A few posts ago I wrote about my favourite thing. This time: my least favourite.
I suppose it’s fairly normal for people to have a few decorative items in their houses which they heartily dislike. It might be an inherited ornament which you feel you have to keep for sentimental reasons; or something which you abhor and have been meaning to get rid of for decades but just haven’t got around to replacing; or perhaps it’s merely filling a space on your shelf or your wall until you can find or afford something more to your taste.
I’m fortunate in not having very many such objects in the house. There’s an awful oak-cased mantel clock which was the pride and joy of an aunt who died a couple of years ago aged 96. She specifically left it to me in her will, so it would be disloyal to get rid of the ghastly thing. And in the attic there’s a candlestick made from a taxidermy deer’s leg, which gives us all the creeps (no photo – too ghastly!). But engraved upon its base is an inscription dated 1904 saying it was presented to Frances’s grandfather, so it has to remain with us as a family heirloom (at least until we can find some unsuspecting relative to pass it on to).
Otherwise, we have been fairly scrupulous in weeding out unattractive stuff and only having objects in the house which we both like. This effort has been helped by the fact that Frances and I have rather similar tastes.
Of course this is a field in which most people have no impediments to making their own choices. If you’ve got stuff you don’t like, throw it out and get stuff you do like.
Now, I can hear some readers of this blog saying “that’s all very well for la-di-da bourgeois people such as you, but most folk just can’t afford to buy all the things they like”. I don’t accept that. To be attractive and beautiful it doesn’t need to be expensive luxury goods and big brand names and Wedgwood and Louis Vuitton. What I’m talking about here is the stuff in our homes that we see and use day to day – what’s on your shelf, in your cupboard, on your wall – and it’s entirely possible to fill (or in my case to overfill) a house with lovely things without spending much at all.
Then you might say “well it all depends on what you mean by lovely”. I don’t accept that either. I’m well aware that many of the objects that I think of as beautiful – which as often as not might be a sludgy brown bowl or a worn-out rug or a wormy piece of woodcarving or an abstract painting – other people will find ugly. But if you choose to make the effort, you can find objects that suit your own particular individual taste, whatever that may be, and it won’t require a big budget to furnish and ornament your living space to your aesthetic satisfaction.
The point I’m trying to make is that by and large, people can avoid having stuff in their homes which they don’t like. If you scan the interior of your home and can see objects which make you think “I hate that. I wish I could get rid of it and get something I like instead”, then you probably can.
As you know, my way to beautify my surroundings is to spend very small amounts in charity shops and local auctions. If I consider something beautiful, then I won’t worry too much about what it is, or its condition, or who made it or how old it is. For example I would rather have broken or reproduction Italian maiolica pottery on my shelves than none at all. But if you don’t like old things or buying second-hand, then there are lots of places on the high street and the internet where one can cheaply fulfil a need for brand new lovely things. Motivation and effort are so much more important than money.
My reason for subjecting readers to the foregoing musings is to take as long as possible to avoid making a confession. But no more shilly-shallying. Here goes. Last week I deliberately bought something which I find deeply unappealing and unattractive.
Now, why would someone do anything as silly as that? Because I want to sell it on at a profit? Nope. Because I know someone else who’d think it beautiful and want to pass it on to them? Nope. Because I want to keep looking at it to see if I can learn to love it? Nope. Because I want to learn something about it? Ahhh, we’re getting warm.
Here it is. Another piece of studio pottery, which is my main current collecting interest. To be precise, another sludgy brown bowl. It cost me £1.50 in a charity shop in Portobello. It’s 7 inches across, hand-thrown in a dark grey earthenware, with a mottled oatmeal glaze and applied (or “sprigged”) vine leaves and bunches of grapes. It is quite professionally and neatly potted, well-finished and generally inoffensive. I won’t tell you who made it, because she is still an active potter. I don’t know how she feels today about her 1970s production, but I will tell you how I feel about it.
There was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, founders of the studio pottery movement, together with their followers, makers of deceptively simple but sophisticated hand-crafted wares, were cool. When St Ives Pottery standard ware was sold in Heal’s, when Lucie Rie was invited to exhibit at the Festival of Britain, when trendy Cranks vegetarian restaurants served meals on Winchcombe Pottery plates. And since around 2010, interest has begun to revive: auction prices for Rie and Hans Coper and a few others have gone through the roof; Grayson Perry is a darling of the intelligentsia; the Great Pottery Throwdown is a TV success.
But between then and now, there was a period of thirty or forty years when studio pottery went into a dip, fashion-wise. There were plenty of superb potters working throughout that period making wonderful pots – Phil Rogers, Jim Malone, Mike Dodd, Richard Batterham, Joanna Constantinidis, Ray Finch, Alan Wallwork, John Maltby, Janet Leach, to pick a few out of many. But by and large their work was fairly uniformly neglected, and their craft was carried on in a cultural backwater. Studio pottery was in the doldrums.
Blog readers, prepare yourselves! I’m about to come out with one of the most outrageous generalisations that I can recall having made, and I say that as one who has made many. Question: why did studio pottery go so steeply out of fashion in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s?
Answer: because of this bowl.
I said it was inoffensive, but it offends me. You might describe it as an object of its time (the 1970s), but I wouldn’t. To me it’s timelessly horrible. There is something so irredeemably dreary about it – no grace, no elegance, no style, no joy, no wit, no romance, no spark. It embodies everything that is dull, boring and depressing, all the unimaginativeness and lack of creativity that caused the studio pottery movement’s descent into a downward spiral in the late 20th century. It darkens the world around itself. As a piece of design, of craft, of art, it’s a black hole.
As you can tell, it arouses a strong antipathy in me. I disliked it the moment I saw it. So why did I buy it? I have my reasons.
Studio potters (Grayson Perry, Johnny Vegas and a few others excepted) tend to be a self-effacing bunch and if they sign their work at all, they usually do so with their initials only, generally in the form of an impressed monogram seal but sometimes incised in the clay or written on the underside using glaze. There’s a big book of pottery marks* which many collectors use to identify pieces by potters that they don’t know. But while the marks book contains the names and marks of many hundreds of potters, there is still a vast number whose pieces remain unidentified and whose names are lost to history. To many of us (nerdy) collectors the research is a bit of a game, and there are at least two active internet discussion groups where we help each other to find out who made our mystery pots§.
This particular bowl, repellent as it is, is unusual in retaining on its side a paper sticker giving the name and location of the pottery (which I won’t be showing you). On its base are the initials of the potter. So I bought it in order to do the research – to find out if either the pottery or the potter is listed in the book. Which they aren’t.
It’s lucky to find a pot which still has its original maker’s label, because you might just have an important piece of information to add to the incomplete body of knowledge held by mystery pot aficionados. In this case online searching revealed that the pottery and the potter were both known, but not in relation to particular pots. Finding the label and monogram together on my bowl enabled me to make a conclusive identification.
By posting photos of the bowl, the label and the monogram on one of the discussion forums, I’ve helped other collectors to identify their mystery pieces bearing the same initials. And in addition, my photos have been placed on permanent record for the next time the marks book is updated.
A small success, of almost no significance, but still a success.
However, this minor re-discovery of an identity lost to scholarship doesn’t reconcile me to the object itself. It isn’t random treasure. I still hate it. It can’t stay in the house. It’s going back to the charity shop.
P.S. In my book Random Treasure there’s another story about an ugly brown bowl. If that makes you think I have some kind of prejudice against brown bowls, you’re wrong. Here for light relief is a selection of some of the brown and brownish bowls in my collection that I do like. There are examples here from Scotland, England, Wales, Japan, China and Sweden.
*British Studio Potters Marks, by Eric Yates-Owen and Robert Fournier, third edition updated and edited by James Hazelwood, Bloomsbury, 2015 , originally published at £85.00 but recently remaindered and now available much cheaper from here: https://www.psbooks.co.uk/British-Studio-Potters-Marks-9781408183502?gclid=Cj0KCQjw0K7NBRC7ARIsAEaqLRGWOxaNmFUcjgQlsNsPSIteVUcj-oFGxtWLZ5y2AQvQMWZ0FiypwmUaArnJEALw_wcB