Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fry's delights

Have finally got round to reading Stephen Fry's autobiography Moab Is My Washpot, just as Radio 4 start serialising his second. On page 48, he is remembering his anguish at never winning a star for bringing into his primary school something for the Nature Table.

"Grim weeks of effort and nature-trailing followed. I tried a starfish, a thrush egg, a collection of pressed campions and harebells and a boxful of shards of that willow pattern ironstone china that the Victorians buried in the earth for the sole purpose of disappointing twentieth-century treasure seekers..."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Another unidentified object

Ok, this isn't Willow. But it was part of hoard collected in my last Creek dip.

The back has part of a maker's mark: a little bird, some flowers, the word Chevrot(i?), and the initials J.M&.....
Have so far failed to identify the pattern and maker, but think the pattern might have been called Chevrotain, which is a small deer like the one pictured, sometimes called the mouse deer, varieties of species found in India, Malaya and West Africa...

Bakelite Willow

Emma collects Bakelite. She recently dug this butter dish out from her collection to show me...She said she hadn't been able to find any reference to such a marriage of Bakelite and Willow Pattern anywhere...

The nearest reference I have found is this "Blue and white china butter dish by George Jones, Staffordshire, made especially with Art Deco oak holder with silver plated rim and silver plated butter knife. 1920s."  
Not Bakelite, then.

Ai Weiwei's Tate show closes to public

Unfortunately I was too late to walk over Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds. I didn't get there till Sunday, the news having broken on Thursday that the Tate had decided to ban people from walking through the work, due to the Health & Safety risks incurred by the porcelain dust created from so many people visiting the show.

I suspect most people would be more than happy to wear a mask and even pay for it, so I'm inclined to think the closure is more to do with the amount of thieving going on...

I don't mind too much. The idea is mind blowing enough on its own.

Jonathan Jones writes in The Guardian here: "There is more to art than interaction, after all. Personally I quite like just looking at stuff. The imperative to slide down slides or lie on the floor to see yourself in a reflective ceiling has always seemed to me a distracting eccentricity of the Turbine Hall installations. The reason Ai Weiwei's work is among the very best of them is because he wants to make us think – about the individual in the crowd, the ocean of humanity, the incalculable numbers of people on this earth – and their fragility underfoot. That last point is obviously weakened when you can't get close.

"Surely this might have been foreseen? And is there a solution? Porcelain is fragile. Maybe visitors could simply be requested to remove their shoes? Perhaps in future the Tate should get the site-specific art experts Artangel to help with these commissions. Artangel have organised events involving toxic substances that passed health and safety. Anyway, this remains a serious and imposing work of art. Why not contemplate it like a philosopher standing on the shore imagining the immensity of the grey sea?"

The photo above by Tim Ireland accompanies a Guardian report by Mark Brown here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A History of the World in 100 Objects

This BBC Radio 4 series is finally coming to an end. And NUMBER 92 on the list (today) is a TEA SET!
I've been waiting for tea and teapots to come up for the last (and sometimes rather dreary) 91 episodes...and I'm really chuffed that my own research is validated by the British Museum's choice...although there would've been even more to say if they'd used the Willow Pattern, but perhaps they thought it a bit tacky...

This week's theme is Mass Production, Mass Persuasion (1780–1914)

Here's the transcript from the History of the World BBC website...

What could be more domestic, more unremarkable, more 'British', than a nice cup of tea? But you could ask that question the other way round and ask what could be 'less' British than a cup of tea, given that tea is made from plants grown in India, China or Africa, and is usually sweetened by sugar from the Caribbean. It's one of the extraordinary ironies of British national identity –- or perhaps it says everything about our national identity – that the drink that has become the worldwide caricature of Britishness has nothing indigenous about it, but is the result of centuries of global trade and a complex imperial history. Behind the modern British cup of tea lie the high politics of Victorian Britain. The story of nineteenth-century empire, of mass production and mass consumption, the taming of a turbulent and drunken industrial working class, the re-shaping of agriculture across continents, the movement of millions of people . . . and a world-wide shipping industry. It's a lot to think about as you tuck into the cucumber sandwiches at the vicarage.

"It takes one into the heart of the Victorian parlour. You have this superficial gloss of politeness and sobriety, but underneath you have this absolutely cut-throat imperial economic agenda." (Celina Fox)

This week we're looking at the global economy in the nineteenth century, at mass production and mass consumption, when all over the industrialised world luxuries became commonplace – clothes and clocks, pepper and porcelain – and some luxuries came to be seen as not only desirable but essential. In Britain, the most ubiquitous of all these former luxuries was tea.

Today's object is the tea set that I've got in front of me now – three pieces of brownish-red pottery. A smallish teapot with a short straight spout, a milk jug and a sugar bowl – the trinity of afternoon tea. They were made – as we can read on their bases – at Wedgwood's Etruria factory in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, in the heart of the Potteries. In the eighteenth century Wedgwood had made some of the most expensive ceramics in Britain, but this earthenware tea set shows that by the 1840s, when Wedgwood produced it, the company was aiming at a much wider market. This is quite clearly a mid-range tea set, of a sort that many quite modest British households were now able to afford. But this had not been the case for long.

Among the upper classes, tea had been popular since before 1700. It received celebrity endorsement first from Charles II's queen, Catherine of Braganza, and then again from Queen Anne. It came from China, it was expensive and it was refreshingly bitter, drunk in tiny cups without milk or sugar. People kept their tea in locked tea caddies as if it were a drug, and for those who could afford it, it often was. In the 1750s Samuel Johnson confessed himself a happy addict:

". . . a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for 20 years diluted his meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant, whose kettle scarcely has time to cool, who with Tea amuses the evening, with Tea solaces the midnights, and with Tea welcomes the morning." ('The Literary Magazine')

Desire for the drink increased steadily in the eighteenth century. At some point early in the century people had started adding milk and sugar, transforming bitter refinement into sustaining sweetness. Consumption rocketed - tea supplies surged to meet the nation's growing appetite, and prices fell. Unlike coffee, which was seen as a masculine drink, with heavy overtones of all lads together, tea was specifically marketed as a respectable drink suitable for both sexes – and women were particularly targeted. Tea houses and tea gardens flourished in London, china tea sets became an essential part of a fashionable household, and less costly versions in pottery spread throughout society.

There's one more point that needs to be made about our tea set. Although it's made of simple earthenware, it's been given something extra, because all three pieces have been decorated with lacy open-work silver, cut out by hand. This is not for a modest middle-class household – this is a tea set with serious aspirations. It's not just going to keep up with the Jones's, it's going to leave them far behind.

As the eighteenth century went on, and tea got cheaper, the taste for it spread rapidly to the working classes. In 1809 a startled Swedish visitor to Britain noted:

"Next to water, tea is the Englishman's proper element. All classes consume it. In the morning one may see in many places small tables set up under the open sky, around which coal-carters and workmen empty their cups of delicious beverage."

By 1900 every person in Britain was, on average, getting through a staggering three kilos of tea a year. The ruling classes had an interest in promoting tea-drinking among the industrial urban population, who were poor, vulnerable to disease, and thought to be given to disorderly drunkenness. Beer, port and gin had all become a significant part of the diet of men, women and even children, largely because alcohol as a mild antiseptic was much safer to drink than the unpurified city water. Religious leaders and temperance movements joined together to proclaim the merits of tea. A cup of sweet, milky tea made with boiled water was healthy, cheap, energy-giving - and it didn't make you drunk. So in that way it was also a powerful instrument of social control. Here's historian Celina Fox:

"Temperance was huge. Drink and the Victorians was a very big issue. The desire to have a working population that was sober and industrious was very, very strong, and there was a great deal of propaganda to that effect. It was tied in with dissent, Methodism and so on . . . sobriety . . . and tea really was the drink of choice. And on top of that you have got the ritual of afternoon tea, because by this time dinner had become so late - 7.30, 8 o'clock – it was quite a bit of a gap for the British tummy between lunchtime and evening. So again, there is a revival of tea drinking as a sort of meal – for sandwiches and so forth – round about 4 o'clock. So really tea drinking takes off in a massive way in the nineteenth century."

In a remarkable re-branding of the British character, boisterous, rowdy beer was ousted as the defining national drink, and replaced by polite, respectable tea. Songs and poems celebrated tea's triumph over the demon drink:

"With you I see, in ages yet unborn, 
Thy votaries the British Isles adorn,
 Till rosy Bacchus shall his wreaths resign, 
And love and tea triumph o'er the vine."

But our loving, tranquil cup of tea has a violent hinterland. To buy tea from the Chinese, British traders brought huge quantities of opium into the country, a practice that led to the two Opium Wars between Britain and China. We refer to these as the Opium Wars, but in fact they were just as much about tea. And the first Opium War broke out more-or-less at the same time as our teapot was leaving the Wedgwood factory.

Traders began looking for other sources, and in the 1830s the British set up tea plantations around Calcutta. In order to encourage demand, tea from British India was exempted from import duty, and strong, dark Assam tea became the patriotic national "cuppa". As the century went on, further tea plantations were established in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and large numbers of Tamils moved from South India to Ceylon to work on them. The physical geography and the populations of both India and Sri Lanka were re-shaped by the insatiable British thirst for tea. Here's Monique Simmonds from Kew Gardens:

"You would have had hundreds of acres being turned over to tea, especially in India. They also had success when they took it to places like Ceylon. It would have had an impact on local populations, but it also did bring jobs to the area – although low-paid jobs – and started off with males being employed. But then it was mostly females who would be clipping the tea. Local communities in parts of India and China were benefiting from growing the material, and also being able to sell it. But the added value from the trade would have really occurred within the Empire, and especially within Britain."

If there was big money in growing tea, fortunes were also made in shipping it. The tea trade required huge numbers of large fast clippers, and when they docked in British harbours they met cargo vessels coming from the other side of the world, bringing sugar from the Caribbean.

Getting sugar on to the British tea table had, until recently, also had a darker side. The first African slaves in the Americas worked on sugar plantations, the start of the long and terrible triangular trade that carried European goods to Africa, African slaves to the Americas, and slave-produced sugar to Europe. After a long campaign, which involved many of the same people who supported temperance movements, slavery in the British West Indies had been abolished in 1830. But there was still a great deal of slave sugar around – Cuba was a massive producer - and it was of course cheaper than the sugar produced on free plantations. In the 1840s, the ethics of sugar were hot politics.

The most peaceful part of our tea set is of course the milk jug. But it too is part of a huge social and economic transformation. Until the 1830s, for urban-dwellers to have milk, cows had to live in the city – it's an aspect of nineteenth-century life we're barely aware of now. But suburban railways changed all that. Thanks to them, the cows could leave town.

"A new trade has been opened in Surrey since the completion of the South-Western Railway. Several dairies of 20 to 30 cows are kept, and the milk is sent to the various stations of the South-Western Railway, and conveyed to the Waterloo terminus for the supply of the London Market."

Our tea set is in fact a three-piece social history of nineteenth-century Britain. And it's a lens through which we can look at a large part of the history of the world. Here's historian Linda Colley:

"I think the other striking thing for me is, of course, it does underline how much empire – consciously or not – impacts on everybody eventually in this country. If, in the nineteenth century, you are sitting at a mahogany table, drinking tea with sugar, you are linked to virtually every continent on the globe. You are linked with the Royal Navy, which is guarding the sea routes between these continents. You are linked with this great tentacular capital machinery, through which the British control so many parts of the world and ransack them for commodities."

In the next programme we will be in another tea-drinking island nation, but one that – quite unlike Britain – had done all it could to keep itself separate from the rest of the world. Yet the image that I shall be looking at is now known all over the world . . . we'll be in Japan, with a print of Hokusai's 'Great Wave'.

Further notes from the website:

This tea set was made by the famous Staffordshire pottery firm founded by Josiah Wedgwood. It is made of red stoneware, which came to Europe from China via Holland in the 1600s, and can withstand hot water. Tea was initially a luxury product but by 1830 it was increasingly drunk by everyone in Britain using mass-produced pottery and porcelain. Historically this set has been associated with Queen Adelaide (1792 - 1849), wife of William IV. Although simple and originally moderately-priced, the pieces have been ornamented with silver to make them more prestigious and desirable.

How did drinking tea become a patriotic duty in Britain?

Vast geopolitical forces lie behind the creation of this simple tea set. In Britain between 1840 and 1900 the consumption of tea and sugar quadrupled. Mass consumption required mass production on an industrial scale and huge tea plantations were developed by the British in India and Sri Lanka. New sources of sugar were also developed, reducing the role of the former slave plantations in the Caribbean. Tea drinking was regarded as patriotic as it supported British trade and empire, unlike wine and coffee, beverages of imperial rivals.

Looking behind domestic tranquillity

This elegant tea set was probably made for an aristocratic or even royal household. But this object and its manufacturer, Wedgwood, were emblematic of Britain’s own transformation from the ‘polite and commercial society’ of the eighteenth century to the mass consumer society of the nineteenth. The tea set became a desired item for middle and working class households as the custom of sociable family tea parties spread across society and Wedgwood’s tasteful designs, but mass production techniques, flourished along with it.

Yet the wider history of tea consumption belies this picture of domesticity. In the mid-eighteenth century, tea began to edge out coffee as the sociable drink. It was thought to be lighter and more health-giving. Yet China’s black and green teas, produced in its central provinces and transported down to Canton (Guangzhou), the Qing Empire’s only ‘open’ port, were the main source for European and American consumers. The tea of Assam and Ceylon only came on-stream in the 1840s and after.

It was the English East India Company which monopolised the trade, bringing tea westward in exchange for silver and later, Indian raw cotton. Cotton was one of the few commodities the Chinese Empire needed, as its population outgrew local sources of supply.

Then war and politics brutally intervened. The company’s American market was suddenly destroyed after American patriots revolted against the tea taxes imposed by Britain and stormed its ships in the famous ‘Boston tea party’ of 1773, hastening the American War of Independence. 

When the United States became independent in 1783, the East India Company lost its foothold in America, just at the time when its military costs were rising as it invaded larger and larger areas in India itself. Bankruptcy loomed, but this national champion was ‘too big to fail.’

William Pitt’s government intervened and reduced the duties on tea to a fraction of what they had been. 

This was what caused the surge in tea drinking in Britain and ultimately made Wedgwood and other pottery-makers a fortune. But what was there to sell to the Chinese to supply the rising demand? Silver supplies had dwindled and the demand for raw cotton was erratic. 

Opium, however, was another matter. It made its own market. It was grown in western India, which the British now controlled, and sold in China through Canton. The opium habit spread from the court to the aristocracy and to ordinary people, like a sinister version of tea in Britain. A huge illicit trade developed and the Chinese authorities became worried as labourers and the army were infected.

The situation reached breaking point when the Company lost its monopoly in 1834 and private merchants, British and Indian, piled into the trade, flooding the China coast with opium. In 1839 Commissioner Lin Zexu marched to Canton and destroyed the British opium ships. So began the First Opium War of 1839-42 and the beginning of China’s long humiliation.

Two hundred or more years later the Boston Tea Party and the Opium War still haunt world politics. Behind the domestic tranquillity of this pretty tea set lies a history of warfare and exploitation.
Professor Christopher Bayly, Director of the Centre of South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge

Three objects that changed the world

Tea had been drunk in England since the seventeenth century but only really by the classes that could afford it because duties were so high that it became a sort of socially high caste activity, especially for ladies. It was about polite sociability and entertaining your friends around the tea table, but they carefully locked up their tea in tea caddies. 

But by the late eighteenth century, Pitt the Younger realized he could get quite as much duty if he lowered the duty on tea and then more people would drink it, and so gradually from the 1770s through to the 1830s the duties on tea were coming down, and you could say by the time this teapot was manufactured, it was in reach as a drink for the working people.

Tea drinking takes off in a massive way in the nineteenth century. 

It’s pretty widespread, because of course by that time you’ve got distribution. You’ve got tea merchants all around the country, you’ve got the railways distributing it, and it’s generally available. You’ve got packaging, you’ve got individual companies: Brookebond is starting around this time; Lipmans, all of these people are really joining the older tea merchants like Twinings and Fortnum & Mason who started in the eighteenth century. So the whole market is growing, growing, growing. 

Temperance was huge; drink and the Victorians was a very big issue. The desire to have a working population that was sober and industrious was very strong, and there was a great deal of propaganda to that effect. It was tied in with dissent, Methodism and so on – sobriety, and tea really was the drink of choice. 

The middle classes have been exploding away in Britain since the eighteenth century, and the population of Britain is growing massively, and it’s becoming increasingly urbanised, but I think you can just say it’s a huge population growth in Britain at this time. 

London is the largest city in the world, and you’ve got a massive increase in birth rate and the death rate means that the population is growing enormously. The British navy was everywhere, and what the British Navy wanted the British Navy usually got, and the result is that it was able to control these massive movements of goods into not only the London docks but also the other docks, the Liverpool and Bristol and all round the country, Glasgow. 

Yes, you could say they did change the face of the world, for this tiny country off Western Europe.
Dr Celina Fox, art and cultural historian

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern 2

Photo: Lennart Preiss/AP (from

Adrian Searle's review (Guardian, May 11 2010)

Tate Modern's sunflower seeds: the world in the palm of your hand
Courtesy of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Turbine Hall is now carpeted with a million hand-painted seeds – an image of globalisation both politically powerful and hauntingly beautiful

At first sight Ai Weiwei's installation Sunflower Seeds presents us with an undifferentiated field of grey, filling the space between the bridge and the end wall of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. It is almost disappointing. The late Felix Gonzalez-Torres's piles of cellophane-wrapped sweets, which he showed in the 1980s, were prettier, and you were free to eat them (the American artist liked the idea that people could leave his shows with a nice taste lingering in their mouths). But the sweets were also metaphors for the Aids crisis, and much besides. Nothing in art is what it seems. And you can't eat a single one of Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds, any more than you could Marcel Duchamp's marble sugar cubes. They'd break your teeth.

But you can trudge over them, walk or skip or dance on these seeds, all of them Made in China. Or scoop up handfuls and let them run through your fingers, in the knowledge that someone, an old lady or a small-town teenager in Jingdezhen, has delicately picked up each one and anointed it with a small brush. Every seed is painted by hand. The town that once made porcelain for the imperial court has been saved from bankruptcy by making sunflower seeds. It is absurd.

I love this work. It is a world in a hundred million objects. It is also a singular statement, in a familiar, minimal form – like Wolfgang Laib's floor-bound rectangles of yellow pollen, Richard Long's stones or Antony Gormley's fields of thousands of little humanoids. Sunflower Seeds, however, is better. It is audacious, subtle, unexpected but inevitable. It is a work of great simplicity and complexity. Sunflower Seeds refers to everyday life, to hunger (the seeds were a reliable staple during the Cultural Revolution), to collective work, and to an enduring Chinese industry. But it is also symbolic. It joins several previous Turbine Hall commissions – most recently Doris Salcedo's 2008 Shibboleth and Miroslaw Balka's How It Is – in a dialogue about the social and cultural place of art.

The meanings are as multiple and singular as its form. Ai Weiwei has taken the lesson of Duchamp's readymade and Warhol's multiples and turned them into a lesson in Chinese history and western modernisation, and the price individuals in China pay for that. Every unique seed is homogenised into a sifting mass. Most contemporary Chinese art is a product made for western consumption, just as willow-pattern plates or porcelain vases were shipped out in huge quantities for the western market.

Ai is the best artist to have appeared since the Cultural Revolution in China. He has smashed ancient vases, taken a thousand Chinese citizens to a small town in Germany – his contribution to the five-yearly Documenta contemporary art show in Kassel in 2007 – made works about the Chinese government's response to the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, and the social crackdowns during the year of the Olympics. Ai takes on the world through an attitude, rather than a style. With his blogs and tweets, he is a constant communicator. However absurd his works might appear to be, he understands the place of the artist, recognising that his work exists in a global world of social, cultural and economic relations. He has a sort of social engagement Duchamp lacked, or couldn't have, and that Warhol dissembled.

Ai's field of sunflower seeds is both contemplative and barbed. Generous in spirit, everyone can get it. It will no doubt have a huge audience at Tate Modern, one that might see it as no more than an entertaining spectacle and treat it like a day at the beach. Yet Sunflower Seeds is contingent, oddly moving and beautiful. It is like quicksand.

More pictures from the Guardian site here.

Ai Weiwei at Tate Modern

I knew it would be brilliant....

This video comes courtesy of The Telegraph. If it defaults to something else, please go to YouTube here.

I posted about Ai Weiwei here....

Meanwhile, The Guardian (Charlotte Higgins,, Monday 11 October 2010 17.41 BST)

People power comes to the Turbine Hall: Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds
It took an army of 1,600 Chinese artisans to create Ai Weiwei's 100m handpainted porcelain 'seeds', which are scattered over the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

The floor is entirely covered with a deep layer of what appear to be grey pebbles. It is like a bleak Suffolk beach, and a toddler, getting into the spirit of it, has shed her shoes and is having a sit-down in her stockinged feet. Adults are not so comfortable: as if caught out by a freak snowstorm in the wrong shoes, several are picking a distinctly wobbly way over the crunchy, uneven surface, suddenly looking out of place in autumnal London clothes.

This is the latest installation in Tate Modern's Turbine Hall – a series of wow-factor installations that have, over the past decade, included Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth, a deep fissure running through the concrete floor of the building, and Olafur Eliasson's The Weather Project, which filled the space with mist and mirrors.

There is more to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's installation than meets the eye, however. Bend and pick up one of the "pebbles" and you can see that it resembles a sunflower seed encased in its striped husk. In fact, each one – and there are 100 million of them, covering an area of 1,000 square metres – is handmade from porcelain and has been individually handpainted.

Ai – a bearded, impassive, black-clad figure, who snapped the photographers surrounding him at today's press view almost as busily as they did him, and posted the results on Twitter – had the "seeds" made in the southern Chinese city of Jingdezhen.

"Historically, the town's only activity has been making porcelainware for over 1,000 years. The super-high-quality skill for generations has been making imperial porcelainware," he said. "In modern days, however, it has become very commercialised."

Harnessing traditional craft skills, each seed was moulded, fired, and painted with three or four individual brush strokes, often by women taking the objects home to work on them. One thousand six hundred people were involved in the process. "Even taxi drivers were talking about it," he said.

"I tried to explain to [the artisans] what we wanted them for, but they found it very difficult to understand," said Ai. "Everything they usually make is practical, and the painters are used to creating classically beautiful flowers using a high degree of skill."

He said that the workers had been paid a living wage – in fact slightly more than customary – to work on the project. "Now they are asking when we can start again," he said. "I shall have to think of a new project."

Sunflower seeds, he said, had a particular significance in recent Chinese culture and history. During the cultural revolution, Mao Zedong was often likened to the sun and the people to sunflowers, gazing adoringly at his face. But sunflowers were also a humble but valued source of food in straitened times, a snack to be consumed with friends.

Ai also likened the artwork to Twitter – a vast sea of ideas and communication contributed by individual people. Ai now uses Twitter regularly after the blogs he kept were in turn censored by the Chinese authorities. One of his online projects has been to amass the names of those killed in the Sichuan earthquakes of 2008.

What if the temptation to put one of these lovingly made objects in your pocket becomes too great? Smiling, he said: "They might also want to eat one, and that would be a safety issue for the museum." He added: "If I was in the audience I would definitely want to take a seed. But for the museum, it is a total work, and taking a seed would affect the work. Institutions have their own policies. But I know I would want to take a seed."

A spokeswoman for the museum confirmed that they would be "encouraging people not to" depart with a souvenir. After the installation at Tate Modern is closed (it is on show from tomorrow until 2 May) the seeds, which weigh 150 tons, will be shipped back to Ai's studio in Beijing, where he will think about using them for another project.

Did he make any of the 100 million sunflower seeds himself? "I made three or four," he said. "But none of them was any good."

More about Ai Weiwei in The Observer here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Drawing paper

During the DX festival, Emma picked up a newspaper at Bearspace. Called Drawing Paper, it's 'an innovative paper magazine dedicated to drawing, published to coincide with the Liverpool Biennial'. Emma thought I should see this pen and ink drawing by printmaker Julia McKenzie...called The China Sea...

Pictures taken from Julia's blog...

Thievery Part 2 - last day of Deptford X

More miserable rain Sunday morning...I got a call from Charles Hayward...his wife had just crossed the Ha'Penny Hatch and seen two blokes down in the mud. Looked like they were stealing plates. Charles had to call me a few times on all the different numbers he had for me before I woke up. By then he was on the trail of the thieves who were now walking through our estate struggling to carry two carrier bags with about 30 plates in them! Leila Galloway was also about making preparations for her Deptford X event on the estate which was scheduled for 2pm. Leila apparently apprehended the guys and made them put down their hoard. The guys ran off and Leila came upstairs to let me know, whilst Charles moved the heavy loads to a safe hiding place (under my car)...

It was obviously the same characters that Steve Lewis saw yesterday...only this time their efforts had been thwarted. It turned out they had accessed the Creek via a ladder from the bridge on the eastern bank and removed mostly all of the plates on that bank. It must've been hard work for them since the ladder stops more than 6 feet above the mudbank and they appeared to have had no waders. Their ingenuity has to be admired.

However, it was the last day of the festival, the weather was awful, and it hardly seemed worth putting the plates back in the Creek. I went over to the Centre at around 1.30pm to see if there was still going to be a Lowtide Walk. The weather brightened and the walk went ahead. Because there had been so much rain, the mud had been flushed out and all sorts of new flotsam and jetsam had surfaced. I collected the largest haul yet of blue and white...only one of the fragments collected had come from the installation.

Originally I had thought that this Sunday was going to be the best day to see the piece for anyone attending Deptford X. The tide was not due in till 7.30pm. And although it was the last day of the festival I had intended to leave the dismantling of the project till the next weekend, and spend this week installing a webcam to make a film of the tides going in and out over the plates.

But I feared that if I put the stolen plates back in, and before the webcam could be set up, the thieves would be back today to remove them again...they might even be back today to remove what they had left on the western bank. Of course if I'd not had to work (for money) last week I'd've set up the webcam already and would have had the thieves on a feed!

So the decision was made to dismantle the installation after the walk...obviously this job was made much easier because almost half the installation had already been removed by the tea leafs!

Here are the last two teacups...

By 7pm, the Creek was empty of Willow and the festival over.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


On my way to the market this afternoon I bumped into Steve Lewis from APT. He said he'd seen a couple of shifty looking blokes walking along Creekside earlier in the day with a carrier bag full of Willow Pattern. He wondered if they had nicked them from my installation, but noted that their boots were not muddy – it didn't look as if they had been in the Creek...perhaps it was a coincidence and they had just bought them in the high street?

I thought he was joking, and carried on to the market...later I went to the Hatch to have a look...

Here's how it was on Wednesday after I went down to mend the damage done by the Environment Agency...

This is how it is now...the teapot, the three large platters and ten large plates have been stolen from the 'right' bank...

Six large plates have been nicked from the 'left bank'.....

Everyone thought the tide would take them away, but no, this is Deptford, and so it can be no surprise that anything that is not nailed down will be carried off by a cash strapped Deptford tea leaf...

A pity they could not wait ONE MORE DAY till the festival finished tomorrow...

The resale value of the stolen plates is over £100...The piece isn't insured since the most likely threat to it would be perceived – surely uninsurable! It doesn't really matter about the value since when we made the piece three weeks ago, the most obvious threat to its longevity was the turns out that nature has been kind to let it stay for so long (absolutely amazing) but human intervention has ruined the display one day short of the desired (human) schedule...

More important than how the piece now looks on the last day of Deptford X, or the value of plates, if the thieves don't thoroughly sterilize the plates but sell them on, anyone who buys them and uses them risks exposure to Weil's disease (pronounced Vile's) aka Leptospirosis, also known as canicola fever, hemorrhagic jaundice, infectious jaundice, mud fever, spirochetal jaundice, swamp fever, swineherd's disease, caver's flu or sewerman's flu – a bacterial infection resulting from exposure to the Leptospira interrogans bacterium.

That is one of the reasons why Creekside Centre is so extremely Health & Safety conscious. Considering public health, I should probably get a witness statement from Steve Lewis...

Friday, October 1, 2010

CREEKERY at Deptford X 2010

Sue Lawes © 2010
Ceramic in Deptford Creek at Ha’Penny Hatch, SE8 
Photo: Charles Shearer

Deptford X 2010   24 September – 3 October

“The Thames...can be considered to be a museum, containing a collection of material finding its way into the river, where it is sorted and classified according to the river’s own internal physical dynamics, those of transport and deposition, tide, current and flow.” 

CREEKERY is visable from Ha’Penny Hatch footbridge at lowtide between the following approximate times:

Friday 24 September:  05.00 – 13.00 & 17.30 – dark
Saturday 25 September:  05.45 – 13.45 & 18.00 – dark
Sunday 26 September:  06.15 – 14.15 & 18.30 – dark
Monday 27 September:  06.45 – 14.45    
Tuesday 28 September:  07.00 – 15.00    
Wednesday 29 September:  07.30 – 15.30    
Thursday 30 September:  08.00 – 16.00    
Friday 1 October:  08.45 – 16.45    
Saturday 2 October:  09.45 – 17.00    
Sunday 3 October:  11.30 – 19.30

What are all those crocks doing in the Creek?

An English interpretation of Chinese handpainted porcelain decoration developed in 1790 at the start of the Industrial Revolution...a design that traversed the world with the English colonialists and is still in production today...The Creek – home to Deptford’s industrial past, and a habitat for invasive species like the Chinese mitten crab (brought back in ships’ ballast from the far east) and the Buddleia (from the mountains of China)...The viewer surveys the spectacle from an elevated position, echoing the unusual perspective in the pattern...

The Ravensbourne, a wild river flowing into The Thames, full of flotsam and jetsam…a predominance of broken decorated blue and white ceramic washed up on the Thames foreshore, abundant due to its popularity at a time when everyone discarded their rubbish into the river...This new Willow might eventually become battered fragments to be discovered by future beachcombers...

Like the invasive species in the Creek, the artist’s intervention is a form of colonisation. The movement of the tides reflects the economic ebb and flow of trade as Europe returns to China for cheaper manufacturing, as they did with the first porcelain plate. And like China herself, much is hidden, to occasionally surface.

Technical assistance: Emma Redstone
Access and support: Creekside Education Trust
Press photos: Charles Shearer

Extract from Disjecta Reliquiae: The Tate Thames Dig by Robert Williams writing about artist Mark Dion’s Tate Thames Dig in Archaeology, pp75-76 (Black Dog Publishing)

Sunday 3 October at 2pm

This walk is part of a series organised by Creekside Education Trust.
Meet at Creekside Centre, 11 Creekside SE8 4SA. Participants need to be reasonably fit since you will be walking on the bed of a wild river. Waders, waterproofs and walking sticks are provided.
Adults: £10, Children & concessions £8.50,
Family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) £28
Booking is essential (by email):

Environment Agency - before and after



Jill Goddard from Creekside Centre wrote on Wednesday:

I have spoken to the contractors and got out of them the contact at Workspace responsible for engaging the Environment Agency and this mess. I have spoken to him and told him what I think of his behaviour and I have banned workmen from the site until they have the decency to book access properly. I have asked for full plans of works and schedules...I will use the fact of what they said as a blatant lie and report this back to the Workspace guy so he knows.

Nick Bertram from the Centre wrote yesterday:

There was no communication. Despite what this character said we had no knowledge of what they were going to do and they didn't have any permission from us at all. I don't actually think he was lying – he had just been told what he wanted to hear.

I was down in the Creek just now and the rain has flushed the mud right out. Hooray!! I don't know if any have been washed away but I was astonished that none of your plates in the river have been smashed. The two shopping trolleys by the bridge have been shifted – the bigger one just the other side of the bridge and I couldn't find the smaller one at all. The worst of the spate has flushed through – the river's still slightly high but is safe to enter.

Alas, the weather is so awful today, there will be no cleaning of plates, and probably very few art tourists.