SylvaC Stories: Bunny Boilers.

Once upon a time, rather more years ago than I care to remember, I found a dear little green pottery bunny in a junk shop on the Isle of Wight. As I have a predilection for green ceramic items I snapped it up.

At the time I did not realise that it was a SylvaC rabbit. It’s only since I began researching my knick knacks project that I uncovered the story of these endearing little cutesies, which is actually quite strange because the SylvaC factory produced them in enormous quantities from the 1920’s all the way through to the close of production in 1982.

The rabbits are probably  most easily recognised, even by people who have no idea of their provenance. They come in many colours, but green is the commonest, and pink the rarest, and thus the most sought after by collectors.

And collectors there are aplenty – this is a lady called Jenny Hulme with her extensive collection. I recently read an article about a man who begins every day by scanning online auction sites, seeking the elusive pink bunnies. He already has a collection of over 300 pieces, displayed in custom built shelves in carefully lit alcoves.

Despite this, he is prepared to bid on a box containing several items just to get one particular item. Personally, I think this is a form of pleionexia, but then, I think nearly everything is.

SylvaC did not stop at bunny rabbits.

They were pretty keen on doggies too. And cats, squirrels, foals, vegetable vases with faces (the crying onion anyone?), storks, swans, shells, in fact almost anything that can be made from clay, which covers a multitude of possibilities.

Well, this got me going. So  I made some plaster casts of the bunnies in my possession.

I had it my mind to play about with multiples and the idea of a positive army of bunnies. I was also intrigued by the idea of mass production and a machine that could just grunt out one rabbit after another. I ended up making lots of the beastly little things without much conclusion.

But after spending a lot of time on the project I ground to a halt. Technical problems have caused me to pause for a while. and I was sick to the damn death of casting horrid little rabbits. I much prefer modelling by hand.

One cast collapsed but I did a little surgery on it to make a mummy bunny.

I recycled another mould (remember plumbing problem?) and although it was not a finished piece I thought I saw a way forward.

I have been struggling with a way to use transparent plastic tubing to ‘carry’ the small bunnies from the ‘boiler’ but today I began to play with them.

I’ve already realised that the tubes are too long and must be cut down. And I’m not happy with the glaze. I must develop a green matt glaze similar to the one used by the SylvaC factory.

I had been quite jaded about the project but now I feel enthusiastic about it again. It will take quite a long time but one day the bunny boiler will start production!

And when I went into the studio today I found certain liberties were being taken with my dear little bunnies!

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La Fontana delle Scimmie.*

*warning blog post contains references to Florence (again)

 

This is the Museo delle Porcellane di Boboli, an exquisitely faded small palazzo in the gardens of the Pitti Palace. It has a superb collection of porcelain and chinaware and delicious views from the windows looking south over a quintessential Tuscan landscape (see below).

It also has the Fontana delle Scimmie (Fountain of the Monkeys) in the garden; the Casino del Cavaliere.

Personally, I think these stiff limbed simians are gruesome but then, I find monkeys quite frightening and disturbing anyway, they are too human for my taste. I always wonder what’s going behind those worried brown eyes.

And so, apparently, does the artist Walton Ford.

       

His exquisite paintings frequently depict monkeys doing rather unpleasant things (often to parrots). I believe this is based upon a disturbing childhood experience that happened either to him or his mother. I’m not sure which.

I was moved to try and draw the fountain with extremely limited success.

I quickly gave up and resorted to photography; above and below are two pages from my Florence sketch book.

I’d also been looking at the monkeys in La Specola; that wonderful pavilion of taxidermy and morbid wax works.

I mean, in God’s good name, why? These are really disturbing and, if I think that, then they REALLY are. Here’s another for good measure.

Of course I had to make a sculpture about them, but I’m about as good at modelling monkeys as I am at drawing them so I had to use allusion (or illusion).

I made small elements that had some simian features. And, also, apparently some a giraffe (do not ask why).

I must have still been thinking about the southern magnolia tree with its cheeky protruding scarlet tongues.  I wrote about in November 2015 (that long ago already!).

The elements become more complex as they spiral down into an increasing frenzy of consumption.

This piece seemed to have a need to be decorated in an ornate manner – the colours reminded me in retrospect of a particular caterpillar that I loved as a child; that of the Knotgrass Moth.

I remember always finding these snazzy larvae on various bits of waste land near my grandmother’s home. It’s only now that I realise how much my entomological past informs my present practice.

I ended up working on this piece on and off for nearly eighteen months. I have only just finished it and finally assembled it at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop. Here it is in the big studio while still in bisque state with my slugs in the background.

And in further stages of development.

Before final completion (not a good pic but I will add better ones soon.)

I usually hate my work when it’s finished, but I’m quite fond of this one. Perhaps it’s a case of better late than never.

 

 

 

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We Have Lost the Taste for Acorns.

About 2000 years ago the Roman philosopher Lucretius wrote: “We have lost our taste for acorns. So  we have abandoned those couches littered with herbage and heaped with leaves. So the wearing of wild beasts’ skins has gone out of fashion -skins yesterday, purple and gold today – such are the baubles that embitter human life with resentment.”*

We Have Lost the Taste for Acorns 2016

This is sadly as true today as it when he wrote it. And Lucretius was only backing up what Aristotle had written 300 years before him “The avarice of mankind is insatiable.”**

I have always loved acorns from the days when I played with them and pretended they were fairies’ goblets. I think I might have written already about the joys of a misspent childhood making oak apple ink.

So I started playing about with acorns and our lost appetites. (See the drawing above.)

For some reason, slugs came into mind.

I’ve always had a fondness for these much maligned molluscs – I remember a conversation round the fire at Tinkers Bubble*** about the uses for slugs and the only thing that anyone could come up with was drying them out and making them into something to mend shoe soles.

I just like the look of them.

So I started making my own versions of them.

Here they after I rubbed them with iron chromate.

I know they’re not realistic, more my poetic (or pathetic) vision of a slug.

I was going to lay them on a bed of oak leaves but in the end I decided not to.

Perhaps it seemed too cluttered and the leaves will come in for something else. Waste not want not – if it worked for Rodin it will work for me!

A less cluttered approach works better – I still use aesthetics in my approach to my work.

 

I have not lost the taste for acorns (or slugs).

*Lucretius: On the Nature of the Universe

** Aristotle: Politics

*** Tinkers Bubble is a small woodland community in Somerset which uses environmentally sound methods of working the land without fossil fuels. Well worth a visit.

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Egrets: I Have a Few.

Ever since I came back from Florence I’ve been thinking about egrets. In fact, I’ve already written about them here: The Lake of Lettuce

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The one pictured above is a lesser egret – you can tell by the black beak and the snazzy yellow feet. There are lots of greater egrets too. I took this picture some distance east on the south side of the river.

These beautiful birds had disappeared from the Arno but have recently returned and are now flourishing. There is one under every bridge, seemingly unfazed by the traffic and tourists and they have made a large roost to the south east of the Ponte Grazie, which they share happily with other heron species.

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

White Heron Painting by John James Audubon; White Heron Art Print for sale

The great wild life painter, John James Audubon painted egrets many times. He gave his name to the Audubon Society which is dedicated to bird conservation. They adopted the egret as their symbol because of the bird’s resilience and its ability to overcome the harsh predations of people who killed them just to get their crests of feathers for fashionable womens’ hats. At one time they sold for five dollars a go; the body of the bird would just be thrown away.

But the birds survived and I still have a fascination with them which I have been exploring in my sketchbook and sculpture.

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It’s very easy to make fanciful drawings of these fragile, elongated beautiess; so, so much harder to make the ceramic piece I had in my mind’s eye. Every time I tried to make the damn things they drooped and dwindled. But then I hit on the idea of holding them in place until they had stiffened enough to keep their shape. I used strips of thin bin liners as a sort of ‘hammock’ and it worked really well. I’m pleased with this technique and I shall use it again.

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I’ve reverted to my favourite conical structure for this piece and the ‘egrets’ have lugs that slot into the holes.

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The ‘crown’ was made separately in one  piece and sits nicely in place aided by an overlapping rim which stops it rocking.

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Various elements before assemblage – you can see the holes I made for the supporting wires on some pieces.

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I used Alasdair Kettles’ white earthenware, transparent glaze, Scarva underglaze colours and iron chromate gave the intense black. The whole piece is hand built.

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So all the elements were made separately and then slotted in – some of them have been wired in place internally to make them more secure but I have to say I’m not very happy with the finished piece and I want to remake it on a larger scale. At the moment it’s really not working for me.

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Have I mentioned that I’ve been accepted for a twelve week residency at Sundaymorning@EKWC – that’s the European Ceramic Work Centre at Oisterwijk in the Netherlands? I’m so thrilled about this fantastic opportunity and I mean to get the very most out of it and that is going include making larger work than has ever been possible for me before.

Watch this space!

 

 

 

 

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Forget What Did.

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‘ Forget what did. Have decided not to keep a journal anymore.’

So wrote Dorry, the younger brother, in ‘What Katy Did’ by Susan Coolidge. After a few short, sweet days he gave up the unequal struggle between recording the immediate past as opposed to living in the constantly enticing present. How I know that feeling.

Incidentally, I love the crickets on the cover and the play on words. A katydid is a common name for type of American grasshopper deriving (I think) from the sound the insect makes.

I love diaries. Nella Last is dear to my heart – more of her in a later post. I took my darling Samuel Pepys to Glastonbury (and enjoyed him more than Oasis) and Cecil Beaton’s private revelations have cheered many a darkening hour. I have often murmured to myself his thoughts on Coco Chanel: “She was a great genius, to whom all may be forgiven.” and found them strangely comforting.

However.

I have resolved to ‘keep a journal’ so many times in my life, and like Dorry, usually given up after a day or two. I always felt that if I didn’t record the day’s events I had failed so I would give up sooner rather than later. But why? Even Samuel Pepys confessed to writing up his diary in hindsight, even though he got up at day break and rarely went  to bed before midnight. (The hyperactive bastard). Incidentally, he looks more than a little like my husband in his younger days!

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But then I began to see that even before I kept this blog, my sketchbooks were a form of visual journal every bit as vital as a daily diary. And I have been making sketchbooks (although I didn’t call them that) since I was knee high to a Moleskin.

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I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to realise that a sketchbook kept over a year or so is as least as valid a diary as one written with a quill pen lit by candle light. Or that my blog has become a very accurate record of my position as an artist –  if I feel qualified to call myself one. And I have decided that a) I am an artist and b) I’m the only person who can make that decision. The sketchbook pictured above was part of my life from 2013-14.  I used to feel twitchy if it wasn’t adjacent to my thigh. Now I have moved on and it can happily stay on the shelf (unless I decide I need  it for reference).

This is a strange thing. Starting a sketchbook and being committed to it is (at least) as hard as commencing a new relationship. Right now I have a a cheeky new Pink Pig sketchbook and although I’m fairly confident I will grow to love it there is a problem about becoming comfortable with the yet to be broached blank pages. I’ve made a few tentative forays but I’m not at home yet.

I don’t use sketchbooks just for drawing. A vital part of my practice is about making the connections between what I feel / see and what I know /read. I started trying to express this by making actual networks in my studio.

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I used sheep wire from my home on a remote croft in north west Skye as a framework to underpin my thought processes. I pinned ideas, statements and books on the wire netting and laced them together with orange ribbon. There was a reason for using orange (possibly  my least favourite colour). When the Studio Jamming Symposium took place at the Cooper Gallery in 2014 I was lucky enough to be invited to take part. the show was curated by Marcus Miessen and he used certain key colours to identify  the main artists. Orange was not one of those colours so I used it as a connective strand in the sketchbook I was working on at that time.

Incidentally, it also brings back the gut wrenching stage fright just before I had to give my performance. I had not realised that the audience would be that big.

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I also use arrows to demonstrate how my thought processes flicker back and forwards. Sometimes this only becomes clear to me as I start the mapping process.

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And when you are thinking about Jean Francois Lyotard and his thoughts on sublimity it can be quite vexing to have Para Handy’s phrase ‘it’s chust sublime’ continually edging its way into your head. It helps to put it down in front of you and try to tease out the connections.

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I’ve recently been rereading Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther. Originally published as a series of weekly columns in The Times, the book has a journal like quality because it follows the course of a year or so in the life of the eponymous heroine. (I do like an opportunity to to use that word legitimately)!

This book would appeal to me anyway without the crystal clear prose and its engaging central character because of the diary element. And Mrs Miniver herself knew how important a diary was and took pains to choose the right one. She considered it to be ‘apparently trivial, but momentous by reason of their terrible intimacy’ and remembered once having bought a cheap and nasty engagement book that ‘annoyed her for twelve months; everything she put down in it looked squalid’. How I know that feeling – a sketchbook does not have to be expensive but it does have to feel right.

Mrs Miniver thought of the book as a ‘skeleton map of the year……glancing through it help months hence, would be  able to fill in many, though not all, of the details.’ And so it is  with my sketchbooks.

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goblits

The page above includes a receipt for the ‘goblits’ – my adorable, long coveted Siamese cats which I have already written about. I bought them from a now defunct antique shop on the Perth Road and I can still taste the triumph of finding them and later bringing them home.

Here are are two pages documenting some of my pronkstilleven research.

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I notice it includes some rather weedy notes about using Publisher – I can also remember the frustration I encountered when I had to use this programme. I ended up paying someone to do it for me!

More pleasant memories come from the sketchbooks I made in Florence.

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A halcyon day in late September climbing up to the Piazza de Michelangelo where I took a fortuitous picture of the bridges and noticed later that there was an egret fishing under the Ponte Vecchio. I have already written about egrets and there is more to come so I will refrain from banging on about the birds of the Arno just now.

Another page documents my experiments with poke weed ink, already faded since I tried it a year ago. If you look at the small photographs you can see the richness of the colour at the time.

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I don’t think the American Declaration of Independence can really have been written with it.

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Like Mrs Miniver, these sketch books were my intimate friends and form a sort of road map charting my artistic and personal experience. Below is a later one.

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Looking at it makes me want to go back and revisit some of those ideas which I don’t think I have finished with as yet. It also recalls the stress of the Masters Show install.

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still haven’t made that Quey Calves sculpture!

Bibliography

What Katy Did, Susan Coolidge, 1872

Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther, 1939

Tales of Para Handy, Neil Munro

Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, Jean-Francois Lyotard, 1994

Nella Last’s War:the Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife, 49.’

The Unexpurgated Beaton: the Cecil Beaton Diariess.

 

 

 

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Lares et Penates II: Knick Knacks

The Oxford dictionary defines a knick knack as a “cheap ornament, trinket, trifle, bauble, bric-a-brac, bagatelle, gimcrack, gewgaw, bibelot or kickshaw.” A sample sentence in the dictionary uses the word thus – “Her flat is overflowing with knick knacks.” But what is the significance of these charming (or not so charming) trifles? Do they have the power to influence an artist’s practice?

 

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Just one of the cluttered windowsills in Colbost House – overflowing with knick knacks!

I have already touched upon the significance of the objects we have about us to demonstrate status, sentiment and superstition. Now I want to examine the apparently eternal appeal of  of mass produced pottery. It may be that the permanent nature of a ceramic piece or the pliability of the material that allows it to take almost any shape and colour has an inherent appeal but whatever the reason there is something about pottery that is very compelling.  And I am not alone in my addiction.

Mark Twain wrote “it is the failing of the true ceramiker, or the true devotee in any department of brick-a-brackery, that once he gets his tongue or his pen started on his darling theme, he cannot well stop until he drops from exhaustion…. the very “marks” on the bottom of a piece of rare crockery are able to throw me into a gibbering ecstasy’.”* And although I’m more of a maker than a collector I know that I am not immune from the charms of a budgie shaped thermometer (yes, really) or yet another curiously shaped teapot.

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I bought the budgies in a junk shop in Crouch End in 1976. I believe they originated in the Dutch Jema factory and were probably made in the 50’s.

It seems that not a few modern ceramists have been drawn down the slippery slope by looking at their auntie’s collection of china pugs or the neighbours’ Beswick Siamese cats. Incidentally, how I craved these latter as a child but was never allowed one because my mother considered them ‘nouveau riche’. Now I have both the china pieces and the living felines, as well as the unfortunate addiction to ceramics.

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It was a joyful day when I found the Siamese cat hanging from the goblet. I found it (and its cousin) in the now sadly closed antique shop on perth Road. Notice also the fish gravy boat – it’s part of a whole service that came from Brick Lane Sunday market at least forty years ago.

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The other Siamese goblet – (I don’t like this one so much but it must be displayed adjacent to its cousin).

The rubber bambi was left on the railings outside my flat. I haven’t liked to throw it away. The clay mannikin was stranded in the MFASSP studio and I felt it needed a home. A dear friend sent me the Little Plum postcard and because I love both her and the book I have kept it. Rachel Hurdley has argued that “the cultural norm is to display things in the home for moral reasons.” It seems that I am compelled by some moral imperative even though I am not sure what it is.

The ceramist Richard Slee remembers “I had two spinster aunties. They lived in a terraced house that was full of pottery….terrific. I was fascinated with their knick-knacks…. ;but I’d gone to art school and had been imbued with Modernism, so that one felt almost guilty looking at this stuff.”** I often wonder about this; after all I’ve been to art school too (although I don’t think I have been imbued by Modernism). So it seems I’m far from being alone in my penchant for a ‘dainty rogue in porcelain’ – just as well – my mantelpieces are littered with the evidence of my weakness. I have serially collected ceramic fish, teapots, frogs, birds and anything glazed in green.

I came upon this enchanting piece in Perth. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the shop was closed because I know I would have had to buy it if only to find out that was so rude about the reverse side.

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And in the same shop – a Scottish Darby and Joan!

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Apologies for the quality of the last two shots – taken on my phone in quite difficult weather conditions. I would like to know the story of these pieces; who they used to belong to and how they ended up in the shop. Similarly I always wonder about pottery in charity shops – why are there always so many china bells, miniature teapots and pottery boots?

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There is an infinite pathos about these left over knick knacks. Perhaps they were once cherished and lovingly dusted by their owners or perhaps they were unwanted gifts that were kept (and displayed) to avoid giving offence. I will never know their stories but I will continue my ruminations in the next post.

 

*Twain, Mark, ‘A Tramp Abroad’.

** Houston, John, Richard Slee – Ceramics in Studio, Bellew Publishing 1990, p28.Richard Slee is an influential contemporary ceramist. His work has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Tate, St Ives.

*** “And still she may be a dainty rogue in porcelain.” – from The Egoist, George Meredith’s tragi-comical novel.

 

 

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Lares et Penates.

Henry Willet* once described the commonplace pottery ornaments on our mantelpieces as a ‘kind of unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates of the Ancients.’ The lares and penates were the household spirits of the ancient Romans. They were represented by small figurines and carefully kept in a special cupboard. The lars familias, the family spirit, was the most important. The penates were the spirits of the larder – they were often brought out at each meal and placed on the table. When the family moved house, their lares and penates moved with them.

I find myself intrigued by this idea; it seems to me to be as true today as it was a century or so ago. The Nelsons and Garibaldi’s of yesteryear have just been replaced by One Direction money boxes, Twin Towers memorial plaques or Barack Obama teapots.  I think I must agree with Henry Willett; the everyday pottery in our homes has as much to say about us as any ‘real art or grand design. It is important because it forms the surroundings of ordinary people, by which they identify themselves and mark the important moments of our lives.’

Last week I stood in front of a shop in Reform Street and counted ceramic Disney characters (by the score), dragons, various maidens and angels and a particularly nauseatingly twee collection of romantically themed pieces by Willowtree. My opinion is immaterial however, people buy this stuff because it means something special to them; these objects are latterday household gods and as such are treasured.

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I find these faceless figures both mawkish and menacing, but many people not only treasure them but attribute special powers to them. A cursory glance at the Willowtree website shows many gushing endorsements attesting to the powers of these figurines. Apparently they can do anything; cure a broken heart, attest to true love, even provide some consolation for the loss of a child. I was going to include some quotes from the site but have decided not to because if people find them important and comforting, it doesn’t matter that I think they are ugly, tacky and gimcrack; cashing in on the gullibility of the tasteless.

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I’m not alone in my dislike. There is a blog called “Stuff Christians Like.” (!!!!!) The author, one Jon Acuff goes rather further than I do. “when I see those “Willow Tree” figures Christians book stores sell. Those chill me to the core.
How come they don’t have features? How come they all look like they’ve had their noses smoothed away by some serial killer called “Mr. Sandpaper?” Honestly, I know I have seen horror movies where featureless people slowly hunt you. You can run, you can run as fast as you want, but they’re still coming. They’re still chasing and they always catch you even though they just walk with a slow plodding pace.
I don’t know where Willow Tree figures came from either. It almost feels like someone said, “Hey, let’s take those Precious Moments dolls, shave off their faces and carve them out of wood. That won’t be creepy, right?”

I don’t know the dolls he’s talking about but I’m with Mr Acuff all the way about the creepiness. But I’m still interested in why people collect ornaments and what they mean in their lives. The objects we have about us have greater value than strict functional utility; they are signifiers  of beauty, status, prestige and the reasons for their presence in our homes are complex. Ornaments may be acquired as gifts or to indicate social status, they may be part of a collecting habit (of which more later), bought just because they are fashionable or even be believed to have “special powers”. And sometimes they are kept purely for sentimental reasons even though their owner doesn’t actually like them.

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Vide this rather noisome trio of Toby jugs which live on a shelf in my mother’s kitchen. I had never really looked at them until I started researching what people have in their houses. I asked my mother why she had kept such an ugly set of ornaments (I was quite surprised because they look quite grubby and she is a fanatically clean housekeeper). She replied “Sentimentality.”

My younger sister brought them home as a present when she had been at Brownie camp some fifty years ago. During the course of the camp parental visits were allowed. My sister asked for 3/- to buy ‘something’ – apparently it was these jugs which cost a grand total of 4/11d (about 25p), she had the 1/11d already saved.

You can still read the price on the base.

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My mother doesn’t like the jugs much – indeed, she does think they look a bit grubby but she will never get rid of them. They are an important (if generally unremarked  part of her personal landscape).

Lares et penates indeed.

*Henry Willett (1823-1905) was one of those indefatigable Victorian collectors. His major passion was for pottery and porcelain, often of the cheapest and most mundane nature. Willett collected ceramics in order to tell the history of the British people. There are some 2000 pieces in his collection, most of them dating from 1600-1900. He catalogued them under 23 themes which cover all aspects of British history; royal and political, military and economic, social and cultural.

 

 

 

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