Is there a point at which an object stops being a piece of art or craft or an antique and becomes something which is only fit for landfill? Is there a level of damage at which the item’s condition is simply unacceptable to the collector, who is compelled to discard it regardless of its other merits?
It’s all relative. Depends on the object. Depends on the collector.
I’ve blogged about damaged objects before: a broken Chinese dish, a clapped-out Persian rug, an ancient Greek oil flask with no handle or neck, a studio pottery cup with no saucer. Am I obsessed with imperfection? Am I irresistibly drawn to breakage?
No, I don’t think so. Tempting as it might be, I don’t think it’s necessary to seek a deep and complex psychoanalytic explanation for my relationship with damaged goods. Deploy Occam’s razor. Seek the simple answer. Here it is:
For me, buying a proportion of damaged items is inevitable because of my low-budget, bottom-feeding approach to acquisition. If I want to buy a high-quality, high-interest item, the likelihood is that it will be in low-quality, low-demand condition.
That’s it. If I like an object and find it interesting, and if its price is within my budget, then condition is a secondary consideration. Hence, the dish, the rug, the flask, the cup. But does this policy have limits? Is there a point at which I’ll say a firm NO – this object is too damaged: I’ll give it a miss.
It seems not. Here’s the proof: I have bought a teapot with no lid. Twice.
The broken Chinese dish was excusable because it had an interesting repair (you can read about it here). The clapped-out Persian rug was of a rare and special type (here). The ancient Greek oil flask cost me a mere 54 pence (here). The cup with no saucer was made by the most famous studio potter ever (here and here). But teapots with no lids? Seriously?
I guess I could in my defence point out that in 2018 the Metropolitan Museum in new York paid £575,000 in an auction in Salisbury, England, for a teapot which not only had no lid, but also had chips to the top rim and spout, a crack in the body, and a broken-and-repaired handle. It’s a wreck – but it was made before 1770 by John Bartlam in South Carolina, which makes it the earliest surviving porcelain teapot known to have been made in America (https://youtu.be/w4AzH9sGBQk) . Otherwise it would be in the bin.
I could also argue that lidless teapots are an actual thing, so it’s OK to buy them. Take, for example, the Cadogan teapot. It has a one-piece construction with no lid.
“The shape of this teapot is known as “Cadogan” and it was copied from a Chinese porcelain wine-pot in the collection of the Earl of Cadogan. It was filled upside down through a tube running from the base into the upper part of the interior, so that it can be turned the right way up and no liquid will escape. These ‘teapots’ have also been called coffeepots but it is generally thought that they were probably used for hot water in the tea or coffee making process as they would have been difficult to clean if filled with a coloured liquid.”
I don’t own a Cadogan teapot. You occasionally see them coming up in auctions and generally they sell fairly cheaply, but not cheaply enough for me. I’d quite like to have an early example from the Rockingham factory because I love their rich glossy brown glaze, but it’s not high on my shopping list so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have one.
But with the notable exceptions of Bartlam and Cadogan examples, there’s really no excuse for a lidless teapot. You can’t use it. You can’t display it. Or perhaps you can. On reflection I believe I might have seen pictures of such things converted into garden pots with plants growing out of them. I might even have heard of them being hung from trees for use as bird nesting boxes. Nonetheless, I stick to my assertion that there’s no excuse for a lidless teapot.
And yet I have bought one. Twice. Perhaps I should attempt to explain myself.
One day about five years ago I happened to be driving across the Isle of Skye heading for the ferry to visit friends on the neighbouring small island of Raasay. Somewhere along the way I noticed, just off the road, a tumbledown shed in front of which were ranged several rickety tables piled with junk. Even as I approached at some 40 miles per hour I was able to discern that this was my kind of spot, a place where a sufficiently deep detritus dive might unearth treasure of a more than usually random nature. And so it did. I stopped the car and insisted that Frances and I should investigate. The piles of junk weren’t only on the tables before the shed. They were also inside the shed. A regular Aladdin’s cave of barely-sorted, low-grade bric-a-brac crowded on shelves and tables throughout a surprisingly large and unsurprisingly decrepit interior, attended by just the sort of crusty, unwelcoming old bloke that you would expect to be in charge of an amenity such as this. Oh, it was heaven!
As you might expect, I stayed long enough to try my long-suffering wife’s patience, and long enough to convince myself firstly that the bloke knew perhaps a little more about his stock than appeared from his mode of display, and secondly that no matter how deep I might delve, I wasn’t going to find a crock of gold.
Upon leaving I took a careful mental note of precisely where on the island this marvel of the junk-purveyor’s métier was located. But the next time I travelled that road, a couple of years later, there was no sign of a building of any kind having ever stood upon that spot. Perhaps I had imagined it? Perhaps it was a mirage?
No, it must have been real because I bought three pots there and I still have two of them. The one I don’t have any more was a small bowl by the interesting potter Robert Tinnyunt which I subsequently sold on eBay. The second item was a fine early stoneware plate from Winchcombe pottery, almost certainly made by the wonderful potter Raymond Finch but sadly without his personal seal; and my third acquisition was a teapot with no lid. Think I paid £22, comprising £15 for the plate and £7 for the bowl. After some gentle haggling, the lidless teapot was thrown into the transaction for free.
Technically I didn’t buy it because the chap in the shop gave it to me free and for nothing. Technically I did buy it because it was a zero-priced component of a commercial transaction.
But why on earth did I want it? Because of who made it. The free lidless teapot was a fine ash-glazed stoneware piece by the celebrated potter Mike Dodd who is based in Glastonbury, Somerset. I wouldn’t care to speculate how it got to the Isle of Skye or how it lost its lid, but I like this potter’s work and have a few of his pieces. He’s particularly well known for his teapots, so finding one in a junk shop, albeit lidless, was exciting for me, even though it failed to stir many emotions a little later when I proudly displayed it to our friends on Raasay. But I had to have it, didn’t I? Perhaps I thought that I might be able to find a lid for it somewhere sometime, but in the meantime it could stay in the attic, an incomplete but splendid example of a great potter’s work.
When I got the teapot home, I contacted Mike Dodd through his website and asked if he could make me a lid. He replied promptly that he just happened to have a matching spare lid lying about in his pottery, which he would send to me for the price of the postage. Which he did. And it matches. And it fits. And now I have a beautiful and complete Mike Dodd teapot displayed in a prominent place in my dining room. So this part of my lidless teapot story has a happy ending.
I hope you’re pleased, because the next chapter is very much more problematic.
My second purchase in the teapot-with-no-lid category came from an Edinburgh charity shop. As soon as I spotted it, I knew I had to have it, so I took it up to the person at the cash desk and asked him if by any chance the missing lid might have been misplaced in the stockroom, and could he please have a look? He didn’t seem all that responsive even when I said I would pay more for the lid than the shop was asking for the teapot, but he said he’d look later, and would keep it aside for me to collect on my next visit. So I made it my business to return after a few days (at some personal inconvenience because the shop wasn’t in my part of town), and was met with blank stares. No-one in the shop (including the person to whom I had spoken a few days previously) had the least recollection or knowledge of my lid quest, and no-one was interested in helping me. The best they could do was say, oh yes, I remember now, that weird teapot came in without a lid, which, in fact, was probably true, but didn’t make me feel any less resentful and bitter towards them and their charity.
Now, although this teapot is unfortunately missing its lid, it does have the benefit of being fitted with two spouts. It’s a double teapot, with a division down the centre and a compartment on either side, each with its own spout, and a loop handle over the top to facilitate the pouring of liquid in either direction. So you might, for example, have tea in one side and milk in the other, or tea in one side and coffee in the other. Cunning, eh? Merely by virtue of its very unusual design it is just the kind of thing which might appeal to my eclectic and frankly bizarre taste in ceramic objects.
But would I have bought it sans lid if its quirky two-spout design was its only attraction for me? No I don’t think so. I’d have thought “that’s interesting – a two spouted teapot. Pity the lid is missing”, and I’d have moved on. In actual fact the no-lid-two-spouts configuration wasn’t what caught my eye at all. No, it was the names of the designer and the maker, incised prominently not upon the base of the teapot but on the horizontal bridge over the division between the two internal compartments. A cursive capital R , three crowns, SVERIGE and the name NYLUND. To be honest, with those credentials, I’d have bought it if it were missing not only its lid but its spouts too.
Let me explain. The R and three crowns is the logo for Rorstrand ceramics, SVERIGE is Swedish for Sweden, and NYLUND is the personal signature of Gunnar Nylund (1914-1997), the lead designer for Rorstrand from 1931 to 1958 and one of the most important and celebrated modernist pottery designers of the twentieth century.
In the 71 posts that I have written to date in my Random Treasure blog, I don’t remember mentioning before that I’m quite a big fan of modern Scandinavian pottery. It all started a few years ago when I spotted in one of my local auction rooms a large ceramic table lamp which I thought might look good on the mahogany dower chest in our downstairs hall. Many of the items in the sale were from the personal collection of the proprietor of a very upmarket Edinburgh interior design business who had recently died, and prices were a little higher than usual, so I pushed the boat out slightly and, if I recall aright, finally secured the lamp for £65.
When I got it home and looked closely at it, I realised that the lamp had in fact been converted from a very large vase. But unusually the vase had not been “lamped” by having a hole drilled in its base for the cable to pass through, an evil practice which has caused the ruination of countless thousands of magnificent vases of all kinds since the dawn of the age of electricity. Instead, the lamp had been thoughtfully constructed with the cable emerging from the side of the electric lamp assembly, which had been inserted gently and non-permanently into the vase’s mouth. So if you took the electric bits out, you got a perfect vase, and if you put the electric bits back in, you got a perfect lamp.
Having simply deconstructed the lamp into a vase, I inverted it for inspection and cleaning, and discovered after some research that it was made in the Rorstrand factory by the famous potter Carl-Harry Stalhane (1920-1990). I also discovered that two virtually identical vases had recently been sold in a London auction for £3,750 each, which knowledge somehow enhanced the attractiveness of my new acquisition. Then I turned the vase back into a lamp, bought a new shade for it, placed it on the hall chest, and use it daily as one of the most valuable but least acknowledged objects in my collection.
Thereafter I became interested in Stalhane and bought a few pieces by him, but soon gave up because they tended to be much too expensive for me. Along the way, I read about his life and learned that his mentor and predecessor as lead designer at the Rorstrand factory was none other than Gunnar Nylund. That’s why I got excited when I spotted my two-spouted teapot, and that’s the reason I had to buy it, even in its lidless state.
I won’t give you a potted biography of Nylund. You can get that for yourself on Wikipedia . But his reputation is high and his work is increasingly in demand from collectors of the “Mid-Century Modern” style. Anything with his characteristic GN initials on it is regarded as a real and highly collectible MCM classic.
However, unlike most of Gunnar Nylund’s output while at Rorstrand, my teapot isn’t marked with his GN monogram, but with his full surname NYLUND. This appears to be unusual, and I have a theory about it, as I have a theory about most things.
The Rorstrand factory was founded in Stockholm in 1726 and became the principal ceramic manufacturer of Sweden, making a wide range of products from mass-produced tableware to specially-designed one-off commissions, including the service used for Nobel Prize banquets. In 1930 the factory moved to Lidkoping, where production appears to have been divided between high-volume machine-made factory output, and studio work where the pots were individually made by a team of unnamed craftspeople under the supervision of a lead designer – Nylund for a long period in mid-century, followed by his pupil Stalhane.
The studio-made pieces were then hand-marked and initialled by the designer himself – GN for Nylund and CHS for Stalhane. But I believe I have read somewhere that on the very infrequent occasions when you find a piece marked with the designer’s full name (NYLUND in the case of my teapot), it means that it was made not by a nameless member of the studio team but by the master himself. The mark on my teapot is shown on the left below. Every other Nylund mark that I have found online has only his initials.
If this is the case, then it means my teapot is a very rare object. Rare, but, of course, valueless because lidless. Even the example in the Rorstrand Museum (which you can see here) is marked with the GN initials and not the full name.
Although you’ve seen the photo, I haven’t yet attempted a verbal description of Nylund’s remarkable 1940s double-spouted teapot. It’s not easy to describe. Imagine a slightly malformed, slightly oval pumpkin, with vertically ribbed skin, four stubby feet and two stubby spouts, and a square woven split-cane handle across the top. The orange-ish/ brown-ish glaze has a slight sheen and is cold and smooth to the touch. If your idea of mid-century modern is something simple and functional with clean straight lines and solid colours, this isn’t it.
As for the lid, I know from photographs what it looked like, and as you can tell from these images filched from the internet, the whole thing looks much better with its lid than without.
The likelihood of my ever finding a matching lid is vanishingly small. I guess I could have one made up by a ceramic restorer, but the cost would certainly be more than the value of the complete object with fake lid. And anyway, much as I like my Nylund teapot, I don’t love it enough to lavish a great deal of expenditure on it. And so it goes back into the attic with all the other lost, forlorn, unidentified, damaged and incomplete pieces which I keep there for pleasure, for occasional research, and for my children to deal with after I pass on. “Oh no!”, I hear them exclaim, “don’t tell me the old codger kept a teapot with no lid! That’s another one for the tip!”
A final observation: there’s a company called Replacements Ltd based in McLeansville, North Carolina, (www.replacements.com) which has made a fortune from sourcing and selling replacement items of china and glass to people who are missing pieces from sets. Their website currently offers nine long pages of replacement items from Rorstrand production ranges, but no studio wares and no teapots.
Perhaps someone should develop an app. Teapot Tinder. Lonely teapot seeks lid.