One day last week a garden bird got in amongst the pots in my summer house. The door had been left open, facilitating access for this tiny visitor, who I believe was a male great tit.
I pretentiously use the term Summer House for what is little more than a shed, and I equally pretentiously (or more so) use the term Reserve Collection to describe the random assortment of around 70 pots displayed therein upon rough timber shelves and ledges.
At large for some minutes among the reserve collection, the little bird hopped engagingly from pot to pot before finally working out how to make an exit. Then away he flew, leaving no damage behind and no evidence of his visit, other than a small whitish deposit on the neck of an unattractive bottle vase made by the enigmatic and mysterious Edinburgh potter who might or might not have been called Derek Beaver.
During the bird’s brief sojourn, I was able to take his photograph as he rested momentarily on the top rim of a large black-glazed stoneware jug with finger-wipe decoration. Cute, eh?
I can’t tell you the name of the potter who made this jug because I don’t know it. Same goes for the jugs on either side. Their anonymity is one reason why they are in the reserve collection. Another reason is that there is no space left for them in the house. A third reason is that I judged them just slightly too attractive to be demoted to the jumble of almost-forgotten pots in the attic, for which I pretentiously use the term Research Collection.
Seeing a real live bird perched on a jug somehow made me think about the long and close association between birds and pots. Birds have appeared on pottery made by all civilisations and all cultures for at least four thousand years. Since the time of the Minoans, or perhaps for much longer, ceramic objects have been made either in the shape of birds or with bird decoration. My impression – and it is only an impression not backed up by any evidence – is that out of all the types of animals depicted in pottery by human craftspeople, birds predominate. Naturally I’ll be very happy to have this wild assertion disputed or disproved.
I don’t intend to regale Random Treasure blog readers with a full and detailed history of birds on pots. Presumably many readers will be quite pleased about this. What I intend to do instead is to illustrate my own current relationship with birds on pots by showing you objects with ornithological associations selected from my collection (main, reserve and research sections).
So, here are about 25 birds on fourteen pots, from six countries, covering at least four centuries. I’ll describe them in more or less chronological order, starting in the early 18th century, finishing in the early 21st. Plus one anomaly.
Porcelain phoenix bowl
This damaged and restored porcelain bowl was made in China during the long reign of the Kangxi emperor (1654-1722). It features three underglaze blue phoenix birds following each other in an endless chase. When new, as a cheaply-made and simply-decorated blue-and-white vessel, it was exported to Europe, probably as part of a huge consignment of pottery used as ballast in the hold of a great sailing ship of the Dutch East India Company. On arrival in Holland, it was deemed too plain for fashionable taste, and the product was given a bit more pzzazz and a much higher retail price by overpainting the blue phoenixes in red, black and green enamels. This process, known as clobbering, was probably carried out in Amsterdam. It isn’t a rare or valuable object, but it’s a fascinating story.
Sparrow beak jug
Oh dear, only on my second object and already I’ve strayed from my purpose by showing you a pot which doesn’t have a bird on it. There is, however, an ornithological connection in that this shape of jug is known, for obvious reasons, as a sparrow beak jug. This was originally a shape made in silver, but the early porcelain manufacturers copied the form from around the middle of the 18th century, and it was very popular for cream jugs for the next several decades. If I were an expert on early English porcelain I would be able to identify the factory and date fairly precisely, but unfortunately I’m not, and the best guess I can make is that it could be from the Caughley factory in Shropshire, made around 1770-1780. What I do know, however, is that it’s small (just 4” tall), delicate, elegant and very pretty. I bought it in an auction as a present for Frances, who keeps it on her dressing table.
Stoneware oval plate
This 7-inch wide plate was probably made either as an underplate for a sauce tureen or as a part of a miniature tableware set for children. It’s made in a type of stoneware often described as ironstone, a tough vitreous pottery fired at a high temperature which was developed very early in the 19th century and thereafter mass-produced by dozens or hundreds of Staffordshire potteries. In this case, the plate has a STONE CHINA mark on the underside in the form used in the 1820s by the firm of Hicks and Meigh (later Hicks, Meigh and Johnson) of Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. The pattern, transfer-printed in blue and then hand-coloured, is known as the Exotic Bird pattern and was copied by many factories. For example, I have another plate in the same pattern made around the same time at the Davenport factory in Longport, Stoke-on-Trent.
Salt-glazed coffee pot
I acquired this pot cheaply in an auction quite recently and I absolutely love it! A salt-glazed coffee pot with no maker’s mark, but typical of the wares made in the middle of the 19th century at several potteries around Brampton, to the west of the town of Chesterfield in Derbyshire. It’s 9 inches tall and thickly but finely potted in a robust stoneware, with sprigged decoration and a rich, glossy brown salt glaze all over. Sprigging is a form of decoration made in moulds and applied to the clay body before firing. This pot is included here because of the sporting subject matter of the sprigs – a pheasant seeking cover on the side that you can see in the photo, and a running hare on the other side. The garland of flowers around the collar of the pot combines roses, thistles and shamrocks – surely chosen to ensure that this object would have a ready marketplace in English, Scottish and Irish china shops at the time when it was made, perhaps around 1850.
Salt-glazed jelly mould
I don’t own many salt-glazed pots, so the inclusion of this piece immediately after the last might give an unbalanced view of my collection. As far as I can recall it came as part of a job lot with some other object that I wanted, but since it’s quite interesting and attractive I thought I’d show it here. From the look of the clay, the construction and the salt-glazing, I suspect it’s another Brampton product from the second half of the 19th century – a moulded stoneware two-pint jelly mould with a splendid, sharply-defined intaglio swan in its base. One day, when I have nothing better to do, I’m going to use it for its culinary purpose. My jelly will be made in two layers, with the first half-inch prepared with milk instead of water, and left to set. The remainder will then be coloured with blue food colouring. When it’s turned out, the result will be a magnificent three-dimensional white swan gliding upon a lake of blue. If I ever do this, I’ll document it. Stand by – I feel a new blog piece coming on.
Majolica rooster plate
This plate bearing a finely moulded portrait of a rooster was a recent charity shop purchase. I wouldn’t normally have bought it, but we were on a visit to a small Scottish town (can’t remember where or why), and I just happened to see it on a high shelf propped against the wall behind a jumble of the worst kind of charity-shop dross. My efforts at getting it down to inspect the underside caused the noisy collapse of a number of adjacent items on the shelf, in turn causing the volunteer staff behind the counter to stop chattering amongst themselves and, as one, give me a hard stare. Rather than attempt to get it back up onto the shelf again and risk further embarrassment, I paid my two quid and beat a hasty retreat. The plate is high-quality French majolica, made by Hippolyte Boulenger et Cie at Choisy-le-Roi on the outskirts of Paris, around 1900. Not rare, not valuable, perhaps not very attractive, but an unusual object to find in a charity shop in a small Scottish town.
Vienna Birds plate
This plate is from a dessert set comprising eight plates and two shallow dishes, decorated with a range of transfer-printed, hand-coloured and unlikely-looking birds, set within a wide underglaze blue border with a red-painted edge. The series of transfer patterns is known as Vienna Birds, the maker is Spode, and the date of manufacture is some time in the first decade of the 20th century. It’s a very colourful set and looks especially good laid out on a white damask tablecloth. Unlike almost all of my pots, these are not a purchase but an heirloom. Or, to be precise, I appropriated them from my parents, along with a small number of other items, when they retired in 1979 from their pub, the Queen’s Head, and downsized to a small flat where display space was very limited. My parents had in turn appropriated the set several years earlier, from their regular customer Michael, a louche individual in possession of a private income, a local manor house, and a huge Afghan hound called Abdul. Michael, accompanied by Abdul, spent most of his waking hours sitting at the saloon bar counter drinking himself into near-oblivion. The colourful Spode dessert set was surplus to his domestic requirements, and he thought it would look nice displayed on a high shelf in the bar amidst the oak beams and polished horse brasses. He was correct, of course. When Michael died, no-one asked for the plates to be returned, and their ownership passed by default to my parents and thence to me.
Earthenware rooster plate
Aside from the indisputable facts that (a) it is a pottery plate, (b) it is French and (c) it has a rooster on it, this object couldn’t be much more different from the Choisy-le-Roi majolica plate described earlier. Whereas the majolica example represents industrial mass production at the start of the 20th century, this earthenware piece emerges from a unique coming-together of traditional French terracotta wares with 1950s modernism, in the pottery town of Vallauris, in the Annecy region of South-East France. By the end of the Second World War, most of the dozens of ancient artisan potteries in the town were moribund, and it took the arrival of two great artists to revive the local craft and transform Vallauris into a major international centre for modern ceramics. The lesser of these two artists was Roger Capron (1922-2006), whose Atelier Capron “earned global recognition for its brightly colored vases, jugs, pitchers and other pieces” . This 13-inch plate is not brightly coloured, but was made in white earthenware with much of the space filled with a big bold rooster painted in black by Capron. And who was the other artist who arrived in the late 1940s to live in Vallauris and work in ceramics? You might have heard of him: Pablo Picasso.
Modernist bird bowl
I don’t think I could hazard a guess as to what species of bird is portrayed on this shallow bowl. The best I can do is to say that it is a 1950s bird, which evolved and then became extinct in a short period of years after the Second World War. As did the pottery which made it, Priddoe’s studio pottery of Paignton, Devon, which existed from 1954 to 1964. The bowl is made in earthenware and covered with a shiny black glaze layer over a white glaze, and the decoration is achieved by scratching the pattern through the black slip into the under layer using the sgraffito technique. I don’t know much about Peter and Mary Priddoe and their short-lived pottery, but if all their products shared the quality and attractiveness of this bowl, then it’s a great pity that they didn’t keep going for longer and become much better known.
Slipware rooster plate
Another rooster, this time in slip-glazed red earthenware, continuing into the second half of the 20th century the great folk art tradition of decorated English slipware which has survived for four hundred years or more. But this oval plate isn’t quite as English as it seems because it was made by a potter who came to England from Germany. Dieter Kunzemann (1928-2010) was born in Leipzig, and joined the Cotswold potter Chris Harries at the Coldstone Pottery around 1958, where he learned to pot in the traditional slipware fashion, and also married the boss’s daughter. In 1967 he set up his own pottery a few miles away at Evenlode. Kunzemann most often used a decorative motif on his pieces featuring ears of wheat, or sometimes fishes. I’ve only been able to trace one other piece by him which is decorated with this simply-drawn rooster.
Oribe glazed plate
This 10-inch plate was made in the last quarter of the 20th century in the Kasen pottery located in the Akatsu district of the city of Seto in Japan. The potter was (probably) Hiroshige Kato, the twelfth generation master of the pottery, which has been in existence making traditional wares since the 17th century. Or it is possible that the potter was his father, the 11th kiln master. Or someone else entirely, because the plate is unmarked and I’m only able to attribute it to this pottery because I bought it together with two very similar marked plates which have been positively identified by Japanese pottery experts. The plate is made in a beige stoneware and partially glazed with dark green oribe glaze. It’s only when I look at this kind of traditional domestic ware that I realise just how little I know about Japanese pottery. The colourful satsuma and imari and moriage pieces redolent of European and American interior décor in late Victorian times were produced in Japan solely for export, to suit middle class westerners’ insatiable demand for Japonisme. The actuality is that Japanese ceramics are infinitely varied, vastly complex and often devastatingly beautiful. My opinion of this plate, with its flock of ten simply drawn birds flying over a rice field, is that it’s a total knockout. I don’t understand anything about it, but I love it.
Slipware mug and money box
These charming pieces were made in the 21st century, just a handful of years ago. The potters are Hannah McAndrew (mug) and Douglas Fitch (money box), a husband-and-wife team who pot in their own very distinctive styles, bringing the British slipware tradition right up to date in their pottery near Castle-Douglas in South-West Scotland. Hannah decorates her pots with slip-trailing in contrasting colours, and the Birdie Mug is one of her signature pieces. Doug uses mainly applied or sgraffito decoration and makes many of these bird-topped money boxes, some with great clusters of birds clinging to their roofs. They are well-known and popular potters and their regular online and gallery exhibitions are always a sellout. My collection features several pieces from each of them and the number is likely to keep growing.
Of all the pieces of pottery that I own (and believe me, I own a lot), I have probably spent more time puzzling over this object than any other. It’s a mystery which I have written about before, but am going to do so again because it’s got a bird on it and thus fits in with this blog post. A red-bodied fritware bowl in the klapmuts shape, covered with a cream slip, sgraffito-decorated with a fantastical mythical peacock, with added green and brown colouring in the sancai palette. It is in the style of pottery wares produced in a number of different locations over several centuries of the middle ages. So when was it made? Don’t know, but it was produced at some indeterminate date at more or less any time in the millennium between the years 1000 and 2000. And where was it made? Don’t know, but it could have been made in Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Cyprus or Italy. What type of pottery is it? Don’t know, but it could be Aghkand, Nishapur, Bamiyan or Port Saint Symeon ware or even maiolica arcaica. And is it a genuine mediaeval period piece or a more modern fake? Don’t know. I’ve shown pictures of it to a number of experts and received mixed opinions. If it’s old, why is it in such good condition? But if it’s modern, why does it have glaze losses and white salt deposits characteristic of long-term burial? If it’s genuine, how did it get into my local auction? But if it’s fake, why can’t I find any evidence of other fake examples of this type of ware? Don’t know, don’t know. It worries me, but I love it.
Having given you an account of some of my pots featuring birds, I feel that I should now provide readers of this blog post with a fitting conclusion – an erudite commentary; a morsel of wisdom; a spot of enlightenment; a touch of profundity; a philosophical disquisition on meaning and significance; a distillation of the knowledge, experience, understanding, scholarship and taste of the exquisite connoisseur and collector at the top of his game.
But please excuse me if I dodge this part. My hope is that you have enjoyed reading this piece in all its superficiality, as nothing more and nothing less than some nice pictures of pots with birds on them, accompanied by short and hopefully informative descriptions. Afraid that’s the best I can offer.