape, never dig, never detect with a machine. And I like it that way or at least I always have...

However, now I'm seriously considering other methods because the place is picked clean. Where years ago I'd go down and pick up thirty or forty items of non-ferrous metal, some of which would be nice finds, occasionally very nice indeed, now I can barely find two or three and only then by really pulling out all the stops and using all the knowledge acquired in my long mudlark career.

The reason is that nowadays mudlarking is a social event. Families do it, friends do it, every bloody bugger does it! Last time I was there I met a group of four young ladies out for a social fossick. Such a gaggle of hens would never have been seen years ago because the foreshore back then was a fearsome place where nobody in their right mind stayed for long. Nobody except people like me, that is. Those who enjoyed the brooding desolation, the frisson of danger, and the fact that the surface was littered with old stuff.

It still is. But I'm afraid it's littered with what old stuff nobody wants. Bricks and rubble and peg tiles, butchered bones and teeth. Those things that remain when all the nice stuff is gone. And by nice I don't mean hammered coins and pilgrims badges, I mean the sherds of pottery that once you could easily fill a carrier bag with are nowadays noticeable by their absence.

They have become a collectible in their own right. You can amass a collection from the Thames covering every period of British history from Neolithic to Modern if you know what to look for. Of course, the majority of sherds are going to be of relatively recent productions and will hail from the period of London's greatest might and power — the Post-Medieval period from 1550 onwards and into the modern era.  But it's all down there. And people know it.

The thing is, nowadays you cannot go and handle old pots without owning them yourself and that means paying a great deal of money for the privilege because even the most quotidian of 18th Century productions are going to cost well over £100 and the choice stuff, the Ralph Wood figures, the Bow porcelain, the salt glaze and the slipware platters are worth many hundreds and often many thousands. They are simply out of the reach of most people, unless that is they find bits of such desirable things on the foreshore, range them in a collector's cabinet. And they can do that because down there such a thing is possible to achieve, and for free.

Actually, there's something romantic about sherds of pots that complete pots do not possess. I know why people like them. They are small pieces of things hard to imagine in their completeness until you know what they are and have seen examples in the one piece. There's a mystery to solve meanwhile between finding one and finding its parent object through study and research. That's a very enjoyable process.

And it's one I want to write about here. So, I've decided to run an occasional series about pot sherds starting with a very interesting one that was missed by the new breed of collector I've encountered lately but was found by myself and in the most public and popular place on the entire foreshore — the South Bank right below Tate Modern.