A Surfeit of Randomness

It has been several weeks since I posted a new piece on the Random Treasure blog, and, just in case anyone is wondering about the unusually long silence, the reason is simple: I’ve been too busy to write.

Sometimes, not often, the quest for Random Treasure becomes stressful. It isn’t supposed to be like this. What should be happening is that I meander through a fulfilling and self-indulgent retirement, doing what gives me pleasure and satisfaction – buying and researching interesting objects, sometimes writing about them, sometimes re-selling them, sometimes helping other people to do likewise, all at a pace and in a manner which suits me and my inclination and my whim.

That’s mostly how it goes, but recently, much less so. I have been under pressure from taking on too many lines of enquiry all at the same time. As a result I have found myself with an excess of balls in the air and a surplus of spinning plates. It’s all been rather harassing. But at the same time, it’s all been very enjoyable.

Here’s what was on my agenda:

  • For my friend Elspeth: card games
  • For my friend Beth: photographs and pots
  • For my cousin Yvette: the Laughing Cavalier
  • For my friend Anne: a cloisonné vase
  • For my acquaintance Robert: a plate
  • For myself: a rug, a mat, a mug, a vase, some pots, a pottery cat and a huge hoard of Russian diamonds.

Perhaps I should explain …

Elspeth is a friend and former work colleague who is trying to impose some order on a lifetime’s accumulation of objects. She called me in to advise her on a whole bunch of back-of-the-cupboard stuff which she felt was too good or too interesting or too old to be consigned to the landfill bin. Was anything of any value? How should she dispose of all these objects, if not for cash money, then at least into the hands of someone who might appreciate and respect them?

I went to Elspeth’s house and had a look. A miscellany – old clocks, a small spinning wheel, a dolls’ pram, some silverware, some ceramics. Many pieces broken and damaged, but some capable of fetching a modest return if consigned to a saleroom. I gave her the name of one of my friendly local auctioneers, explained to her how the process worked, and suggested that she take some pieces along to the saleroom as an experiment to see what might sell and for how much.

She followed my advice but was slightly caught out by delays caused by the start of the coronavirus lockdown. Her pieces were eventually sold when the auctioneer re-opened with a series of online-only sales. Most of the objects attracted bids at the lower end of their estimated prices, and Elspeth appears to be satisfied but not overwhelmed by the outcome. This is no surprise. She has some wonderful stuff in her house – jaw-dropping Scottish pictures and Cotswold School furniture – but the objects she was ready to sell did not come into the category of wonderful.

One group of objects in Elspeth’s jumble caught my eye: ten packs of children’s card games. I knew nothing about these but they were colourful and appeared from their designs to be from the 1930s or earlier. If put into a local sale they would be lucky to fetch £5, but it occurred to me that they were just the sort of objects that would be ideal for sale on eBay: attractive to specialist collectors and easily dispatched through the mail. So I offered to Elspeth to list them for her.

It worked. Two of the card games turned out to be incomplete, and so were unsaleable. Of the eight others, all were used and soiled, and most were lacking their original boxes and instruction sheets and would not be of interest to collectors seeking only perfection. Despite these faults, I listed the eight packs of cards on eBay and sold seven of them. Total proceeds: £65.80. Best individual price: £27.00 for a 1937 card game with Disney designs from the animated film Snow White. Four packs to Texas, one to Leicestershire, two to Suffolk. Not a fortune, but a much better result than could have been got from selling locally, and a good chance to learn a little about an obscure branch of collecting. Elspeth seems quite satisfied with her profit of £54.24, and so am I.

Beth is the granddaughter of the exceptional Scottish studio potter Alex Sharp (1918-2010).  I have long been a collector and admirer of Alex’s pots, and was lucky enough to make contact with his widow a few years ago to learn more about him and to see and acquire some of his work. Mrs Elizabeth Sharp sadly died at a great age a few months ago, and granddaughter Beth, a splendid young woman with a rising reputation as an opera singer, took on the task of clearing the family house on the outskirts of Glasgow in preparation for sale. She asked me along to help her to sort out the residual pots.

It was agreed that five of Alex’s best pots would be offered as a gift to the Paisley Museum (which has perhaps the best collection of studio pottery in Scotland); and that a group of pieces by other potters would be sent to a Glasgow auctioneer. This group included many from Bernard Leach’s pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, where Alex received his training in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Among these were two bowls (both damaged) bearing the personal seal of the master Bernard Leach himself.

While Beth continued clearing the house, I conducted negotiations on behalf of the family for the gift to Paisley Museum. I also negotiated with the Leach Pottery, now run partly as an active pottery and partly as a museum, about the family’s offer to donate Alex’s extraordinary collection of photographs from his time in St Ives. The photos include a large number of individual and group shots of the potters working there at the time of Alex’s apprenticeship, and many pictures of Leach’s pots from the earliest days of the pottery, mostly with annotations in the great man’s own hand.

The donations to Paisley and St Ives have now gone to their new homes, and everyone is delighted.

Yvette is my second cousin once removed. I have never met her because she lives in Australia and I live in Scotland, and I wasn’t aware of her existence until fairly recently when we made contact through the intermediary of another distant cousin who does family history research. Since then, Yvette and I have emailed each other sporadically, mostly with anecdotes about our forebears.

Yvette’s great-grandmother Lily and my grandmother Kitty were sisters, but the families lost contact with each other more than a century ago. Kitty died in 1914 a few days after giving birth to my father. Her sister Lily emigrated with her family to Australia shortly thereafter. End of story until the wonderful Internet brought us back into touch with each other.

A few weeks ago in an email Yvette told me an anecdote which has been passed down through her side of the family. It seems that Simeon Simmonds, the father of Lily and Kitty, was a successful art dealer. And it’s alleged that at one time Simeon had in his possession a famous painting which is currently housed at the Wallace Collection in London:  The Laughing Cavalier, painted in 1624 by Frans Hals.

What a story! Could one of the best known paintings in the world have belonged to my own great-grandfather? As the 127,000 words already published in this blog attest, I have devoted a good part of my waking hours over the last several years trying to trace the histories of works of art and antiques. Has my new-found cousin Yvette set me my greatest art-sleuthing challenge?

I don’t have a conclusive answer for you yet. I have discovered enough background information to suggest that although Simeon Simmonds could never have been the owner of The Laughing Cavalier, it is just possible (but very unlikely) that it might have passed through his hands in or around 1872. And it’s just possible (but extremely unlikely) that I might be able to find a record to prove that this was the case, and thus to verify the family anecdote.

The libraries and archives which I need to consult have been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but I was able to contact a curator from the Wallace Collection who has recently written a fine biography of its founder, Sir Richard Wallace. She hasn’t heard of a Simeon Simmons being associated in any way with the Collection or with its most prized possession. I also made contacts with three experts on the subject of nineteenth century art and antique dealers. All of them responded promptly and enthusiastically to my queries, but unfortunately none of them know anything about Simeon.

So I’m approaching the point where I will need to let Yvette know that I have reached a dead end in my search – but I’m not quite there yet and still have some leads to follow up. Much further work is needed. If I make progress I’ll write a separate blog piece about it. Watch this space.

Anne and I were students together at St Andrews University, and more than half a century later we have re-established contact through mutual friends and mutual interests. She has read my book and I have read one of hers – a splendid biography of Birdie Bowers, a member of Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. You can buy a copy here.

A collector and occasional auction-goer, Anne has sought my opinion on one or two objects including a cloisonné vase which she bought recently. I know nothing about cloisonné, which fact of course didn’t deter me from being entirely willing – eager, indeed – to expatiate lengthily upon the subject.

Anne’s latest book, which is currently being prepared for publication, is a biography of Herbert Ponting, who was the photographer with Captain Robert Falcon Scott on his final and fatal Antarctic expedition. Some years before heading for the South Pole, Ponting toured Asia, and in 1910 he published his book In Lotus-land Japan, comprising photographs of his time there, with accompanying narrative.

One of the photographs in Ponting’s book (also published in stereograph form) showed the Kyoto workshop of Yasuyuki Namikawa, (並河靖之) (1845-1927), who brought the “art of making cloisonne enamel … to a state of perfection never hitherto attained by any one in this or any other land”. One day recently Anne was viewing an auction sale and noticed a small cloisonné vase. It was unmarked and also unattributed in the auction catalogue, but from various clues she thought it might be an example of Namikawa’s work. So she bid for the vase and won it against stiff competition, and has now set about the task of authenticating it.

To do so, she is consulting primary and secondary sources and contacting experts worldwide. There was no point in her consulting me because, as I reiterate, I know nothing about cloisonné, but she sent a photo to me because I had expressed interest.

In my travels around the charity shops and local salerooms of South-East Scotland, I often see cloisonné pieces, but frankly they are for the most part cheap tat made in China for European markets, and currently about as far out of fashion as it’s possible to be. Ann’s little vase, however, is something different entirely, and appears (from its photo) to be a piece of outstanding quality. But that’s all I could say about it. No idea if it was by Namikawa, and, because it is unsigned, no idea how you might go about making an attribution to any particular Japanese cloisonné maker.

Frankly, I was a little sceptical. A search of the websites of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonham’s for examples of Namikawa’s work revealed that some had sold for many thousands, while others had sold for many tens of thousands, but I was unable to find any images of pieces similar to Anne’s vase, with its distinctive elongated lobed form.

Just as I was wondering how or whether I should express my doubts to Anne that her hopes for the vase might be wishful thinking, I took another look at Ponting’s 1902 photograph of Namikawa’s workshop, and there, on a table towards the back, was a vase which appeared similar. So I enlarged and cropped the photo and placed it beside a similarly-sized image of Anne’s vase, and – voila! – the shapes are identical.

I sent the side-by-side images to Anne, who is now using them as an additional scrap of evidence in  her efforts to authenticate her vase. I hope she succeeds!

Robert is a member of the Facebook British Pottery and Porcelain Collectors Group, and he responded to a recent request from me for help to identify a plate which I had just bought in a job lot at one of my local salerooms. I described the plate as “thinly potted and light in weight, perhaps creamware(?), with underglaze blue borders and outlines, and overglaze decoration in brown and orange, with a brown painted edge”.

The plate was easily identified by experts as being in the “dollar pattern”, a colourful design copied in any number of detailed variations by many potters from around 1800. The consensus now seems to be that my example was made by either Hackwood & Co of Eastwood or Thomas Harley of Lane End, both in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

Robert’s suggestion was that my plate could be “Turner’s Patent” by the Turner pottery, also at Lane End, but I was able to assure him that it wasn’t because I just happened to own another slightly similar but sadly-beaten-up plate with the Turner’s Patent mark, which was made from a wholly different and much denser type of clay.

Now I realise, dear Random Treasure blog readers, that this account is in danger of becoming just a tad too arcane for some of you. But please bear with me – it won’t be going on for much longer.

Just long enough for me to tell you that Robert is exclusively a collector of Turner’s pottery and is by some margin the world’s greatest expert on this particular subject. When I showed him a photo of my Turner’s Patent plate, it appeared not only that he didn’t have an example of this particular pattern, but also that he was especially interested in it because of the “flow effect” evident in my plate’s underglaze cobalt blue decoration.

The upshot of this rather convoluted and obscure story is that I decided my Turner’s plate would be much better off in Robert’s collection than in mine. He agreed to pay the postage, so I parcelled it up and sent it off to him in Lidcombe, NSW, Australia, where it has recently arrived safely.

Robert has now kindly sent me a copy of his very authoritative paper on the Flow Effect, which features a detail photograph of my plate. I’m so proud! And the place on top of the bookshelf behind my desk which was formerly occupied by the Turner’s Patent plate is now occupied by the Hackwood/Harley “dollar pattern” plate.

Robert has given me permission to reproduce his paper which you can download using the link above. I am certain he would argue that the plate which I have sent him is infinitely more interesting than the one with which I have replaced it, but I think I prefer the new one. It’s bigger and more colourful – a clear demonstration that Robert is a true scholar whereas I merely like shiny stuff.

As for myself, I have derived considerable satisfaction (plus an element of smugness) in recent weeks from being able to provide disinterested help to friends and relations. But spending time on projects for others means less focus on my own personal projects and research. Not that this matters, because as an old retired bloke with fewer commitments than ever due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, I have all the free time in the world (unless of course the Covid-19 restrictions don’t have any effect, in which case, as a member of a several vulnerable groups, I might not have much time at all).

Doing all this exciting stuff for others means that I haven’t got as far as I had hoped with finding out about a number of newly-acquired items: a Persian rug and a stoneware mug, an art deco vase and some earthenware jars, a silk prayer mat and a pottery cat. And I haven’t had time to write this blog, and I haven’t had time to walk the dog (we don’t actually have a dog, but for closure I desperately needed to employ a suitable Dr Seuss-type rhyme. So I issued myself with a poetic licence).

And I haven’t had time to find out more about the background to a short article which appeared in the Law Reports section of the Times newspaper in 1927 concerning a huge hoard of Russian diamonds. Have I, you might ask, discovered these diamonds in my local saleroom, still secreted in the original cigar box in which they were smuggled out of Estonia? No, sadly not. But I think I might have discovered an interesting and untold story, perhaps the germ of a new writing project. If it comes to anything, I’ll keep you informed.  

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