Some of Polly Devlin’s quirkiest finds …
Photographs by Tom Craig
Taurus and Friend
If someone asked me what is my favourite thing in the house, or what would I rescue, apart from living creatures, I would be hard put to answer. They would probably be the least valuable things, the things that make me smile, sometimes because of the juxtaposition, sometimes because of their chutzpah. So with these two, staring at each other, one with amazement, the other with naïve trepidation. The bull was made in the 1950s for the great English china and pottery firm Wedgwood by a consummate but unacclaimed artist Arnold Machin, and the Zodiac signs are by that lovely witty genius Eric Ravilious, killed during the war aged only 39. A great loss to Britain’s putative artistic heritage, Ravilious’s designs still look fresh and spontaneous and exude the spirit of joy. I would dearly love to have a Ravilious watercolour but they are out of my reach and unavailable. Many are now in museums. The tiny china dog painted with matching wit and joy is one of those kitsch Japanese ornaments (even the word is atavistic) stamped “foreign” made in the 1950s. I bought it when I was ten in Woolworth’s in Bray. It cost two shillings, a lot of pocket money then. It appealed to the child I was and it appeals to the child I am now and the moment I tucked tiny him peering up at big bull the combination made me laugh. I think both are wonderful. I could buy the zodiac bull now for £700, I could not ever find the Japanese dog again.
The Duckling Gourd
I was clearing my old pumpkins from out of the turned wooden dish by the talented woodturner Neil Fitzduff (who grew up near me in Ardboe) when one ancient small white gourd caught my eye. Sitting on a kitchen shelf is a happening I put together: a carved wooden duck, so perfectly sculpted, so elegant, so anonymous but certainly English, looking down with amazement (in much the same way as the little bull is looking up at Taurus) at a clutch of china eggs. These, as so many of you may not know now, were china eggs slipped underneath broody hens (called clocking) instead of real eggs to keep them happy and to stop henowners from drowning in chickens.
I turned the white and black gourd upside down, tucked it among the eggs and hey presto, a duckling has just hatched. Laugh? I nearly died.
Fooling The Eye
Nearly everyone loves blue and white china. Right? I’ve loved it ever since as an infant I first noticed the willow pattern plates in the top shelves in our kitchen. My grandfather who had dementia – although then the condition was called doting – had recall enough at one point to tell me the story of the lovers escaping across the willow tree bridge, chased by an angry father. I remember little else about him now except that I was frightened of him in his later, madder years, a far cry from someone who had been a most distinguished man, a magistrate, an eel merchant, who made a fortune and lost it on the stock market; more specifically, dealing in Mexican Eagles. A more suspect name is hard to imagine!
So the common willow pattern plate started me off on my blue and white passion, it telling its tale, and, in turn, my tale, but the two pieces above are unique and sad. They were made by a young ceramic artist called Simon Pettet. He lived with Dennis Severs, an American who in the 1970s bought a perfect Georgian house in Folgate Street in Spitalfields, London in order to make an immersive happening. This was where the Huguenots settled after the Bartholomew Day massacres and where they set up their silk-weaving and banking business (as they did in Dublin. My grandmother was of Huguenot descent so all this ties in with my life and history.) Severs turned every one of its rooms into works of drama and historical imagination. He furnished it as if a Huguenot family lived and worked there: no electricity, no gas, coal fires and lit only by candles. To set foot in it is to enter a time machine into another age.
Simon took for his inspiration the 16th-century blue Delftware known as faience, to create obelisks and vases originally designed as showpieces to display tulips. These displays reached their apogee at the time of Tulip Mania when fortunes were made and lost on a single bulb. These vases were luxury items, extremely expensive, as were the lovely round ginger and storage jars.
Flat-back or faux vases were made for the top shelves of cabinets since viewed from below they looked like the real thing, and were both cheaper and easier to ship. Simon’s vases and obelisks were all so brilliant that they are almost indistinguishable from the 17th-century originals. He made mugs based on 18th-century ware which remind me of Irish spongeware. I tried to buy as much as I could of his work and these are two examples – the flat ones are rare. Well, they are all rare now that Simon is long dead. Alas, he was only 28 when he died in 1983.
Although Dennis Severs died in 1999 the house is still open to the public, and if you visit you will see some of Simon’s witty blue and white tiles in one of the fireplaces.
Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.