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A Potter's Moll: Mustard Tins And Hot Water Bottles

...One favourite is a large tin with a hinged lid which contained Colman’s mustard which came from my grandmother’s grocery shop, where mustard was weighed out from the tin and then wrapped in a screw of paper. The tin is beautiful, colourfully embossed with a woodland scene of nymphs lounging around – mustard on their ham sandwiches?...

Books, teapots, ceramic hot water bottles... Liz Robison recognises that sentiment rather than acquisitiveness has led to accumulations of amusing, nostalgic and beautiful objects.

When ceramics expert, Lars Tharp, was opening an exhibition about W A (Bill) Ismay at Wakefield Art Gallery a couple of years ago, he remarked that although collecting can be a disease, no one ever died of it.

True.

It is also true that potters’ eyes light up when a collector appears on the scene and they would be the first to admit what a benefit it is if your work becomes the object of a collector’s desire.

It was sad recently, however, after the death of my mother-in-law in the USA, to see her collections of glassware and antiques reduced to lots awaiting auction and it caused me to reflect a little on my own collections.

I’m sixty-four now, and I think it is time to at least start thinking what will happen to them eventually. We have a vast collection of books of many kinds and I have started giving books away rather than just lending them: especially novels and travel books. I cull the shelves every so often and give books to charity shops, though I have to admit that this is mainly to make room for other books.

What motivations do we have that makes us want to amass items? Some people do it in the hope that the objects will increase in value, some simply for admiration of the beauty or craftsmanship of the article. In my case it was something much more mundane.

My favourite aunt had a Cornish-ware sugar bowl. (Slip- decorated earthenware with scraffito motto. Originally Victorian souvenirs, I think.) The motto on the bowl was: ‘ ‘Elp yursel’ tu mur’, and we kids thought it was hysterically funny to pass the bowl, repeating the motto in exaggerated accents.

Later, I began picking up such items in junk shops and became fascinated by the variety of jugs, bowls, plates, vases, teapots etc. Some of the brush-work is crude, but some very skilful. You get to recognise ‘hand writing’ too, so I am sure that the person who decorated a jug with ‘Straight from the cow’ also decorated a plate which says: ‘ In trouble to be troubled is to have your trouble doubled’. Many of these pots feature a stereotypical country cottage but some have cockerels or fishing boats on. One is a souvenir of Cleethorpes, another from New Brunswick.

Two of my favourite mottoes are: ‘Better to wait on the cook than the doctor’ and ‘Do not burden today’s strength with tomorrows load’. Most pots are unmarked but some say Watcombe, Toquay on the bottom.

I stopped buying this ware when prices became steep, but then my dear old aunt went and died and left me her collection.

My mum collected Crest china, again small souvenirs often with coats of arms and place names on and usually in the shape of something – a letter box, a tank, an anvil – these are three that mum had. She left her collection to my daughter, who has no place to keep it at present, so it is still here.

For many years I enjoyed collecting tins – the cheap packaging of their day. I began with an ancient OXO tin, which I bought to keep my Oxo cubes in, and it grew from there. One favourite is a large tin with a hinged lid which contained Colman’s mustard which came from my grandmother’s grocery shop, where mustard was weighed out from the tin and then wrapped in a screw of paper. The tin is beautiful, colourfully embossed with a woodland scene of nymphs lounging around – mustard on their ham sandwiches?

A Marcella cigars tin depicts ten ranks of British army officers in full dress uniform. There’s also a Festival of Britain 1951 tin, though I’ve no idea what came in it – Sharp’s toffees perhaps. Again I gave up collecting when tins began to command silly prices. People still occasionally give me tins, though. Latterly my brother found a Flit spray with tin canister for the insecticide or disinfectant.

This was in memory of an eccentric primary school teacher who sprayed the rows of pupils whenever anyone sneezed. (Hopefully, it was disinfectant, not insecticide!)

I have a dozen or so ceramic hot water bottles. Do you remember how it hurt if you stubbed your toe on one of those in bed? These bottles come in many shapes and sizes. I have one in the shape of a handbag with a chain handle and the letters B.E.D. on the side. I think this collection may be the first to be sold off, but there’s always a pang of regret as you remember where you bought it and how much of a bargain it was.

Obviously as a potter and his Moll, we have a large if eclectic collection of functional and/or decorative pottery, some hand-made studio pieces, some more commercial.

Again, the favourite aunt started me off with a lustreware teapot, then a cottage-shaped one. Back in 1975 Jim and I bought a yellow Art Deco teapot in the shape of a racing car with the number plate T42 (Texting language already in the 1920s!) We paid £20 which we thought was a vast sum. I recently saw an identical one for sale at £150.

We have teapots by David Lloyd Jones, David Leech, Jane Hamlyn, Charles Bound, Derek Emms etc, and they all sit on the shelf above the Aga like gentle presences. ( The teapots, I mean.)

Jugs. We’ve somehow acquired ones by Wally Keeler, Alan Caiger Smith, Richard Dewar, Ruthanne Tudball to name but a few. One little jug that I treasure is a German salt-glazed one with a vine-leaf motif and the reason I love it so much is because our daughter brought it back from her German exchange all those years ago.

I am beginning to see that sentiment has as much to do with my collections as acquisitiveness.

I remember going to a David Lloyd Jones exhibition in York in 1976, and we set ourselves a limit of twenty pounds to buy something. Well, the six dinner plates and the bread crock we bought cost many times that, but we have used them and looked at them and enjoyed them every day since.

Maybe I can disperse some of my collections over the coming years. Then again, if they end up as lots in an auction, I probably will not be around to see it.


More from me in a fortnight.

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