Random Treasure blog readers know that this blogger derives a great deal of pleasure from looking at and owning beautiful objects, and particularly those of the ceramic persuasion. But what do I mean by the term beautiful? Beauty being, of course, in the eye of the beholder, it’s possible, probable indeed, that my ideas of what constitutes a beautiful object might be somewhat different from those which my readers find beautiful.
And so to my latest £4.99 charity shop purchase. I don’t have unlimited funds to spend, so I tend to buy very cheaply from charity shops and local salerooms. It sometimes happens that I come home with an item to which, frankly, many people might feel that the description beautiful doesn’t apply at all.
I wouldn’t be surprised if you find this particular object very non-beautiful indeed: I’m prepared for you to use adjectives such as ugly, ungainly, muddy, inelegant, clumsy, formless, useless. If that’s what you think about my new stoneware tankard, then you’re entitled to your opinion. But, of course, you’re absolutely wrong, except in one respect. I do agree that it’s useless.
First I want to say something about the object itself. Then I want to discuss the genus tankard. And then I want to consider the quality of uselessness. Hmmm … seems ambitious. Let’s see how far we get.
The object is a one-pint pottery tankard. It is thickly potted in a buff stoneware clay, a broad-based cylinder (or, of you prefer, a truncated cone) with a collar below the upper rim, and a simply-applied handle. It is covered on the outside with a tenmoku glaze and on the inside with a crackled ash glaze. An impressed seal mark below the handle (partially filled with glaze) shows that my tankard was made at Lowerdown Pottery in Bovey Tracey, Devon.
Lowerdown Pottery was opened in 1955 by David Leach, the eldest son of the great Bernard Leach. David operated the pottery for the next 50 years, during which time he was joined by other fine potters including his sons Jeremy and Simon, and by trainees who went on to successful potting careers of their own. David Leach is considered by many to have been a better potter than his father, but he was a very much more reticent and self-effacing personality than Bernard, who courted celebrity throughout his remarkable career.
My tankard appears to be from the earlier period of Lowerdown Pottery’s existence. I would like to think that it was made by David Leach himself, but as far as I can discern through its partial filling of glaze, the impressed mark is the pottery’s generic L+ seal, and not David’s personal LD seal. This means that it must be considered as production ware or standard ware, which might have been made by any one of a number of potters working at Lowerdown in the 1960s.
It doesn’t really matter much whether my pot was made by the main man or by one of the other potters or apprentices, except in terms of current market value, which would be several times higher if the personal LD seal mark was present and clearly visible.
The iron-based tenmoku glaze coating the outside of the tankard was developed in China and Japan, and was much favoured by Bernard Leach and the multitudes of studio potters whose lives and careers were influenced by him in the second half of the 20th century. Sadly, it’s one of several dark glazes which have contributed to the stereotypical characterisation of studio pottery output as dull brown pots. Not so sadly, this means that unfashionable dull brown pots by the thousand have found their way, through decades of disuse, from the backs of owners’ kitchen cupboards and sideboards into charity shops, where they are snapped up by studio pottery enthusiasts and geeks, who don’t find them dull in the least.
Actually that last assertion is a generalisation so general as to be misleading. In truth I find many brown charity shop pots exceedingly dull. But sometimes – wow! – you find an example which is an absolute knockout. Like my tankard. I’m crazy about it.
Why? It’s only a plain black/brown pot with scarcely any notable features. It’s so minimalist that it’s hardly there at all. But its glaze is so wondrously glossy and varied: if you hold it by the handle in your right hand it appears mostly a gorgeous, lustrous chocolate brown; but if you hold it in your in your left hand (as I do, being left-handed) it appears shiny black with brown flecks, a perfect recreation of the hare’s-fur glaze on wares produced at the Jian kiln in China during the Song Dynasty. Its shape is simple, elegant and satisfying, and its weight, balance and heft are perfect for its intended use as a vessel for quaffing a long cold drink. In every way my tankard is fit for purpose. Except, of course, that it’s useless.
I apologise in advance. Some readers of this section will be very much more knowledgeable than me about the subject upon which I am about to embark. If I write complete nonsense, I hope someone will contact me with a correction, for example by making use of the comment facility below.
Here’s the problem: I’m around half a century out of date. I don’t have current information, and I can’t find much on the internet to corroborate my impressions. These days I don’t drink much beer, and I scarcely ever go into pubs, so I can’t provide an informed opinion on this key question: do drinkers still drink from tankards?
A snippet of autobiography. In 1955, my father, having been demobbed from the army nine years earlier, finally gave up trying to earn a regular living from dead-end jobs in civvy street. He and my mother went back to the type of life into which they were both born, and which they knew best. They became the living-in managers of a public house in Marylebone in Central London called the Harcourt Arms (now, incidentally, a very upmarket and fashionable Swedish-themed pub-cum-restaurant).
The pub, where I lived from age 7 to 10, was not large but the ground floor bar space was divided into two areas of roughly equal size, each entered by a separate front door. To the left, the Public Bar had hard bentwood chairs and plain tables, linoleum on the floor and a dart board. To the right, the Saloon Bar had velour-upholstered chairs, carpet on the floor, and a premium price list.
A pint of draught English bitter beer, served, of course at the ambient temperature of the cellar from which it was drawn by a hand pump, would in the Public Bar be priced at 2/- (i.e. two shillings or 10 pence in post-1971 decimal currency), and in the Saloon Bar at 2/3 (i.e. two shillings and three pence, or just over 11 pence decimal equivalent). Needless to say, Common (working class) people frequented the Public Bar where the drinks were cheaper and the atmosphere more convivial, while Polite (middle class) people congregated in the Saloon Bar where they could mingle with other Polite people but missed out on the darts. There was probably no appreciable difference between the Bars in terms of numbers of customers (many: my parents were excellent publicans) or quantity of alcohol consumed (prodigious: likewise), but of course the takings were appreciably larger in the Saloon Bar where the prices were higher.
In the Public Bar at the Harcourt Arms, customers would always expect (and require) their beer to be served in thinly-moulded straight-sided one-pint glass tumblers. In the Saloon Bar, however, the default vessel for serving a pint of beer was a heavy moulded glass tankard with a handle.
After a decade of running a series of exhaustingly busy London pubs, my parents opted for a quieter life by taking on the tenancy of a small 18th century roadside pub surrounded by farmland in East Berkshire. It was called The Queen’s Head. There, it was traditional for regular beer-drinking customers to have their own personal pewter tankards kept behind the bar, and woe betide any bartender (often it was me) who inadvertently served Grant a pint of bitter in Peter’s tankard (Grant being the local ratcatcher and Peter being the local knackerman).
So, in mid-twentieth century England, the shape and material of the glass from which one chose to drink one’s beer was a clear signifier of one’s social class. Tankard = middle class / suburban / rural; straight glass = working class / urban / citified. I don’t, however, know if my observations in London and the South-East also applied in the English provinces and the other UK constituent nations, although I have a dim recollection of many pints quaffed in many pubs and bars in my early years as a student in Scotland, and I don’t recall drinking any of them from a handled glass. Don’t remember much else, either.
However it might have been then, I don’t believe it’s like that now. These days you drink your chilled draft beer from a long straight glass, and your bottled beer direct from the bottle; or in these coronavirus times, you drink in the open air from a single-use plastic tumbler. Tankards for service of beer are rare, except in the special case of some European lagers where the British tradition of the tankard has been replaced by the parallel but more enduring German (and Belgian, etc) tradition of the beer stein.
With glass as the modern default material for tankards, and pewter as the traditionalist’s choice, we now turn to the ceramic tankard – first to show its use for the drinking of ale, beer and porter, and second to distinguish it from its parvenu namby-pamby younger sibling, the Coffee Mug.
Pottery tankards have a long history, as also do wood, leather, ivory and silver tankards, in addition to pewter and glass. Tankards were a big deal, much associated from mediaeval and earlier times with manly Northern European pursuits centred upon boozing in mead-halls and beer-halls in celebration of victories in battle and in the hunting field. When gathered around the King or Earl to hear recitals of the epics – say Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Nibelungenlied or the Icelandic Eddas – you would require to drink copious amounts of mead or beer, and the closer you came in proximity to the head of the house seated at the centre of the top table, the more ornate and decorative and precious would be your tankard. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has a varied and exceptional collection, which you can browse here.
In addition to my newly-acquired Lowerdown Pottery tankard, I have a few other examples in my own Random Treasure collection. They fall into two types: older ones and newer ones.
- The older ones (right to left above): a Chinese export “mandarin” porcelain tankard from the Qianlong period, around 1760-’70; an English pearlware blue-and-white transfer-decorated tankard from the 1820s; and a Scottish Wemyss ware earthenware tankard in the dog roses pattern from around 1900. While the two earlier examples were both made for regular use, I think it likely that the Wemyss pot is more of a decorative object.
- The newer ones (right to left above): slipware tankard, unidentified potter, early 1970s; my newly-bought Lowerdown Pottery tankard; earthenware tankard with manganese glaze over tin glaze, personally made by David Leach at Lowerdown Pottery, 1956-’62; stoneware tankard with tenmoku glaze and wax-resist decoration by Alex Sharp, Morar Pottery, Inverness-shire, 1950s; Bernard Leach’s St Ives Pottery “standardware” tankard in celadon-glazed stoneware, probably 1950s.
You will have noted that all five of the more modern tankards are examples of studio pottery made over some fifteen years from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. This is not a coincidence but is reflective of a particular period of time when both the studio pottery movement and the drinking of beer from tankards reached some kind of simultaneous peak or apogee.
If you think of the sixties as all Swinging London, Carnaby Street, Mods and Rockers and Flower Power, you only have a partial picture. It was also a time of young men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, corduroy trousers and woollen ties, engaged in earnest conversation about philosophy and politics, sport and sex, in common rooms, saloon bars, rugby clubs and student unions up and down the country, nourished by regularly refreshed supplies of cigarettes and pints of draught beer served in tankards.
(At the same time, of course, there were other similarly-dressed young men engaged in equally earnest conversation, in trades union branches, working-men’s clubs, public bars and football clubs. But they are not of interest to us here and now for the simple reason that they were drinking their draught beer not from tankards but from straight glass tumblers).
(At the same time, of course, there were earnest young women conversing and drinking, but since, generally speaking, their alcohol preferences did not include draft beer in one-pint measures, I’m excluding them (with some hesitancy) from my tankard-related peroration).
To proceed: here’s a theory. I just made it up and I can’t prove it. But on the other hand, you can’t disprove it. It goes as follows:
- During the period from 1955 to 1975, almost no men ever actually purchased a pottery tankard for the purposes of their own private alcohol consumption – why would you do so if your draught beer drinking was done in public in licensed premises?
- Most pottery tankards were bought for men as presents by wives, girlfriends, and parents who reasoned that because men enjoyed drinking beer at the boozer from a glass tankard, they would enjoy doing likewise at home from a chunky, masculine pottery tankard.
- In practice, tankards were very little used in the home because drinking beer in quantity is something that manly men do in the company of other manly men, and in any case draught bitter is rarely found in the home. In this way, pottery tankards soon found their way from a handy shelf or hook, into the rearmost recesses of sideboards and kitchen cupboards.
- Half a century on, a disproportionately large number of studio pottery tankards have emerged from such obscurity in perfect condition, routed via charity shops and thence into collections.
My evidence in support of the above hypothesis is scant but (to me) persuasive. This slipware tankard, which is also on the right in the photograph above, was bought for me as a present in around 1972 by my then girlfriend, who is now my wife. I never used it for beer, but I did use it for a time as a mighty one-pint coffee mug. But upon the discovery that each cup of coffee taken from my tankard resulted in an average of 4.72 trips to the toilet, I moved on to drinking my hot beverage from a considerably smaller vessel, and I moved the tankard far, far back into the bottom shelf of a low cupboard. Q.E.D.
Which proof leads me neatly to my next point – the distinction between a tankard (at least one Imperial pint or a half-litre, mediaeval origins, used for mead, beer or ale) and a mug (10-12 fluid ounces, popularised in the second half of the twentieth century coinciding with mass marketing of instant coffee).
Let me make clear that the distinction given above is highly inaccurate for two special reasons:
- First, the word “mug” has been used synonymously with “tankard” for a long time. The Oxford English Dictionary, defining mug as a drinking vessel, frequently cylindrical (and now usually with a handle), generally used without a saucer, records its first usage in 1662.
- Second, there are known instances of mugs being used in a one-pint size for the service of hot drinks, not of instant coffee but of tea. If, as I sometimes did, you visited the famous Scotch Corner Transport Café at the junction of the AI and A66 roads in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you swilled down your steaming, stewed builder’s tea from a plain white heavy earthenware pint mug.
Leaving these quibbling objections aside, I am still happy to assert that the beer tankard and the coffee mug are entirely separate and distinct objects. None of the former is in current practical use in my household, but many of the latter (see below) are in daily use for consumption of freshly-brewed coffee. In the overwhelming majority of cases it is impossible for a reasonable person to mistake one for the other.
How many of us own a coffee mug which is in regular use? Almost all of us, I would think. It is a very useful object, and I would venture to suggest that one or more coffee mugs are deployed daily in perhaps nine-tenths of British households. I do my fair share of visiting, and I can’t think of any house I have been in which doesn’t have at least one mug used regularly for the consumption of hot tea or coffee.
Now, how many of us own a beer tankard which is in regular use? Very few of us, I would think. In my house, when any male under the age of, say, 40 comes for a visit – perhaps a son-in-law or a nephew – they will expect to be given their beer to drink directly from the bottle. If I were to offer to pour it into a tall glass, they would look at me in a funny way, thinking what a dear, quaint out-of-touch old geezer I am. If I were to offer to pour their beer into a ceramic tankard, they would look at me in a very funny way indeed. That’s not merely out of touch or old fashioned. It’s not even endearingly eccentric. It’s unhinged. It’s mad. Who uses a tankard these days? No-one.
As the market for coffee mugs has increased, so the market for tankards has decreased. If you were a studio potter in the 1960s or 1970s, it is a virtual certainty that you would have a tankard in your standard product range alongside mugs, cups, bowls, vases, teapots, plates and jugs. But now? You would still make all the other stuff, but tankards? No way! They’re even more old-hat than carafes!
Yes, the tankard is an outdated, obsolete object. Its reason for existence has disappeared. It is useless. No-one needs them. No-one uses them. And yet … what’s wrong with getting pleasure from something that’s useless and obsolete? Why do so many people love slow, smelly old heritage railways with their venerable steam locomotives and more venerable volunteer engine drivers? What’s the use of a horse? Why do people still have sailing boats when motor boats are so much faster and more efficient? Because these obsolete things give pleasure, that’s why.
Similarly with art. What’s the use of a painting? Who needs a statue? Again, it’s to do with the promotion of happiness, and what could be more useful than that?
So, finally, to the key question: what’s the point of filling the house with nasty old brown pots that nobody uses and nobody wants? It’s simple: because I love them. The best brown pots – like my new Lowerdown Pottery tankard – provide me with intense aesthetic pleasure, both visual and tactile, and with immense satisfaction from studying and learning about them. No, I wouldn’t dream of drinking beer from it, and I certainly don’t have the bladder capacity to drink coffee from it, but my tankard isn’t useless to me. It has the same happiness-inducing effect upon me as a great work of art – indeed it is a work of art – and to me, that’s useful.