Sunday, March 22, 2015

“Life has no pleasure nobler than friendship” - and other poignant proverbs painted on pottery in Torquay

By Carla Nix’s daughter

Being a geologist by training, were I to travel to Devon, England today, I should bring home a chunk of greywacke rock – for that is the site locale for the Devonian system (aka ‘The Age of Fishes’ in the geologic time scale). And it’s where most of the story regarding The Great Devonian Controversy – the most important theoretical issues ever to be discussed at the Geological Society of London, the leading forum for geological debate in the 1800s – was centered. That historical event “is important today because it was a characteristic piece of scientific debate: in the judgment of the relevant scientists, it resulted in a significant new piece of reliable knowledge about the natural world.” (In case you are wondering, controversies that are not characteristic “have not been resolved and are not consensually regarded as having added to the stock of natural knowledge.”) The next time you’re in Devon, please appreciate that, as noted in a collaboratively written Geological Guide to Devon’s Rocks, “Devon’s geology is one of the most varied in the British Isles and this is reflected in the great variety of its landscapes. The county records around 415 million years of Earth history and is particularly distinguished by being the only one in the British Isles to give its name to an interval of geological time of world-wide recognition - the Devonian."

Selection of 'motto ware' from Torquay, England
Hundreds of Devon tourists had come and gone a couple hundred years before I even had a chance. What they chose to bring home as a memento was often a piece of the popular Torquay ‘motto ware’ (what we now refer to as ‘Torquay pottery’) made from the numerous clay beds in the area. As noted in The Old Torquay Potteries (1978, by D&E Loyd Thomas): “Although the Torquay pottery industry differed from its Staffordshire counterpart in that it was mainly concerned with the manufacture of decorative, rather than utilitarian, wares it would be rash to assert that any firm did not make a particular type of ware or style of decoration. The most that can be said is that certain articles, such as toilet seats, dinner services, and wall tiles are rarely found; probably because they were hardly the kind of thing to be bought by visitors as a memento of a holiday in Devon.” I most certainly agree, thankfully!

To the best of my recollection, the first piece of Torquay pottery that caught my fancy was a sweet sussie – a small, inexpensive gift, chosen specifically because it has relevance to the intended recipient – that my Mom had (yes, by absolute necessity that day in Canton TX, I think) to give my Dad. The handsomely painted little tray had the traditional brown lines, blue dots and country home on a cream-colored background. The quaint saying on this one was: “Who burnt the tablecloth”. My Dad constantly smoked a pipe and was therefore always leaving little pock marks in everything that an ash could possibly burn! From then on, Torquay trinkets became our family ‘fun’ as there was a cleverly pointed quip for everyone… My Mom’s Mom was the classic worrier, so her Torquay mug said: “Don’t worry, it may never happen” and a small bowl saying: “Do not hurry, Do not flurry, Nothing good is got by worry.” Dad was rarely surprised, so he happily received another fine present of pottery decorated with truly sharp-looking rooster that offered: “A match for any man.”

Both my mother and grandmother made good use of their needlework talents, so a few knick-knacks quickly developed into an impressive collection with additions like a small pitcher with flowers noting that “A stitch in time, saves nine.” I tended to get the travel items as I was coming and going from Dallas quite a bit in those days: “No road is long, with good company”; “A rolling stone gathers, no moss”; “Life is a struggle, not a race, A wise man keeps, an even pace.” Work-related anecdotes must have been quite popular for those on vacation: “Be slow to promise, but quick to perform”; “God helps them that help, themselves”; “Little strikes fell great oaks”; “Make hay while, the sun shines”; “He who sows thorns, will never reap grapes”; “Work while you work, play while you play, That is the way to be, cheerful and gay”; “Never say die, up man and try”; and my favorite insight… “Many friends few helpers.” Indeed, the breakfast table must be a universal best-seller as we ended up with several jam jars, tea cups, and sugar bowls to cheer our day: “Fresh from the dairy; take a little jam”; “Enoughs as good as a feast”; “I cum frum Paignton; Du e eave a, cup a tay.”

And the list goes on to delight… The Torquay Pottery Collectors Society maintains an impressive alphabetical list of sayings if you ever need inspiration or an endearing sentiment! Interestingly, from studying the similar list in Loyd’s book, I learned that the Torquay potters (probably the sales managers) were possibly the first folks to crowd-source their work: “… it is believed that many of the mottoes were introduced to the potteries by customers, who were invited to write suitable lines in the visitors’ books in the firms’ showrooms.” Loyd grouped the inscriptions according to subject, with categories like conduct, devotion, dialect (like that last example from our breakfast room), domestic activities, food/drink/tobacco, humour, mealtime, morality, patriotism, precepts/maxims, proverbial, sentiment, and work/play. Something for everyone no doubt!

While the items are uniquely special for infinite reasons, I think the reason my Mom so enjoyed her collections is because each became a ‘community effort’ for friends and family. (It also gives plenty of 'chatting ease' when talking to ‘strangers’ as I have discovered.) Our Five Hearts Farm was decorated with hearts from around the world that were brought as hostess gifts and sent with birthday cards. The same can be said about the oranges at Sunkist Cabin! Aunt Gale could always find some unique piece on her trips to Europe to remind each of us that we mattered and held a place in each other’s thoughts… Powered by the ‘thrill of the hunt’ for ‘missing links’ (chipped china replacements or a single volume of a book series), collecting can become a positive obsession and can be a proactive pathway to learning. To me, pulling back together those scattered pieces to create a bigger picture of a time and/or place is the awesome allure of the great museums – actual and virtual – and the romantic appeal of personal treasures – whatever the topic!

Because we can’t take even the smallest gem with us in the end – remember this wisdom from DARTMOUTH POTTERY DEVON, HANDMADE IN ENGLAND (stamped on the bottom of a Torquay tray that fit three spice shakers): “One today is worth two tomorrow.”

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