Review by Ivor Noël Hume
London's Delftware Industry: The Tin-Glazed Pottery Industries of Southwark and Lambeth

Kieron Tyler, Ian Betts, and Roy Stephenson. London’s Delftware Industry: The Tin-Glazed Pottery Industries of Southwark and Lambeth, MOLAS Monograph 40. London: Museum of London Archaeology Service, 2008. 138 pp.; 170 color illus. £15.95 (hardcover).

Students of English delftware fall into two groups: collectors and archaeologists. Collectors don’t want it if it’s chipped, archaeologists don’t notice until it is. In recent years, however, both have been brought closer together by museum curators who recognize that carefully excavated fragments can help provide dates and provenances, and archaeologists understand that sherds make sense to collectors only when they can be shown in tandem with intact examples.

In this important new contribution from the Museum of London’s Archaeology Service, the authors’ focus is primarily an archaeological one on five pothouses on the south bank of the River Thames at London. The locations were chosen for having been subjected to what the volume’s introduction calls “archaeological interventions,” which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as “the act of intervening, stepping in, or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue.” Given the absence of detailed site plans and stratigraphic sections, and the presence of only one wide-angle photograph, it seems that these archaeological interventions were conducted, on a limited scale, on sites that were being mechanically cleared for new construction, and building developers invariably view archaeologists as interference to progress. It follows, then, that artifacts and information retrieved, though valuable, tell only part of the complex story of these five sites.

Readers who are well versed in archaeology or archaeologists themselves will no doubt ask “Who needs to be told that?” A valid question if the reader­ship is limited to their peers, but is this attractive volume so intended? The introductory chapters contain much information of general interest which, even though available in previous delftware studies, suggests that the volume offers more than an archaeological report and perhaps, therefore, is looking to the collectors’ market.

In their summary the authors state, “The tin glaze industry of London was a remarkably homogeneous one: the pothouses were manufacturing much the same range of products as each other” (p. xiv). In their conclusion to chapter 8 they note that the “production of forms common to more than one pothouse is to be expected: this was a homogeneous industry, with staff moving between a series of pothouses concentrated along a strip of the south bank of the Thames. The ceramics of the London pothouses are virtually indistinguishable from each other in terms of clay fabric alone, not surprising given their common access to clay sources” (p. 115). Having read London’s Delftware Industry in its entirety, this reviewer came to the same conclusion—bolstering one that he had reached more than forty years ago when working with similar material from just one of the pothouse sites.

Three of the five sites—Montague Close (ca. 1613–1755), Pickleherring (ca. 1618–1723), and Rotherhithe (1638–1684)—are in the Southwark/Bermondsey districts. The remaining two—Norfolk House (ca. 1680–1779) and Glasshouse Street (ca. 1743–1784 and 1823–1846)—are in Lambeth. Fortunately, the sites are sufficiently far apart to prevent a cross-fertilizing of their waster dumps. The biscuit (unglazed first fired) wares and the glazed wasters can safely be attributed to the specific pothouse locations. But, depending on their stratigraphic contexts, finished wares need to be treated with more caution, as they could be household trash rather than the products of factory accidents. Tiles with mortar on their backs clearly had been used in buildings and therefore could have been brought from somewhere else. In short, archaeological red herrings are more likely to be netted in building-site archaeology than when sites can be leisurely and fully excavated.

Of the five sites discussed in London’s Delftware Industry the previously unexplored Rotherhithe pothouse is given the most space, and consequently the length of discussion and the quantity and quality of the illustrations are important additions to the corpus of English delftware knowledge. In contrast, fragments from the better-known and often investigated Montague Close site receive sparse attention, leaving this reviewer yearning for a drawing or photograph of the “failed biscuit ware puzzle jug”—a rarity in any ware in the seventeenth century. As the Montague Close delftware waste was recovered from a feature “interpreted on site as the remains of a cesspit” (p. 24), one might have expected the context to have included datable wine bottle and tobacco-pipe fragments, but presumably it did not, as no such artifacts are mentioned.

The most constructive aspect of the published study are the chemical analyses of clays from biscuit wares from specific sites. The concluding chapter by Michael J. Hughes suggests that the detected differences can “significantly open up future work on the post-medieval [ceramic] industry products of London” (p. 131). Although such testing can be conducted without serious damage to the subjects, one wonders whether the average collector, curator, or fellow archaeologist can afford the cost of clay analysis, and, if they can, what importance they will place on knowing that their dish was made at Pickleherring and not a third of a mile up the road at Montague Close.

The present study relates only to the products of London factories and does not attempt to distinguish them from Dutch tin-glazed wares of the same periods. Simplistic though it may seem, whether a dish or a tile is English or Dutch is perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions. Therefore it would have been helpful to identify those London designs that are not paralleled in the voluminous Dutch literature. Take but one example, that of Figure 30, pattern P7. The description of this bowl fragment includes the statement “A distinctive decoration type is a blue and white chequer pattern which also appears on a dish in the Museum of London’s collection” (p. 41). The latter is illustrated to provide reinforcing evidence, but does it? Are we sure that the London Museum’s plate is English and not Dutch? A seemingly identical dish in my own collection was found in Dutch Limburg and points to the need for the kind of clay analysis described by Michael Hughes.[1]

An average reader could use the volume’s excellent color illustrations by drawing comparisons between the products of one pothouse and another. For one example: biscuit salts from Rotherhithe are shown in two forms, waisted and cylindrical, whereas those from Pickleherring are only of the former shape. From this one might deduce that the cylindrical type was peculiar to Rotherhithe, but it was not.

Between 1955 and 1962 preconstruction clearance on riverfront properties owned by the Hays Wharf company uncovered quantities of Pickleherring kiln waste similar to that illustrated in the present study. Included in it were examples of both waisted and cylindrical salt types. Fortunately, Sir David Burnett, the Hays Wharf CEO and a lifelong antiquary, had made it his business to salvage whatever archaeological material might be revealed on his properties. A delft collector himself, Sir David recognized the importance of Pickleherring wasters and offered them to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Its curator of ceramics, Robert Charleston, was prepared to accept specific items but not the collection as a whole. At that time the Museum of London did not exist, and nobody in the Guildhall or the London Museum offered to house and publish so large and varied an assemblage. It was for that reason that I persuaded the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which already had a significant seventeenth-century delftware collection, to accept the collection and to underwrite the publication of my report. Although the authors of the new volume make a passing reference to my Early English Delftware from London and Virginia (1977), they erroneously state that the Burnett Collection “proved invaluable in identifying London-made material excavated in Williamsburg” (p. 19).[2] In fact, no seventeenth-century Pickleherring-era delftware has been excavated in Williamsburg. The collection’s relevance instead lies in the products of subsequent excavations at Martin’s Hundred, Jamestown, and other seventeenth-century Virginia archaeological sites.

As the authors of London’s Delftware Industry have felt it useful to draw on complete vessels from the Museum of London’s collection to parallel and better explain their sherds, there might, perhaps, have been merit in including relevant examples from the previously published Burnett Collection. Indeed, future studies of Pickleherring products will do well to combine the contents of the 1977 and 2008 publications—though even seen together the assembled archaeological fragments only hint at the number and varieties of tin-glazed wares that were made in the Pickleherring factories. Much more specific is the 1699 inventory of the deceased John Robins, who owned two Pickleherring pothouses (one in Vine Yard, the other in Stoney Lane), and at the time of his death had 121,000 objects either completed or in production. In publishing the inventory, ceramic historian Frank Britton identified seven hundred different shapes and sizes.[3] It is significant that these were all in production at the close of the seventeenth century, whereas most of the recovered fragments date at least twenty years earlier.

London’s Delftware Industry is a beguilingly packaged archaeological report and as such is a valuable addition to any ceramics library. Like virtually every other highly professional end-of-project report, however, the necessity to interlace it with innumerable field number references and bibliographic citations keeps it useful without aspiring to “can’t put it down” reading.

Ivor Noël Hume

Ceramics in America 2011

  • [1]

    Other examples of the schaarkbordmotief are to be found in Pieter Biesboer, Nederlandse Majolica, 1550–1650 (Haarlem: Frans Hals Museum, 1997), nos. 58–60, and Frits T. Scholten, Dutch Majolica and Delftware, 1550–1700, from the Edwin van Drecht Collection (Amsterdam: E. van Drecht, 1993), nos. 44, 45, wherein parallels are cited from kiln waste in Haarlem and Deventer, their design derived from Italian albarelli.

  • [2]

    Ivor Noël Hume, Early English Delftware from London and Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg Occasional Papers in Archaeology 2 (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1977).

  • [3]

    Frank Britton, “The Pickleherring Potteries: An Inventory,” Post-Medieval Archaeology 24 (1990): 61–92.