Saturday, 5 June 2021

CLAY

June.  Officially summer, according to the Meteorological Office, and we're hurtling towards the solstice.  

The bluebells which filled the grass verges and field banks with a blue haze all through May are going to seed.  Red Campion and Queen Anne's Lace give the lanes a festival feel and everywhere there is lush green growth.  

The arable field next to my house is sprouting serried ranks of maize seedlings.  Soon the footpath which cuts diagonally across the field will be impassable until the maize is cut for autumn sileage for feeding a large milking herd.  During the months when the field is bare I walk the footpath and pick up pieces of broken crockery: Willow pattern, some blue and white striped Cornishware, and a few unidentifiable fragments of pink or mauve patterned china.

Recently I've been listening to 'De Waal's Itinerant Pots', five talks in The Essay series on BBC Radio 3 by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal (the man who wrote The Hare with the Amber Eyes).  His theme was migration - of people, objects, ideas and language - all told through stories of pots and of his own experience as a potter.

I've learnt that the word kaolin for the white clay ('China clay') used in the manufacture of porcelain came to us from the Chinese, via the published letters of Père Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles who went to the city of Jingdezhen in China at the end of the 17th century.  

In the next century Josiah Wedgwood asked Captain James Cook to bring back samples of white clay from his voyages.  In 1767 Wedgwood commissioned Thomas Grifiths to go to America to source clay from a rich seam in the Appelachian Mountains.  Griffiths, in a notorious act of betrayal, stole six tons of the valuable clay from the Cherokee inhabitants who owned the land, loaded it on pack horses and then shipped it back to England in 1768.   

Seven years later Wedgwood started to manufacture of his famous Jasperware with figures and designs in white relief on an unglazed background (often blue - hence 'Wedgwood blue').  The inclusion of Cherokee clay was a selling point.  Among the artefacts produced in Jasperware were Cook commemorative medallions.

When I visited the House of Skaill in Mainland Orkney some years ago I was amazed to see a display case with the label 'Captain Cook's dinner service'.  It was a set of 'Oriental Lowestoft', white procelain with a design of dark pink flowers and a gold rim.  It was a type of porcelain from China made specifically for export and had travelled thousands of miles round the world on Captain Cook's voyages.  

How did the dinner service end up in the house of an Orkney Laird?  I don't know the details but a clue is that, after Captain Cook's death in Hawaii, his ships Resolution and Discovery made their first British landfall at Stromness, Orkney, in 1780, under the command of Captain John Gore.   My poem below is in the voice of Captain Gore.

Captain Cook's dinner service

Each evening, as the sky bloomed with stars,
dinner was served.
Red roses on white china
plates rimmed with gold, the edges crimped
into }s bringing together
Resolution and Discovery,
skirting the continent's shore -
the fractured ice by day,
by night the aurora's emerald and ruby.

It was not meant to end like this - 
two ships putting into Stromness
with their cargo of grief and loss.
I could smell peat smoke
as we entered the harbour,
fish curing, and late haymaking.
There was linen drying on sandstone walls
and high up a skein of geese
sailing across the sky.

Jetsam or salvage?  I gave them away -
those bowls, ice cracked, dirt glued.
They kept too many memories -
blood and bone gilded with sand,
our captain's death on a Hawaiian shore.
Now, where the slope of the hill hides
the ocean, they sleep,
safe in a glass case in the House of Skaill.

© Mary Robinson 2010
from The Art of Gardening Flambard Press 

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