Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Clay Pot Story

Chronica Domus
Examples of my clay flower pots, very probably made with clay excavated when building London's Piccadilly tube line
Photo: Chronica Domus


Last month, I found myself on the other side of the telephone from Guy Wolff, the very jolly and talented potter behind Guy Wolff Pottery, a small family run business in Connecticut that focuses on making clay flower pots inspired by 18th and 19th century designs.  While placing an order for one of the very beautiful Peale pots, Mr. Wolff regaled me with some interesting tales about his family background and how he became a potter, an art form and skill I've greatly admired since applying my not-so-steady hand to it during my years of school pottery lessons.  We quickly moved onto the subject of where I was born; obviously, he could guess I was English from my accent.  When I told him I was born and bred in London, he asked if I had seen the short video clip produced in the early 1950s by British Pathé, the media organization behind cinema newsreels that were screened through the second world war informing the general populous of current world news events.  I had neither seen nor heard of the clip but was interested in viewing it with alacrity. So, upon concluding my telephone call with Mr. Wolff, off I went in search of what it was that had so intrigued the famous potter.


Chronica Domus
The rough interior of my old flower pot exhibiting all the hallmarks of being hand thrown
Photo: Chronica Domus


The video, which can be found here, and runs for just over a minute and a half, delighted me on several counts. Firstly, it tells a story of how the dense sticky London clay was discovered during the excavation work performed in preparation for constructing the Piccadilly underground line, which runs right by, and possibly under my childhood home. The Piccadilly line is a route I know intimately from having ridden it countless times during my lifetime. The clay was used to produce an estimated seven million flower pots per year, to be sold to Londoners and plant enthusiasts, all fired in a kiln that had been in continual use since 1860 and located on White Heart Lane.

Chronica Domus
 Two of my smallest pots, known as Tom Thumb size, hold succulents and stand less than three inches in height
Photo: Chronica Domus


It pleased me no end to view and learn a little of the history regarding my old stomping ground.  To add to my delight, I concluded that by statistical probability and geographical location, I likely own several of these little clay pots. Had you asked me where these pots were made prior to my watching the video, I would not have had a clue, but now I am almost certain as to their local origin.

Chronica Domus
A potter's smeared fingerprint, immortalized in clay
Photo: Chronica Domus


There are two styles of flower pot shown in the video clip.  The first, located on the majority of the drying racks, has a simple beaded edge running around the rim.  The style shown on the bottom shelf is of a plain tapered shape, just like the ones I own. All of my pots were picked up in a small antiques shop just off the Portobello Road, London's world-famous antiques market, almost twenty years ago. I recall them costing no more than a few pounds each.  The shop contained a beguiling selection of antique and vintage garden implements and there were many, many of these horticultural pots, nested one within the other in short rows, and held in wooden shallow seed crates, all for sale.  I would have purchased several more were it not for the practicalities and considerations of packing them up safely for the transatlantic journey to their new home.

Chronica Domus
A gathering of my antique clay flower pots 
Photo: Chronica Domus


I love the simple shape of these vessels and the fact that they are so distinguishable from today's mass produced, machine made clay pots with their flawless smooth appearance and perfectly uniform lines.  No, my little clay pots are lopsided and charmingly rustic in their appearance.  Some are so thin towards the rim that they've crumbled away over the years since they were expertly and quickly thrown on the potter's wheel.  With careful examination, one can even see the potter's fingerprints embedded within the clay for future gardeners to discover.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of London's old potteries, I encourage you to visit this page for a fascinating look into the story of a long-lost industry.

 Nota bene: I am neither paid nor do I receive recompense in exchange for applauding products or services within my blog.  I do so because I enjoy them.  If you are a kindred spirit, you too enjoy recommending nice things to fellow good eggs.

16 comments:

  1. The provenance of anything always makes it more fun to own. I would think that owning some clay pots that were made with clay from construction of the Picadilly line would be extra special. I do not own any Wolff Pottery but used to admire the items sold by the now defunct Smith & Hawken. Oh how I miss them.
    Enjoy planting your new pots as well as your old.
    Karen

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    1. Hello Karen,

      Yes, I certainly look upon my pots with a different eye now that I know a little more about where they might have been made. Can you imagine throwing hundreds of little pots per day, every day as part of your job? I think it would be rather fun.


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  2. I was the lucky recipient of a gorgeous Guy Wolff pot as a gift from Reggie Darling. It came with a cutting of a geranium from Guy that is said to be a descendant of one of Thos. Jefferson's geraniums!

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    1. Hello PD,

      How very special to have a cutting of the Peale/Jefferson geranium and the perfect pot to house it in. I hope it is thriving in your care.

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    2. It is finally thriving! Someone told me to put the cutting in water and it would grow roots. It didn't. So I put it in some Root-tone and then put it in dirt. It held on through the winter and in the spring, I re-potted it into the GW pot, where it promptly died... except then it started growing some leaves and it flowered. It's doing well now.

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    3. Thanks for stopping by again and updating me on your cutting, which seems to have survived and thrived in your care. That is splendid news indeed, well done!

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  3. Fascinating stuff! I have a number of G Wolff's pots - i'm actually looking at two right now at my desk at work (holding a very dead Rosemary which I need to replace and a very alive ivy that I've had for years from defunct and missed S&H). Thanks for sharing this!

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    1. Hello AD,

      Thank you for your comment, which made me chuckle a little. Yes, I am all too familiar with the demise of potted plants that I am supposed to be caring for, unfortunately. I do have a slight "green thumb", so to speak, but by no means anywhere near as green as I'd like it to be.

      It appears that my readers are fans of the late lamented Smith & Hawken. I too miss the place and all the wonderful items they sourced for their loyal customers' delight.

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  4. Deby(from Canada)July 21, 2014 at 2:09 PM

    Hello
    Strange and interesting where the weekly read of Ben Pentreath's wonderful blog takes one! Nosy and curious by nature I always read the comments and some links. So glad I did with yours- love the flowers pots and their history- one beloved daughter lives in London... also reading a bit more have found a splendid lemon- raspberry dessert to make...
    cheers

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    1. Hello Deby(from Canada), and welcome to the blog. I am so glad you stumbled upon my scribblings and think them worthy enough to leave a comment, thank you. I hope you have the opportunity to read over some of my other posts and visit the blog again (I am but an infant in the blogosphere having started this blog in January).

      I adore Ben's blog and his outlook on life and very British aesthetic.

      By the way, I love what you say about being "nosy and curious by nature". A kindred spirit indeed!

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  5. Lovely pots. You are right, they are much more appealing than what is mass produced today.

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    1. Hello Bmore Bungalow,

      Welcome to the blog! I'm happy you stopped by and were inspired to leave a comment, thank you. I see that you too are a blogger so I'm off to have a gander around your posts.

      Happy to read we are in agreement as to the appeal of these older, individually made pots. I can't get enough of their charm.

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  6. Handmade terracotta flowerpots are such treasures for a multitude of reasons. I love their forms and their traditional gardening associations. Furthermore, it is fascinating to study terracotta forms from many cultures and periods, which often exhibit a different design perspective compared to "finer" ceramics.

    Now you have added more reasons to celebrate them--the clay that they are made from can have historic associations, and the pots themselves can be imbued with personal associations.
    --Jim

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    1. I so agree with you Jim. Handmade terracotta items from other cultures have fascinated me for years. I remember as a child touring a terracotta pottery on the island of Crete and being fascinated by the piggy bank my parents purchased for each of us girls. It was the type that looked much like a low-footed urn, or shapely finial, with only a small slot in the front to push our pocket money coins into. When full, one would have to, sadly, smash it to get to the loot, which left me very conflicted.

      I realized a long-standing dream a few years ago when I had the opportunity to see an exhibit of the Terracotta Warriors and horses at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which surpassed all my expectations.

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  7. This is absolutely amazing and mind-blowing. Who would have thought that a humble clay pot would have such a history! Thank you for sharing - I love learning this sort of trivia so much. Needless to say, I adore the pots (even those without stories) , I love the idea of anything made by hands, with love for the material and traditions. x

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    1. Hello Natalia, items made by hand, as you say, with love for the material and tradition, is something very dear to my heart, and is something my own family cherish and value. I'll be working on a post later in the year on exactly this topic, so please stay tuned for that.

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Please do leave a comment as I enjoy the dialogue with my readership, thank you.

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