All things plastic: a visit to the Bakelite Museum

We have been meaning to visit the Bakelite Museum in Williton in Somerset for absolutely ages. Rumours that it may be about to close its doors finally got us there this week.it is a wonderfully eccentric place and you can enjoy it in a variety of different ways. The fact that it is housed in a more or less intact disused watermill is one, that nostalgia factor is big and then there are the plastic objects themselves – not just Bakelite but a wide range of earlier and later materials. 


Every surface in the building is crowded with products made of plastic from toys to radios and televisions and a huge variety of tablewares. Nothing found has been rejected it seems. Broken pieces nestle alongside ones in a better state and duplicates are celebrated. Seven Bush DAC90 radios sit in an arc on one of the huge wooden mill-gears. Numerous thermos flasks decorate another. There are rows of picnic sets and hoards of egg-cups. 


It is cold and curiously still and silent. You want the radios to crackle into action and the hair-dryers to buzz.  The atmosphere is relieved by Patrick Cook the proprietor’s transistor radio on the cafe table outside and the sounds of visitors conversations. 

Outdoors the theme changes to transport and the car park includes a yellow Trabant and Reliant and two splendid caravans. The smaller fibreglass van is charming and fully kitted out with plastic accessories. 

A selection of other design icons and curiosities include two Itera plastic bicycles. These were a Volvo project designed by Claes Nordenstam and produced from 1982-5. Sadly, they didn’t take off – the colour probably didn’t help? 


1930s Echo radios by Misha Black, Serge Chermayeff and Wells Coates plus a Braun Atelier 1-81 designed by Deiter Rams in 1960.

Posted in Bakelite, Modernism, Museums | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pottery from the medieval kiln in Newport, Pembrokeshire

Building work on the Memorial Hall in Newport is beginning now and the removal of soil outside the north west corner of the building is producing large quantities of medieval pottery and kiln debris. These are some samples of the finds. 
For more on the origins and earlier stages of the project see my earlier posts from February and December last year.  Essentially the site was first excavated in 1921, revealing two late medieval pottery kilns. One kiln was recorded and destroyed and the other was preserved beneath the building in an underfloor space, scheduled and more of less forgotten. A recent Lottery funded project to recondition the hall has brought the whole site back into the light and the preserved kiln will be made accessible to the public eventually. The degree of preservation is remarkable and it is a rare opportunity to study this kind of site in so much detail.

A large candlestick or chafing-dish base.

All of this is dumping from the original construction of the hall in 1921, mainly into the foundation trenches and includes Edwardian china as well as 15th/16th century pottery. Nonetheless it is giving us a good idea of the range of shapes and types of ware and also some evidence of the way they were packed in the kiln. There is a lot of washing and sorting to do at oresent but the picture so far is of a small range of shapes, principally jugs, deep bowls (sometimes with handles) and range tiles. Alongside those there are signs of jar shapes and one large, heavy base that may be a candlestick – seeming very exotic here. There are no signs of decoration and glaze is used very sparingly which helps to explain why the kiln is so clean. 

Fragments of shale including quite large flat weathered pebbles have oxidised impressions of vessels on them and patches of glaze. One at least has clearly been used to separate two levels of pots, having the impression of a pot on the upper surface and of two more on the bottom. Others may have been used to protect the kiln floor and discarded regularly. There are no signs so far of ceramic kiln furniture. As during the excavation of the kiln, pieces of fired clay with finger impressions are common, looking like discarded pieces of pointing. 

 

The pottery belongs to the family known as Dyfed Gravel-Tempered Ware which is found up and down the Welsh coast but is most common in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. The Newport pottery could have supplied a wide area through the harbour but it is likely that there are other production centres nearby. Two complete pots found nearby in Newport Castle in the 19th century are examples of Dyfed GTW and are reasonably consistent with the pottery we have seen so far. 

            
For more on the origins and the initial re-excavation stage of the project see my earlier posts from February (The Newport Medieval Kiln, Pembrokeshire) and  December (Excavating the Medieval Kiln at Newport, Pembrokeshire) last year.  

Posted in Archaeology, Bickley Ceramics Project, Kilns and Kiln-building, Tiles | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bridgwater Jugs – 19th Century ‘Severnside’ Redwares

On Facebook’s British Country Pottery Collectors group page recently a number of people have been sharing and discussing a particular group of 19th of early 20th century redware jugs. They are typical of the broad family of shapes made around the Severn Estuary and most closely resemble those from Bridgwater and Bristol. A key issue with the wares is their relationship with the industrial stonewares produced in the 19th century particularly in Bristol – see my earlier post English Country Pottery – or is it?  What follows is a personal view and very much open for discussion. Severnside is my term and not obligatory but seems useful.

 

‘Severnside’ jugs from Somerset and South Wales. Top: My own selection of pots that I would suggest are from Bridgwater. Below: Jugs from South Wales illustrated by Andrew McGarva in his book Country Pottery. Left: Ewenny; Right: Large jug at rear from Bargoed near Cardiff and bottom right, South Wales (the other two are from Devon). (with apologies to AM/A&C Black for copying photos from their book). Bottom: Severnside jug possibly from Bristol (Lizzie Induni).

The family of shapes are distinct from the North Devon wares, typically more angular, often have handbuilt or applied handles and decoration is very rare. The clay bodies are varied but often pale – orange to pink – and fairly coarse. Nothing like the smooth Fremington clays. A particular quality that has been discussed before is their close relationship to industrial stoneware forms of the kind being made in Bristol in particular. The makers of these wares seem to be defined by the estuary rather than the Bristol Channel and the potteries are often closely associated with the extensive coastal brick and tile industries and in Bristol with the collieries. A range might run from Minehead/Dunster to the south, up river by Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea, Weston-super-Mare, Clevedon to Bristol and Kingswood then across the Severn and down the Welsh shore taking in Newport, Bridgend, Ewenny and Cardiff. By the time you get to Ewenny the influence of North Devon is becoming strong especially through slip and sgraffito decoration.

The pots and particularly the jugs share a range of characteristics. The clay is generally paler than North Devon wares and fires to an orange or straw colour rather than a terracotta red. The lead glaze is also often orange-brown rather than honey and a pale straw coloured edge is not unusual. The glaze is usually dipped to the shoulder which is marked by a single or double incised line. The shapes are characterised by almost vertical necks which step sharply away from the shoulder and relatively short bodies. The rims are either pinched to create a groove just below the edge or formed with a rib to give a very round everted shape. Handles are either pulled-on-the-pot with a single thumb impression at the base or quite commonly extruded, coiled or pulled, and pressed onto the body. The latter is unusual in Britain and rarely seen on ‘country’ pottery outside this area.

The particular group of pots under discussion were these.

img_1816

The two Severnside/Bridgwater jugs that started the discussion. (Wren Franklin).

   Sevenside/Bridgwater jugs from Doug and Hannah Fitch’s collection. 


Severnside/Bridgwater jug belonging to Lizzie Induni.

img_1823
Severnside/Bridgwater jug in the collection of the Somerset County Museum. (Photo: O Kent)

I would like to suggest that this particular group come from Bridgwater because they are clearly related to a collection of wasters and pots from the Chandos Glass Cone in Bridgwater, excavated in 1976-7. The glassworks closed in 1733 and the cone was reused for various purposes afterwards. From around 1827-1939 it became a redware pottery latterly as Browne’s Pottery and Deal Yard and the Somerset Trading Company, both closely associated with the brick and tile industry in Bridgwater. Kilns seems to have been built inside the cone – finally demolished in 1943. The precise manufacturer or date is uncertain and some pots like the slipware dishes look so much like Donyatt that you wonder if all the pottery was manufactured on site – some perhaps retailed from elsewhere.

 

Pottery from excavations at the Chandos Glass Cone, Bridgwater. Probably Browne’s Pottery/Somerset Trading Company, 1840s-1939. Bore, E. and Pearson, T., 2009. ‘Red Earthenware Pottery from the Chandos Glass Cone, Bridgwater.’ Proc. Somerset Archaeology and Natural History, 153. 131-150. (Available online).

The jugs, bottles and other shapes march well the pieces in my photo at the top of the page and in the hand the clay and glaze colours are right. The only big difference is the handle form. All the jugs have applied handles and not pulled-on-the-pot ones. This matters and our pots are perhaps either from a later period than the excavated ones or from a related pottery in the nearby area. The use of this kind of handle and the very vertical necks of the Severnside pots are key characteristics for me in linking these redware to industrial and urban production. Many of these potteries are closely tied to the brick and tile industry along the Severn shore and a somewhat industrial aesthetic seems to me apparent – perhaps the potters themselves trained in the big stoneware potteries and acquired techniques from that. If must also be about competition.

For more discussion see my earlier post English Country Pottery – or is it? Bristol Jugs and Pitchers. 

With thanks to Wren Frankin, Doug and Hannah Fitch, Lizzie Induni, Tim Bartell and Tim Bowen Antiques.

Posted in Bristol, Folk and Country Pottery | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

(Re) Excavating the Medieval Kiln at Newport, Pembrokeshire

Work on the Memorial Hall in Newport, near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire has moved on another stage as we have been able to begin re-excavating and recording the medieval kiln in the basement. 

Having got the appropriate permissions, the aim has been to clear away 95 years of dust and debris and reveal the top of the kiln, its flues and floor. This will then allow the next stage of conservation and preservation to proceed. As I explained earlier ((The Medieval Kiln at Newport, Pembrokeshire, posted 7 Feb 2016), two kilns were found in 1920 during the construction of the hall and after examination and recording by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, one was preserved under the floor of the stage. Wheeler published a plan and elevation in 1923 which showed the complete firebox, underfloor flue structure and warechamber floor of a round single-firebox kiln. Current dating would be late 15th or early 16th century. The preserved kiln was scheduled as an ancient monument but became more or less forgotten despite the republication of Wheeler’s drawing in the 1970s. 

It has only been with the current project to renovate the hall that the kiln and its history has resurfaced. The Hall Committee and local people have been keen to celebrate the kiln and their own history and make it better known. A team of specialists including David Dawson and myself have begun to help them achieve that. 

As it stands before we work on it the kiln consists of a clearly visible firebox and a central plinth supporting a flat area with a few punctures in an arc to one side. This seemed likely to be the kiln floor with some of its flues rising from the large ones visible beyond the firebox below. A survey by Karen Slade suggested that the flue structure was closed off about half way across the area and that a small opening at the rear seemed to indicate a second set of flues and by implication a second firebox hidden under the unexcavated area of the basement and a light cross wall.

What follows is a quick summary of our investigation:

Initial clearing of the north side revealed a triangular pit containing rubble, blue and white China, a clay-pipe stem and a leather boot sole. It bottomed out where it hit big chunks of slate and the inner face of the plinth. Tidied up, it had a flat face on the centre line of the firebox and therefore appeared to be an attempt to cross-section the interior of the kiln by archaeologists. The surprise beyond it was that the rest of the top seemed to be hard packed and devoid of modern artefacts as if the excavation had progressed no further. The exception being the openings into the flues on the north side (where Bill is poking his selfie-stick) and a small one on the south. 


As the north side was exposed the flues began to be revealed. The hard packed material in the centre seemed to overlie flat slate slabs leaving a narrow channel supported by the corbelling and bars below. The selfie-stick quickly confirmed that the second firebox was present (under the cross-wall and the photographer’s feet). The centre of the kiln looked worryingly empty but the biggest surprise was the arc of the kiln wall which suggested an oval kiln rather than a round one. It seemed that Mortimer Wheeler’s drawing was a very crude thumbnail tidied up for publication.


Trowelling revealed the slate rim of the floor and the flue channel and openings but the inner floor was elusive. The elyptical shape of the kiln became more evident, pushing further back and disappearing below the shallow cross-wall. Also more apparent was the thickness of the kiln walls – the narrow areas either side of the firebox seem to be the result of the intrusion of the foundation trenches for the hall above. Odd things began to appear above the firebox. 

This is the point we decided to stop. The kiln chamber is 2m x 2.5m, its floor corbelled out from a central slate and rubble drum. The two fireboxes (one invisible but complete and empty of debris) feed two u-shaped flues closed off from each other that open into the chamber through holes around the edge of the floor. The floor proper is missing except around the excavated firebox. Here it consists of fired compacted clay and two of the flue openings are shaped from modelled clay (there is another modelled vent at the other end). This indicates that the upper levels of external stonework are the lowest part of the ware-chamber. The notch in the wall and the large slabs above the firebox are interesting.

There are various thoughts growing out of this. The kiln is much bigger than the Mortimer Wheeler report suggested and although structurally similar, very different. It seems to have received only brief archaeological attention in 1921 and the most plausible conclusion has to be that this is not the kiln recorded by Wheeler but the second unrecorded one.

The whole structure is being laser scanned as we go along by Bill Stebbing (Scan to Plan). Below are some screen-shots. The first shows the area above the west firebox and the fired clay flues and floor. The other is a cross-section of the main flue showing the central drum corbelled out towards the outer wall to support the floor. For more go to Pembrokeshire Kiln on YouTube. 

  

Laser scans of the Newport medieval kiln. Copyright Scan to Plan 2016

More news as we go along. For more information on the project as a whole see the Newport Memorial Hall website 

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Experimental Archaeology, Kilns and Kiln-building | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Puzzle Jugs and Puzzling Jugs

When is a puzzle jug not a puzzle jug ? Amongst folk and country potters from the early 17th century onwards and the makers of delftware and later stonewares in England, the puzzle-jug has been a popular form for gifts and commemorative pieces. Drinking novelties, if ever actually used, they aim to confuse the user and spill drink over their victims. On some, inscriptions dare the drinker on pain of a forfeit. Their complexity varies, the ones from Donyatt in Somerset being the simplest. As special pieces they have survived disproportionately well and they are represented in many museum and private collections.

Puzzle Jug dated 1877. Yorkshire, probably Burton-in-Lonsdale.

Puzzle Jug. Donyatt, Somerset. 1852.

The reader may query my start date for these pieces. Surely the puzzle jug is a much earlier phenomenon. Are there not many medieval examples in museums and amongst archaeological assemblages?

The answer is no. What there are are labels.  There a range of  ceramic objects made in the later Middle Ages and the early modern period that are characterised by the incorporation of tubes in one way or another. These are often attached to the vessel wall and sometimes involve concealment by incorporation into decoration or hollow handles. The function of these pieces puzzled antiquarians and nineteenth century collectors and resulting in a generic classification as puzzle jugs alongside their more familiar cousins. No link was made to posset pots although these too sometimes included tubes. Posset pots were classified as cup forms and their function was not seen as mysterious in any way. The tube (or tubes) simply allowed the user access to the lower part of the contents without disturbing the upper part. A general link was made to drinking and parties.

The best known medieval pot of this kind is the magnificent and exotic late 13th century  Saintonge jug in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Less familiar but still pretty impressive is the Redcliffe jug in Bristol City Museum. Both are catalogued as puzzle jugs but they are actually structurally quite different and represent two distinct vessel types. The common ground is that they are for pouring liquids, they have spouts and handles and their structure incorporates a tube.

The Exeter ‘Puzzle Jug.’ Saintonge, France. 1250-1300AD. Royal Albert Museum Exeter.

The Exeter jug is visually very similar to the familiar post-medieval pots in having a tubular handle linking bottom and top and a pierced neck between shoulder and rim. The neck is an ornate galleried tower whose windows are populated with musicians. There is no doubt that this is a table piece meant to attract attention. As reconstructed, the jug has two chambers, the lower part of the body is fully enclosed with two openings, one from the base of the holow handle and the other into the tubular spout. Above the pierced neck the upper chamber is an open, vertical sided bowl which has a small hole in its lower edge which opens into the top of the hollow handle. The spout, which has a modelled animal head, rises from the lower chamber up to the level of the base of the upper one.

The Redcliffe ‘puzzle Jug’ Redcliffe, Bristol. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.


The Bristol jug is large and imposing with three spouts at its rim each modelled as a male head. The two on the flanks of the jug are bridge spouts opening directly into the vessel. Each has a body drawn below it with applied coils. The spout at the front has no opening through the rim but sits at the top of a tube which runs down the front of the vessel to an opening near the base of the interior. Over the tube is modelled a full figure with a head like those on the spouts and gripping a ring between two hands.

Neither jug imcorporates any trick or subtlety to confuse or amuse. The Exeter jug has an open bowl at the top as an access point to fill or with liquid, an enclosed storage chamber at the bottom and a spout to pour with. The Bristol one is a normal jug form with two spouts on the sides of the rim that provide the means to pour from the top and a third at h front supplied by a tube that allows the user to pour from the bottom.

The latter is clearly similar in function to the kinds of objects usually labelled posset pots. These are most commonly seen as tin-glazed earthenware/delftware but there is a long tradition of large lidded pieces in lead-glazed earthenware too with some splendid ones from Wales and the Midlands. The spouts cannot be used to pour but must be sucked. Nonetheless, the basic principle is the same except that the Redcliffe Jug is best suited to serving rather than direct consumption.

The Exeter jug is similarly best suited to a serving role. It is important to remember that this pot comes from Southern France. There is an extensive range of drinking and serving vessels from all around the Mediterranean and the old Ottoman Empire to which this pot seems to me to belong.  In France the gargoulette and in Spain the botijo are enclosed pouring forms that perform both drinking and table functions. There are a lot of variations across the wider area but the essential idea is consistent. In the east particularly a hollow handle is a common feature.

Botijos. Left, late 19th century. Antonio Fernandez, Rambla. Spain. Right, 19th/early 20th century, Spain or Portugal.

The two examples above are different in form to the Exeter jug but very similar in their mechanics and their functions. A filling point is provided by adding a small thrown ring or vessel. The one on the right has a pierced filter. The neck can be lightly plugged with textile to filter the water of whatever else going into it. Both are everted to take a cloth of paper cover tied over them. Opposite is a narrow spout. The main chamber is fully enclosed from the elements. Botijos are generally associated with water or wine but they are can be used to store and pour a variety of things including particularly oils. The Exeter jug is particularly effective as a storage vessel for oils because the two tubes allow only a minimal surface area to oxidise as long as it it kept full. In use the top would ideally be covered as is often the cas with botijos.

There are a range of other puzzling pots in museums and collections worth scrutinising. There are lots of interesting folk/traditional pots across Europe and the Mediterranean for comparison – and of course not just pots. Anyway enough.

Posted in Archaeology, Folk and Country Pottery, Slipware, Studio Ceramics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Heinrich Dressel exhibition in Rome

The new Museum of the Imperial Fori in Trajan’s Market in Rome is designed to explain the history and structures of the sequence of fori alongside the Capitoline Hill. Trajan’s Market is remarkable in the survival of several stories of lock up shops, terraces and streets above the forum within which Trajan’s Column stands. 

    
In adapting parts of the building to a ‘museum’ role there have been some clever curatorial decisions. The main hall opening of Via IV Novembre has been given a plate glass front and treated like a contemporary up-market shop. The shop units are used a individual display spaces to set out aspects of the story of the Roman fori but the current exhibition ‘L’Eleganza del Cibo – Tales of Food and Fashion’ interacts with that and uses the space as if it were a modern shopping mall. It works very well. Versace et al sit elegantly amongst Trajanic marble and weathered doorways. Yeongju Sung’s vegetable garments are extraordinary. Rather than being a formal museum space and ‘ancient site’ it is animated in a very accessible way http://www.leleganzadelcibo.com. 

Below, in medieval cistern towards the back of the building is an unexpected bonus for archaeologists and ceramiphiles. If you work with Roman pottery for more than a short time you come across Dragendorff and Dressel classifications for Roman pottery forms. Both were German scholars who recognised the very structured patterns of Roman pottery over time and recognised that these could be used for dating and to study trade. Hans Dragendorff concentrated on Samian wares and Heinrich Dressel on amphorae. 

To find Heinrich Dressel a subject for an exhibition is surprising – who apart from archaeological pottery specialists has heard of him? It is great to see him celebrated and in such style.   

Dressel recognised that by combining he study of the shapes of amphorae, the many stamps and inscriptions on them and the dated contexts from which ch then came, that a systematic catalogue could be built. The exhibition includes a film of an actor playing Dressel being inspired and examples of his illustrations. The medieval cisterns allow the key exhibits – a fantastic collection of amphorae of many varieties – to be presented as if in a great wine cellar. 

  
  
   
 

Posted in Archaeology, Italy, Roman Pottery | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Bristol’s Modernist Architecture – Queen’s Court

Queen’s Court, Queen’s Road, Clifton, Bristol

In 1937 a large triangular site on Queens Road in Clifton, a hundred yards uphill from the landmark Victoria Rooms became the site of the first large-scale luxury block of flats built in Bristol. Of plum-red brick with white stucco details and Crittall windows, it is of a type that in London became the characteristic form for some areas. Not so often perhaps a dramatic arrow-shaped example with a feature balcony on the top floor. In Bristol such buildings are much less common and Queens Court was presented to the public as a new and editing concept.

QUEENS Ct Brochure 1

Artist’s impression of Queen’s Court. 1937.

Queens Court web

Queen’s Court, Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol. Alec French, 1937. At present spoiled by the tree at the front (2016).

This is another building that has come to my attention partly because of researching the Bristol furniture manufacturer P E Gane Ltd. Director Crofton Gane had employed Bauhaus furniture designer and architect Marcel Breuer in 1935-6  and worked with him on several major projects including remodelling and furnishing his own house and making all the Breuer furniture for the Ventris Flat in Highpoint. Breuer joined Walter Gropius in the USA later in 1936 and Gane cast around for another prominent interior designer/architect to work with. This time it was the New Zealander Wells Coates.

Queens Court was designed by Alec French and is an eight-storey V-shaped block of 74 one, two and three-bed flats, the larger more luxurious ones at the prow. Twenty balconies along the sides are each shared by two flats and contribute to an ocean-liner look. On the ground floor of the main Queens Road frontage a row of small shops offered a use range of services. Within the V a garage provides parking for residents. Uniformed porters, fitted kitchens with refrigerators and electric lifts were provided. A two-bed flay cost £150-200 p.a. and the penthouse £350.

Queens Court rear web

Queens Court was promoted as offering a luxurious new style of living and Gane’s were contracted to furnish show flats. Wells Coates was a leading proponent of flats as the future of urban living and was interested in designing unitary furnishings to go alongside them. He had designed the interiors of the Lawn Road flats in Hampstead for Isokon where Walter Gropius and others had been living.

QUEENS CT Brochure 10

The Flexunit Flat. Wells Coates, 1936. The specimen flat fitted with Coates Flexunit furniture range was exhibited in the P E Gane College Green showrooms.

Crofton Gane had two ranges of unitary furniture designed in the early 30s by the companies own designer J P Hully. The idea that a fixed range of adaptable components could be combined to furnish a home was a popular new concept in the 30s and  is the parent of IKEA today. For Billy, read FIT-IN No. 5. Wells Coates was commissioned to provide a new range which was based on the Lawn Road designs and named Flexunit. The new pieces included built in electric fires and double-sided island units. A show flat built in the College Green shop was then presented both as a showcase for the new range and also as a prequel to the show flats at Queens Court.

Queens Court windows web

Queen’s Court has had a varied history since the 30s and been quite run-down at times. A recent refurbishment has given it some of its dignity back. The little row of shops underneath still thrives. The pergola on the end of the penthouse has gone but the Crittall windows are still intact to give it the classic look. Wells Coates as an architect and designer is less well known than he should be and his involvement with Crofton Gane and in Bristol needs more research. The Cresta Silks shop on Park Street, destroyed in 1940 is another of his projects.

For more on Wells Coates see Farouk Elgohary’s 1966 PhD thesis ‘Wells Coates and his position in the Beginning of the Modern Movement in England.’ Thanks to Chris Yeo, Curator at the Ken Stradling Collection in Bristol for the photos of the Queen’s Court brochure and for drawing my attention to it. The collection has examples of J P Hully’s unitary furniture (including FIT-IN No. 5) as well as other P E Gane furniture from the 1930s.

Posted in Architecture, Bristol, Modernism | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment