On a sunny Friday morning the Bow Porcelain artists- Felicity, Lizzie and Mathew, Rosamond Murdoch, Director of the Nunnery and myself visited the Newham Archives. The many rooms are packed with amazing artifacts from museum and archive collections in the borough of Newham. This building which in the past housed school furniture for the entire borough is now contains countless boxes, suitcases, desks and even a dolls house.
We were warmly welcomed by Sue Gosling, Collections Officer at London Borough of Newham. Sue led us up two flights of narrow wooden stiarcase to firstly look at two Mezzotint portraits believed to be of Thomas Frye (founder of the Bow Porcelain factory). These are fairly large monotone prints (around 50 x 90cm) portraits made through a fairly unusual process:
‘A mezzotint (in the Italian sense ‘half-tone’; French manière noire; German schabkunst) is a print made using a copper plate which has been worked over (‘grounded’) using a semi-circular fine-toothed tool (‘rocker’) so that the entire surface is roughened. In this state, when inked the plate will print solid black. The design is then created by scraping down and polishing areas of the plate. These will hold less ink and so print more lightly than the unpolished areas. ‘
National Portrait Gallery:What is a Mezzotint?
These portraits had been brought out of the collection for us by Sue to view and discuss their inclusion in the upcoming Bow Porcelain exhibition at the Nunnery. We unanimously gave them the thumbs- up and then went to look at ceramic objects from the collection.
On the way up the next flight of stairs Sue mentioned another project she had seen which brought together the heritage of porcelain production and contemporary society. She had seen a teaset made to comemorate the Chinese cockle- pickers who drowned off Morecame Bay in 2004. I later found an image of this set on the V&A website and an interesting description on the maker, Paul Scott’s blog.
Felicity, Sue and Rosamond
On the third floor we gathered around a long viewing/ handling table covered in large black foam mats to lessen the risk of damage to these precious objects which had been brought out of storage. Each artist had previously had the opportunity to make a selection from the catalogue of the Bow Porcelain artefacts in the Newham archive. Laid out in front of us in their boxes it was an unforgettable experience to see these items ‘in the flesh’ after reading about, and looking at images of them for so long. As Mathew said, it was surprising how much more beautiful and delicately crafted they were than we were expecting. These were lustrous and vibrant and spectacularly old.
The items selected by the artists included a wooden tray of wasters from the Bow Porcelain factory site, and a blue and white decorated bowl and saucer which Felicity had chosen as they link directly to the research behind, and aesthetic of the work she is producing. Mathew had chosen two figurines- of an exotic black woman, and a shepherdess. We also looked at a shell- shaped pickle dish which had been chosen by Lizzie.
As Sue has years of experience of handling items as precious as these we discussed with her the best way to transport and display them. For the Made in Bow exhibition we will be loaning two large metal- based glass display cabinets, and using black foam sheet inside the cabinets to display items on, and help keep them secure. We talked about using a mirror under the shell pickle-dish as Lizzie’s interest is in the contrast of the finished quality of the shell dish, and the roughness of its support.
I think we all felt it was a priveledge to have this experience of looking at and handling these items face- to- face instead of behind glass in a museum. The Bow Porcelain artists were able to make a seletion of the items that excite them most, and make a strong link with the interest that leads the direction of their work. The task now is to consider where to place these items in the gallery in relation to the artists contemporary work to exacerbate the visual links between them.
All images © Newham Archive