I came across one of these for the first time in a junk shop in Harrogate about twenty years ago. It was dirty, missing three lugs and hanging from a nail by a piece of old bailer-twine. Neither of us had seen anything like it before. They’re not from Yorkshire obviously. It appeared to be handbuilt – a shallow bowl form on a flat back giving a d-shaped cross-section. The use of applied coils and pips in three colours of clay and sprigged leaves is distinctive but not unique. In the 19th and early 20th century British country potteries increasingly produced decorative and garden wares and novelty items such as money-boxes and some used encrusted and relief decoration. Costrels, pilgrim bottles, flasks – these shapes are not common in Britain. Verwood Owls are the best known ones. The flattened disk-shaped bottle with an applied neck and four lugs to take a strap is primarily a Middle Eastern and European form.
A search for parallels lead me to a 1992 exhibition catalogue from the Marburger Universitätsmuseums für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte. The show brought together a wide selection of decorated earthenware from Marburg and the area to the east including the Werratal – the valley of the Werra River.
The area is best known for the wonderful slip-trailed dishes made there in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. These are characterised by skilful trailing in white slip refined with an incised line. They are then embellished with splashes of copper green under a honey-coloured lead-glaze. Ornate and vigorous they were exported all over Northern Europe and to the Americas. They were made in the Werra area and also in North Holland.It seems that by the beginning of the 19th century the potters had moved away from trailing to a taste for equally vigorous applied decoration. This typically involved the use of thin coils and dots of white, brown, green and black clays to build up drawings and lettering on the surface of the piece. The additions are often stabbed to make leaf veins or petals but equally commonly these elements are made using small sprig-moulds. The jug above seems to be typical of pots from the Marburg area with branches made of coloured and incised clays and rather fat leaves. Pieces illustrated in the Marburg museum catalogue with sprigged decoration often seem to come from further to the east including places such as Gerstungen and Großensee. The example below is from the Werratal museum in Gerstungen. This flask is smaller than the others with the lugs higher on the body. Again handbuilt, it consists of two bowls attached rim-to-rim giving an oval cross section. The decoration and use of glazes and colour is very close to the Gerstungen coffee pot.
Recently I have been given two more examples. One is almost identical to the first but in better condition. The back is undecorated.The other is a large ornate example which shares characteristics of all the others. More or less oval in cross-section the back is slightly flattened and decorated with radial strips to make a spectacular flower motif. The wheatsheaf sprig is crude and reminds me of saltglazed stonewares. Whilst the black and orange flowers occur on the other two larger flasks, the inclusion of a star sprig is new. These are quite common on Werratal pots more generally.
This is all supposition really. What I can’t find are any examples of these in German museums or collections or any with definite identifications. They come up on ebay from time to time and some sellers mention Marburg. They are sometimes described as medieval. They have a definite style which, whilst similar to the well known Marburg wares is distinct and earthy.
To summarise: the flasks are lead-glazed, they are almost certainly wood-fired. The shapes are perfectly good North West European ones although rare in Britain. The method of colouring and decoration is similar to that used in the Marburg/Werratal area from say 1800-1940 and sprigging as a technology is something that is very characteristic of western Germany. The sprigs all appear on the German pots but at the same time they are generic types. The green clay often found on Marburg pieces is absent, its place taken by dabs of green glaze. This method does occur on some Werratal wares for instance from Gerstungen. Stylistically the three larger flasks share key decorative elements especially the grape vine motif and the arrangement of parts.
Any thoughts welcome.