The technique was loose and sloppy. The imagery bordered on abstraction. The finished product seemed almost tossed together. But closer examination reveals an intense, studied effort. This was 17th century delftware from Southwark on the Thames River, opposite London.
What was going through these potters’ minds? More to the point, what was going on right outside their doors?
Potters, along with painters, glaziers, weavers, metal smiths, wood workers, and artisans of all sorts congregated in Southwark from the 13th century onwards. Musicians and actors (including Shakespeare and the famous Rose Theater) joined them.
But "congregated" is a generous term. "Confined" would be more accurate. Many of Southwark’s artisans, potters included, were "strangers" or "aliens" – immigrants that is: Dutch, French, German, Spanish, etc. Most were gathered by the Royal family or other local elites wanting the ‘latest and greatest.’ Alien artisans weren’t allowed to settle within London city limits, however, thanks to collusive efforts of London’s various artisan guilds. (In a true expression of big city mentality, "foreigners" were English nationals from outside London who, like actors and musicians, weren’t much welcomed either.)
London’s guilds continually petitioned the crown to evict, tax, restrain, or otherwise punish those nasty alien ‘job stealers.’ Guild vitriol curiously belied sentiments echoed a little over 100 years later in the newly independent United Colonies of America – that handiwork of foreign artisans seemed superior to local products.
Back in Southwark, restriction had its advantages. The London guilds’ more extreme efforts rarely stuck because Southwark was outside the authority of London’s bailiffs. Southwark was a multicultural and aesthetic melting pot spiced with a righteous dose of siege mentality. The scene was further powered by caffeine, an exotic new stimulant then flooding English society.
Respectable London saw Southwark as a rough, seedy, blue light district full of prostitutes, thieves, aliens, actors and artisans of all stripes (which it was). But everyone who was anyone wanted what Southwark offered…
Other English delftware pottery centers of Norwich, Liverpool, and Bristol – port towns all – were similar ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’ (to paraphrase a famous traveler from a galaxy long ago and far away). These were the dodgy environments that produced some of the most creative art of the era.
The King’s Glass. Carola Hicks. Random House/London. 2007
The Graves Are Walking. John Kelly. Macmillan/London. 2012.