Here’s a picture of my latest purchase – another big brown pot to add both to my large collection of big brown pots, and to the mystification of many of those around me. I got it last week at Franklin Brown’s (http://franklinbrowns.co.uk/about.html), one of our local auction rooms here in Edinburgh. It cost me £38.00 plus buyer’s premium.
It’s a salt pig. Or, if you prefer, salt kit. Or salt crock. This type of object has picked up various names in different parts of Britain over the centuries since mediaeval times, but the design is always fairly similar: a tall rounded shape with a more or less vertical, often hooded circular opening. As the name suggests, it’s for storing salt so that it’s easily accessible for cooking use. The characteristic shape is supposed to help keep the salt dry in your steamy kitchen.
This particular salt pig is made in slipware. That’s earthenware coated and decorated with layers of semi-liquid clay (slip), and then covered with a transparent glaze and fired. It’s an old technique used in many parts of the world since ancient times. In Britain slipware production reached a peak in popularity and quality in the 17th century through the wares of potters such as Thomas Toft and his family. Since then, there have always been a certain number of country potters producing slipwares both for everyday kitchen use and for collectors. When the studio pottery movement got going in the early 20th century there was a slipware revival led by Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew. Both turned later in their careers to stoneware as their ceramic of choice, but their early slipware output was exceptional, and a major inspiration for later followers.
There are still a few celebrated slipware potters active today. My favourites are Hannah McAndrew and Douglas Fitch, both fabulous potters in their own right, but these days doing even better individual and joint work as a married couple. Frances and I commissioned a wonderful dinner service from Hannah last year, and the couple’s website at http://www.fitchandmcandrew.co.uk/ is a constant temptation.
Back to my new salt pig. It’s big and brown and fairly crudely made and decorated, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century. It’s unmarked and so impossible to be certain where it was made, but the style and the dark reddish-brown clay indicate that it’s most likely from Northern England or Scotland. The nearest images I can find online are identified as from Cumnock Pottery in Ayrshire, and I don’t think I’ll get a more definite identification than that.
I bought it thinking I’d sell it, because we already had a perfectly fine salt pig in daily use the kitchen, made in stoneware at Muchelney Pottery, Somerset, by John Leach, grandson of Bernard, purchased new just a few years ago from the shop in the restored Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. But I just had to try out the new slipware one to see how it looks, and it looks good. So I think it more than likely that I’ll be unable to part with it.
In case you were wondering whether my slipware salt pig counts as Random Treasure – well, there are many collectors willing to pay absurdly high prices for the best early items. A splendid Thomas Toft charger made between 1660 and 1675 sold at Christie’s earlier this year for £122,500. As for my piece, I expect I could re-sell it for a small profit but not for a fortune. So in money terms you couldn’t really regard it as treasure. But to me it is.
July 2022 update: When I wrote this piece I didn’t think I would get a definite identification of the pottery where my salt pig was made. But I was wrong. On a visit to the small Museum and Art Gallery in the town of Montrose, in Angus in the North-East of Scotland, I saw an almost identical object, clearly made in the same pottery and probably by the same potter. It was labelled as a product of Dryley’s Pottery in Montrose, which you can read about here.
By the way, the slipware salt pig is still in daily use in my kitchen. An indispensible item.