Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Feedback...from China...via Australia

Dear Sue Laws,

I have just come across some web information on your Deptford Creek project which amused me as I'm just off to HangZhou (tomorrow) with a trusty Blue Willow plate in my case for a few weeks of audio recording and photo sessions (in-situ as it were).

The project will manifest as a sound sculpture installation (slated for the ISEA festival in Istanbul 2011) in which a series of porcelain plates will be mounted on audio actuators in effect rendering them as a multiple channel sound work.

The other item that may be of some interest to you is a permanent installation in the new state library in Brisbane, Queensland entitled the "Great Wall of China" which is close to reality as the architectural space is literally filled with Willow Pattern ceramics (Brisbane is twinned with Shanghai).

Dr Nigel Helyer
Sonic Objects; Sonic Architecture
The Nature and Culture of Sound


Hei Sue,

You're right nothing on the web even at the State Library of Queensland site, anyhow here is just one small section of the 'great wall'.  However this is not my project - I simply admired it whilst I was installing in the new state gallery of modern art next door.

Cheers nigel

Ps this is installed in a giant balcony type architectural space, open to the elements on one side.

The Bride Stripped Bare - Environment Agency blunder – and the Terracotta Army

There have now been 19 tides (I think) since we installed Creekery. Because of the tides, we installed on 19th September, five or six days before Deptford X opened officially. I knew already from our experiments that there would be a build up of silt on the plates that would dull the blue within four or five days...but when it came to the weekend of the 24th/25th, the first weekend of the festival, and the plates weren't looking so pristine, I worried about going down to clean them. However, the weather and the tides weren't very helpful. 

I pondered the necessity of 'cleaning the plates' seemed a great many folk expected them to be left as they were and let nature take its course, and weren't in the least bothered that the bright blue had faded. On the other hand, those new to the idea were looking at a postcard of brightly coloured plates and expecting to see it. After all, the festival had only just begun...

I spent a lot of time over the weekend feeling like an OCD housewife worrying about the cleanliness of my plates. It didn't help that when I went to see Liz Harrison's award winning installation of bird song at Deptford Station that my attention was drawn to the filthy state of the station. Everything in Deptford felt filthy. 

There was so much going on with open studios and actual paid work (I had to work on Sunday) that I had hardly had time to do the washing up in my own home. Then one of my patrons wrote to say she had been along to see the piece and "it was filthy"...

However, I was also quite keen on the idea of a TERRACOTTA ARMY of plates marching across the Creek, which was what was happening all too quickly. So I was quite undecided today (yesterday) when I went over to the bridge to make a judgement call. Either I would decide to clean them or I could leave them to get so muddy they would be half moons of mud by the end of the festival on Sunday and that could be equally great. 

It was the second day this week that the Creekside Centre was hosting a school party. I had expected to see, when I went over to the bridge, Nick Bertram and a class of school children and their teachers in the Creek below. However, what I saw was three people in yellow jackets surveying the walls of the Creek. I suddenly realised they (and I) were looking at bare walls.

The "yellow jackets" were the Environment Agency, and they had just removed ALL the shrubbery from the terraces. They had done this without consulting anyone from Creekside Centre, and Nick, who was just about to take a class of kids down to explore the Creek, was absolutely livid. All the plants – the flora that he talks about and refers to on his walks – had been cut down.

This was it when Charles Shearer photographed it just less than two weeks ago...
As far as Creekery is concerned, they had torn down all the plants in our 'dresser', leaving the crockery exposed. They had moved the vulnerable teacup (that we hadn't weighted down) that sat next to the teapot (that we had weighted down) and which had been bolstered by the plants in the terrace, down to the lower terrace where it would surely get carried away. The big plate on the top shelf was left vulnerable cos it wasn't dug in but had been supported by the now missing greenery, and they had knocked over five plates in the mud near the terrace like they were skittles in a bowling alley...

I looked across and the left bank (or right bank depending on your view) looked OK...but barren of growth...

I had to do something. Fortunately I knew the tide was out for a while, especially since Nick was just taking the kids I got my waders and went down with a sponge (wetted by the outgoing tide), rearranged things, and got the built up silt off every plate, finishing just about the same time as Nick returned from down south with the kids. They assembled by the bridge and Nick showed them how to scoop up minnows and shrimp with their nets, whilst I continued on the left bank to polish the plates (no CRB check so absolutely no contact with the kids)...

As I wiped off the last plate, Nick had just finished frightening them with the crabs that live under a piece of corrugated iron and they all squealed with fear when they saw some real live crabs scuttle out. Then he asked them to applaud with clapping hands the old washer woman who'd been cleaning the rockery....

Hope this picture of the young'uns isn't illegal...

I didn't wipe the backs of the plates....Wonder what it looks like from the DLR...

Meanwhile the same joke got cracked again by a volunteer...This Creek is Minging....

I'm hoping now someone can help with a webcam.

Gonna put some teacups in tomorrow (today) to make up for the two that floated away the Monday before last...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Creekery photographed by Charles Shearer

And here are some pix taken by me at high tide and as the tide goes out. Charles is hoping to get some similar shots at some point...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Willow Pattern verse

Two birds flying high,
Little boat passing by,
Wooden bridge with willow o'er,
Three men passing, maybe four,
A little house with open door,
Apple tree with apples on,
A crooked fence to end my song.

This verse is just one of many variations (see this highly unacademic site here at the for alternatives) which are nursery rhymes from the mid 19th century, that describe the Willow Pattern and were probably simplistic accompaniments to the slightly more adult legend – now believed to be a story invented to sell crockery.

It appears I haven't ever posted about the 'legend'. This is probably because I started the blog a year after I had done the legend to death and moved on to more sinister subjects such as British colonialism.

Recapping briefly, the earliest record of the 'Willow legend' is found in 1849 in The Family Friend, some 60 years after the pattern first became popular. No Chinese tale, song, play or oration has been uncovered that could be linked to the 1849 'legend', although there are some stories that come close. The legend arises at a time when the pattern was losing popularity. Some authorities say the nursery verses are based on an old Staffordshire folk song. Some are certain the elaborate love story told in the legend was invented by the management of the Caughley factory in 1790 (the origin of the pattern)...

The pattern has survived and remains largely unchanged throughout all the art movements of the 19th century, but obviously being part of the less lofty applied arts and commercial production, it has no place in 'art' history. It has continued to thrive as an object of mass appeal, and, accordingly, no snob would entertain it. The pattern has never been without detractors (Charles Dickens just one of many, see my post), but it has never been denigrated in verse...Longfellow, somewhat a populist and a lover of myth and legend, inevitably referred to it in a long paeon to the 'ceramic arts' (Keramos):

Nor less the courser household ware, –
The Willow pattern, that we knew
In childhood, with its bridge of blue
Leading to unknown thoroughfares:
The solitary man who stares
At the white river flowing through
Its arches, the fantastic trees
And wild perspective of the view:

Meanwhile, countless baby boomers have been told a version of the story by mothers or grandmothers...This version (Anon) has no particular literary merits and the tale "exhibits truly characteristic colonial elements of a somewhat smug Victorian view of old Cathay. Its citizens are 'little brown' men in a land where the wealthy live in compounds (in fact, the European experience in China in the 19th century)." (David Richard Quinter)

My Willowware plate has a story,
Pictorial, painted in blue,
From the land of the tea and the tea plant
And the little brown man with a queue.

Whatever the food you serve, daughter,
Romance enters into the feast,
If you only pay heed to the legend,
On the old chinaware plate from the East.

Koong Shee was a mandarin's daughter
And Chang was her lover, ah me!
For surely her father's accountant
Might never wed pretty Koong Shee.

So Chang was expelled from the compound,
The lovers' alliance to break,
And pretty Koong She was imprisoned
In a little blue house by the lake.

The doughty old mandarin reasoned
It was time his daughter should wed,
And the groom of his choosing should banish
That silly romance from her head.

For years had great artists been stitching
In symbols the dress she should wear,
Her headband of scarlet lay waiting,
She should ride in a gold wedding chair.

He was busily plotting and planning
When a message was brought him one day,
Young Chang had invaded the palace
And taken his sweetheart away.

They were over the bridge when he saw them,
They were passing the big willow tree,
And a boat at the edge of the water
Stood waiting for Change and Koong Shee.

The furious mandarin followed
The groom with revenge in his eyes,
But the little boat danced on the water
And travelled away with the prize.

But vengeance pursued to their shelter
And burned the pagoda, they say;
From out of the flames rose the lovers:
A pair of doves winging away.

They flew toward the western heaven,
The pretty Koong Shee and her Chang,
Or so says the famous old legend
From the land of the Yangtse Kiang.

I wouldn't be one to deny it,
For the little blue dove and her mate
Forever are flying together
Across my Willowware plate.

That's enuf poetry...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A big 'X'

Earlier this evening I joined the Creekside Centre's scheduled Lowtide Walk at 6pm for a brief spell...I wanted to check with the walk leader Nick whether the plates we have put on the bed of the river are in the way of walkers...He pointed out three that were vulnerable – that would probably not so much cause a tripping hazard to walkers (since they were fairly visible once pointed out) but might be damaged by walkers...we may need to move them.

Whilst the walkers went off up the creek, I tended my garden with a handheld pressure sprayer and observed how much silt had built up on the plates, which have now survived four tides...Then I returned to dry land to put up some laminated notices near the bridge that explain the piece. After that I drew a big X near the entrance to the Centre by pouring six bags of salvaged pottery fragments onto the ground. It was dark when I left, and the walkers had still not returned. Here's the big X (for Deptford X) by flashlight...

Hopefully I'll get a better shot in daylight!
Here's a better shot in daylight (but still a snap on the Sony)...

Willow verse on a crooked fence

Yesterday, Charles came to take photographs again. Can't wait to see them! Meanwhile, Emma and I attempted to put some vinyl lettering on the top of the railings on the turret (or looking post) of the bridge. Whilst we were fumbling about with lengths of white lettering, one of the strips was blown about by the breeze and disappeared into the Creek never to be seen again...

Today I got the missing words remade and went back to finish the job.

At high tide, only a very large platter and a tea-set were intended to be visible in the terrace (or 'dresser' as we like to call it). I saw that we had misjudged how high the tide would come, and two of the three cups and saucers that we had placed next to the teapot had floated away...we had not weighed them down...

Meanwhile there was an extraordinary site to be viewed from the other side of the bridge...Four Canada geese appeared to be walking on water...

They soon came downstream for a cup of tea...


Emma sets up the machinery to drill a hole through a Willow bowl...the bowl was then equipped with a steel rod to embed it on the floor of the Creek. Since this was felt to be a tripping hazard for walkers, we decided to attach paving slabs to the plates instead...

Elevated view of the Creek

On Monday 6th September, I had the opportunity of taking some photos of the view from the nearby new development on Greenwich High Road. I was hoping to use these in a drawing for a new Creekside Willow plate, but the building isn't actually as tall as I thought it was, and it was impossible to get the view I wanted. Still, it's good reference material...

Here is a picture taken from the hoardings surrounding the construction site:

Creekery installation

Installation took place in the afternoon on Sunday 19th September. At around 1pm I met with Jill Goddard at Creekside Centre to borrow some waders for Charles Shearer (, the photographer who has kindly agreed to take some pix of the piece. Then Emma turned up and we began to sort through what order we would work in and where things would go. Charles turned up at 2pm and began familiarising himself with the terrain and what lenses and filters he might use...

Maximum lowtide was predicted at 5pm, but by 3pm both banks of the river were exposed and we started work. By 5pm we had covered one bank. Jill was still working in the Centre and she invited us all in for tea and toasted tea cakes...Charles left and we returned to the Creek to complete the other bank and the middle channel, finishing at around 7.30pm when it was almost dark.

During the afternoon Emma was visited by a kestrel which swooped down beside her, two swans posed for Charles for almost five minutes, and a great many people crossed the bridge and made various comments to us...My favourite: "Hey, look, there's some Wedgwood!" (Alas, it is poundshop Willow...)

Those passing on Sunday had perhaps the closest experience to Mark Titchner's Deptford X theme –"daily discoveries uncovered by chance encounters on busy streets" – since they were not aware it was an art installation for Deptford X. It made me ponder the incongruity of needing to publicise something (and explain it) as part of a festival and the emphasis of the theme on people coming across the piece innocently, the better to be charmed or puzzled by it.

Due to either vanity or modesty, I'm not sure which, I had previously suggested to Charles that neither Emma or myself were keen on being photographed, but forgot to amend that request so that we might have some documentation of us working. Fortunately, Emma's friend Biss came by at around 6pm and took some pics on her camera phone...and before it got too dark I took some snaps of the completed installation...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Deptford X 2010 - no leaflets yet but publicity out there...

Two things noticeable about this page...
The plates are the wrong way round in the Creekery publicity pic. Oh dear....and the new development Creekside Village isn't on it...
And I find out that Annabel Tilley is involved in the festival. Annabel was one of the first artists I came across who had been working with the Willow Pattern. It appears she has been busy since on other projects...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Creek hoard

Selectively collected on the Creekery Project's latest lowtide foray into the Creek (28 August 2010):

6 knives
5 forks
15 pieces of blue & white pottery (5 Willow) and one pink one
1 gold & glass paste ring
1 whole pipe
1 set of keys
1 button
1 commemorative spoon from the US Supreme Court
1 ink bottle
1 square plate intact
1 piece blue glass
1 plastic children's book cover (Ricky Ricotta's Mighty Robot)
1 nail (a token – there are too many encrusted nails to collect)

The cutlery was found in the mudflats lying below Jones, the catering suppliers...

Creekery - the canvas

The view from Ha'Penny Hatch footbridge looking south at lowtide (August 2010). The bridge seen here is the viaduct carrying the Docklands Light Railway from Greenwich to Deptford Bridge and on to Lewisham. The line was part of the second stage extensions to the DLR and was opened in 1999. 

The official opening of the new Ha'penny Hatch footbridge in 2002 (picture courtesy National Maritime Museum, London).
The footbridge crosses Deptford Creek alongside the railway bridge. The modern lift bridge replaced the old wooden Ha'penny Hatch toll bridge, which closed in the 1920s. It cost a ha'penny – half an old penny – to cross.

Some more history...

Deptford Creek is the last tidal stretch of the River Ravensbourne (Randisbourne) before it flows into a part of the River Thames known as Greenwich Reach. The Creek lies partly in the Borough of Lewisham and partly in the Borough of Greenwich.

The most famous industrial plant in Deptford Creek was the Power Station. It stood at the mouth of the Creek and supplied electricity to Central London. The river provided an unlimited supply of water for cooling and allowed coal from the North East to be shipped in easily.

The bridge over Deptford Creek was the site of the Battle of Deptford Bridge, 17 June 1497, the last battle of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497.

From the 16th century onwards until its closure in the 19th century, the proximity of Royal Dockyard created by Henry VIII at Deptford gave employment to many small shipbuilders on the creek. Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on board the Golden Hind in Deptford Creek on Drake's return from his circumnavigation of the globe in 1580. The Golden Hind remained moored in the creek until it broke up.

The tidal Creek has been the site for three corn mills. The power of the tide would drive the machinery to mill the corn, which would be brought into the Creek by barge. The Domesday Book recorded eleven corn mills on the Ravensbourne in the 11th century. The 17th century London diarist John Evelyn bought one of these mills – Brookmills – in 1668 for "grinding colour".

From the early 19th century the Creek also hosted chemical works, engineering works, gasworks, soap and candle factories, sawmills, coal and timber wharves, paint works, breweries, food stores and verdigris works for the manufacture of copper sulphate.

Text gathered from wikipedia and

Deptford X 2010 - work continues

I went to a Poundshop Cash & Carry in Enfield and purchased over 100 Willoware items at cost price. The place was recommended by the proprietors of Peter & Joan in Deptford High Street. The 17" Churchill plate sold at £1.41 inc VAT. Peter & Joan sell them at £2.45. Some items had to be carefully chosen since there were many seconds in the stock available. Other items were quite expensive – teapots were over £8.