One morning last week, I passed two-and-a-half cold, damp, miserable hours cleaning my slabbed front garden path with a pressure washer borrowed from my friend Ron, stripping off a 20-year accumulation of dirt, moss and algae. A task which:
- is the kind of thing which as soon as you start it you wish you hadn’t;
- is the kind of thing which as soon as you start it you realise that you mustn’t stop until it’s finished, because a half-cleaned path is so much more unsightly than a non-cleaned one;
- is so boring and mindless that your brain wanders off in all directions in search of intellectual stimulus.
To divert my mind from depressing thoughts about the futility and tedium of life in the 21st century in one’s late sixties in retirement in the suburbs (all entirely irrational, because, to be honest, life’s pretty good), I focussed my attention on my blog. I have one or two ideas in mind for new pieces, but for various reasons I’m not quite ready to start writing them yet. So I needed a new idea. And, while spraying, it came to me.
I set myself a challenge. I made a Vow to myself to do a round of the charity shops of Leith that very afternoon. I promised myself to return home having bought something. I swore to myself that whatever the something turned out to be, it would become the subject of my next blog.
It wasn’t an easy challenge. The charity shops carry less bric-a-brac than usual at this time of year, with at least half of the shelves taken over by Christmas cards and other Yuletide merchandise.
Pickings were thin, and the results unspectacular, but I came home with two objects, and considered but decided against buying a further two.
The rejects: first, a small shallow single-handled bowl with a translucent pinkish glaze, undistinguished in every respect except for an impressed stamp on the base VALLAURIS. If I had selected this as my blogging subject, I could have happily spent hours plagiarising Wikipedia for the edification of my readers, setting forth the many joys of pots (including all those highly-decorated and highly-priced pots by Picasso) produced in the artisan pottery town of Vallauris in the Alpes-Maritimes department of South-eastern France. However, I didn’t buy the pot. It was boring. So I can’t blog about it.
Second, a plain stoneware ginger-beer bottle, entirely uninteresting except for an impressed mark showing that it was made by W A Gray & Co, of Midlothian Pottery, Portobello, a busy small town now forming an eastern suburb of the City of Edinburgh. The pottery ceased production in 1928 (or 1931 depending on which source you get your information from), and this bottle could easily have provided the basis for a blog piece including a summary of the complex history of ceramic production in Portobello, and/or a more general contemplation of the ubiquity and excellence of amateur research into local industrial history. But the bottle was badly cracked and overpriced, so I left it on the shelf in the shop.
Of the two objects which I brought home from my expedition, the first was a hardback second printing of Empire of the Sun, the celebrated novel by J G Ballard about the Japanese conquest of Singapore, published by Gollancz in 1984. I tend to buy early editions of books which have gone on to become famous, especially if, as in this case, they are in good condition and complete with the dust jacket. Sometimes these editions can be extremely rare, falling into the category of random treasure. For example, early printings of the first of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels (The Philosopher’s Stone or The Sorcerer’s Stone, depending on which side of the Atlantic you buy it) are valuable collector’s items. But in this instance, I soon found out by consulting the excellent (but not always trustworthy) Abebooks website* that this Ballard novel isn’t at all rare or valuable, even in its first impression. Nothing more to be said, except to note in passing that if you want to make fat profits from modern first editions, the trick is to find a copy of the writer’s very first book, written before he or she became famous.
And so to the final object from my modest haul. Don’t hold your breath for a big reveal – it’s not all that interesting, but it was the best thing I could find on a slow day in order to fulfil the terms of my self-imposed Vow.
As is very often the case with my purchases, it’s a jug. About 7.5 inches tall, probably holds a couple of pints, heavily wheelthrown in white earthenware. A slightly perfunctory polychrome floral underglaze decoration designed with a nod to the art deco taste. Thin fluted handle with a slight twist. If you hadn’t seen one of these pots before, you’d be strongly reminded of the much better-known Poole Pottery “Traditional” patterns and colourways designed by Truda Carter.
But if you have seen them before, you note at once that the potting and decoration are altogether looser and sketchier than anything produced at Poole Pottery, and you know before you upend the pot that it’s going to be marked on the base for Honiton Pottery. Sure enough, my jug has an impressed mark HONITON ENGLAND. It also has the number 33 and the letter M painted in black under the glaze.
Honiton Pottery has a very active Collectors’ Society**, with an extensive website relating the history of the pottery and a comprehensive gallery of images of pots and marks. So I’ve been able to find out quite a lot about my jug without making an enormous amount of research effort. The 33 on the base refers to the shape number. The pattern is called Jacobean. The letter M might be the initial of the decorator. The date of production might be between 1947 and 1951 – because the use of local red clay was phased out after 1947 to be replaced by bought-in white clay, and hand-throwing was discontinued by 1951.
My judgment of Honiton pots isn’t sufficiently well-formed to judge if this jug is a good or rare or desirable example – but I do know that if I were to re-sell it on eBay I wouldn’t get much more for it than the £5 that I paid in the charity shop. Even if a pottery is popular enough to engender a Collector’s Society, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the pots from that pottery are rare and valuable collector’s pieces.
The next question to ponder is whether I like this jug enough for it to find a permanent place in my collection? Well, yes I do quite like it in a homely, nostalgic, 1950s-retro sort of way, but somehow it doesn’t quite fit with the rest of my stuff, so I can’t really think of anywhere that I’d like to display it. On the other hand it would look cheerful with a bunch of spring flowers in it – but then any one of dozens and dozens of other similarly-sized jugs and vases would inevitably take precedence in the selection process. I might see if one or other of my daughters wishes to adopt it. Or I might give it back to the charity shop. Or it might end up in a box in the attic together with all the other quite-nice pots destined for disposal at a car boot sale where I intend to sell all my surplus pots at some indeterminate (and improbable) future time.
However, this modest Honiton jug has served its purpose for the time being. I have enjoyed my brief encounter with it; I have learned quite a lot about its pottery which I didn’t know before; it has fulfilled the terms of my self-imposed Vow by furnishing me with subject matter for this blog posting; and – who knows? – it might even provide some interest and diversion for my readers.
P.S. Confession time. Yesterday I happened to wander back into the charity shop where I had seen the boring pink Vallauris bowl which I mentioned earlier in this piece. It was still there, still pinkish, still pedestrian and uninteresting. But this time it looked at me expectantly. And of course I had to buy it. Here’s its picture.
* https://www.abebooks.co.uk/. When I say that Abebooks is untrustworthy, I mean that book prices shown will often give a very unrealistic impression of actual market value. You can learn from Abebooks lots of basic information about the edition or rarity or availability of a book, but for an idea of the current value, it’s always best to research auction records.