‘Well, you’ve got just about enough to make a placemat!’ I’d been showing a retired art teacher friend the collection of blue and white ceramic shards unearthed from my garden and from those of clients, with a view to getting her advice on how to create a mosaic table top. Her reaction confirmed that I would need to up my game to accumulate enough pieces to achieve this. I mentioned my project to a few people and with contributions from allotment sites in Richmond and Ealing and a garden in Northamptonshire, the glass vase in which I keep these little treasures is three quarters full. Short of buying a willow pattern plate from a charity shop and embarking upon a Greek restaurant style plate smashing session, I anticipate it will take another 12 months before I have enough broken pottery to complete the planned masterpiece. And that’s fine: most of the fun of this exercise is in collecting the raw materials and in knowing that these ‘objets trouvés’ may have lain undisturbed for 100 years or more.
It’s always a mystery to me how you can dig over the same area of soil year after year without finding pottery pieces and then suddenly your fork turns over a fairly substantial segment of an old plate or vessel. There are several theories expressed online about why so much discarded pottery is found in gardens. One school of thought considers that the pieces were applied to the soil to improve drainage. Another that in the absence of council recycling centres, broken blue and white tableware was dumped into a corner of the garden. Whatever the explanation, I always experience a frisson of excitement and curiosity when I spot a gleaming white or blue fragment when weeding or preparing an area for planting. So many questions occur to me. Did the plate smash accidentally or was it hurled across the room in a temper tantrum? How many cups of tea had rested on it before the saucer broke? Was a scullery maid hiding the evidence of a dropped cup from the mistress of the house? Where did the plate originate from: China, Japan, Stoke on Trent? Or was it imported from the near continent, part of a Gien de France tea set or a Royal Denmark dinner service? Was it bought in an exclusive shop or in Woolworths?
Sometimes the original pattern is discernible: a willow bough or part of an ornamental bridge, a chrysanthemum flower or sprig of lavender. One piece in my collection stands out as it is black and white and appears to be in Art Deco style. Another is solid turquoise: I found it last year in the cinder paths which lead to the Loder Valley nature reserve at Wakehurst Place in West Sussex.
Okay, so it’s not the Staffordshire Hoard or the Sutton Hoo treasure, but in their own way these chipped and misshapen fragments have a value of a kind because they have their own stories to tell. To me there is a mystery attached to every humble piece of china I find whilst I’m digging. Not least of which is what to call them. My late father, who hailed from Birmingham, used to call them ‘chinies’ but I’d be interested to know if there are other regional words to describe them.
In the meantime if anyone knows where I can source a smallish cafe table suitable for the garden on which I can create my first garden china mosaic do let me know! One thing is for sure, I shan’t be digging it out of my or anyone else’s garden.
Postscript 14 April 2020: An exciting find
Whilst weeding in the alleyway behind my garden on Good Friday, making space to stand a few potato planters, I found two pieces of blue and white china which, when fitted together like jigsaw pieces, spelt ‘Asiatic Pheasant’. The initials ‘C&E’ indicate that the earthenware vessel was made at the Cartwright & Edwards factory of Longton in Staffordshire, one of the five towns known collectively as ‘The Potteries’. The Asiatic Pheasant design was hugely popular in the Victorian era, and this piece probably dates from 1880-1890, coinciding with the building of the house in the 1890s. Although when the utensil that this came from was smashed is anyone’s guess. An elderly neighbour who has lived on the street throughout her life, tells me she remembers playing with her friends in the network of alleys between and behind the terraces and finding blue and white pieces which they used to decorate their fairy gardens.