Here we all are in this morning’s team meeting with our favourite objects. Kate had a shark’s jaw bone with some nasty looking teeth, Steve had a copy of the Salford register because it had details of the most important ethnographic objects in the Museum collection, Phil had some parasitic flies, Campbell part of an ivory chariot fitting, Rachel had some saffron, Lindsey had some rubber stamps, Henry a mounted Ross’ gull and I took along a post-medieval watering can made of fired clay (accession no. 20838). The latter is one of my favourite objects in the collection. I kind of fell in love with it as soon as I saw it in the Museum store.
It’s about 36cm tall and as you can see it’s made of orange-red clay with a brownish glaze. You can see where the separately made rose that spinkles the water was joined to the body of the pot. The potter pushed the clay down with his thumb to create a leaf or petal effect which is duplicated on the lid of the watering can. Calling this a watering can is a bit of misnomer of course because it isn’t made out of metal. It would be more accurate to call it a watering-pot.
That is what I really like about it. It ought to be made out of metal (zinc) or plastic as they are today. Making it out of ceramic would make it more likely to be broken but it was made at a time – presumably the 1600s or 1700s – when clay was the material of choice. It was cheap, versatile, and relatively easy to work in the hands of a good potter. Alternative materials were either expensive or hadn’t been invented yet. In the same way that ceramic was the ancient Greeks’ plastic and was used to make objects like children’s potties, ceramic was the plastic of medieval and post medieval England and was used to make watering-pot. Some of my colleagues were surprised by the watering pot and thought it would easily get broken. That may be true but being ceramic it could have been replaced fairly cheaply. This example is from London. I found a reference in one of the Museum annual reports to a:-
‘seventeenth century watering pot with rose and partly covered mouth found during excavations in Finsbury’ donated by Mr. S.Gordon Hynes in 1938-9 (Annual Report p.23).
What I also find fascinating about this pot is that it seems to announce the development of gardening as a serious occupation with its specialised own tools of the trade. Good gardeners were in great demand for setting out ornamental gardens and growing vegetables. John Tradescant (1570-1638) served a number of high status households prior to his engagement by Charles I as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. He travelled overseas to collect plants. His son, also called John, followed in his father’s footsteps. What is even more interesting is that the Tradescants’ private collection of curiosities became the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford so there’s a nice conneciton between gardening and collecting plants and collecting objects and the first museums.