Remember how last year I brought that (allegedly) 18th Century Chinese dish home from the Cotswolds and used it for eating burrito bowls until I broke it by tapping it gently on my granite countertop?
Well, it occurred to me (and some of you — Susan!) that this might be an interesting opportunity to try out the Japanese kintsugi approach to repairing a dish, which instead of trying to erase the break (impossible) rather embraces it and finds beauty in the imperfection: The broken pieces are soldered back into place — typically with gold or silver — leaving a tracery of cracks picked out in precious metal.
There was no way I was going to do this on my own: I wanted a professional, and the nearest one I could find was in Oxford. We played email tag for a while, as she kept going to Japan and I kept going everywhere else, but finally we landed on this weekend which, lo and behold!, just happened (100% not by accident) to be the weekend of the Oxford Ceramics Fair that had been advertised on a brochure Amanda and I had picked up at the Centre for Contemporary Ceramics in London.
So early Saturday morning I piled off to Paddington Station for an early train to Oxford. I had an early afternoon rendez-vous with the kintsugi lady, so I went first to the ceramics fair and found exactly what I expected: A gymnasium full of enthusiastic elderly people and lots of beautiful pots.
I paused for a moment, took a quick “overview” photo and dove in . . .
. . . only to be completely delighted when the first table I came to was covered with the gorgeous, brightly coloured ceramics of Lara Scobie and manned by none other than Lara herself! This is the lady whose work Amanda and I have been lusting after since we first saw it over the summer in Cambridge and later in London. After a brief fangirl moment, I introduced myself and told her I was a fan and asked her about her work. She was genuinely sweet and friendly and entirely willing to humour my amateur questions. By the end it was clear that I needed to bring one of the vases home with me, so I picked one out and asked if she wouldn’t mind posing before wrapping it up . . .
. . . a few tables down, I met Tricia Thom, who turned out to be a Scottish potter and also really delightful. She told me about the chemistry of glazes and how she makes hers. Although the colour looks like celadon (which she explained the Chinese had developed to imitate the colours of jade), hers is not a proper celadon because of the way she fires her pots; instead, she uses copper and cobalt to approximate the blue-green colour through other techniques. Being the sucker that I am for celadon, I sprang for one of her pitchers but wasn’t fast enough to get a photo before Tricia wrapped it up.
I finished my tour of the room and ended up coming back again and again to Karen Bunting’s table. She works in stoneware and her pieces are just so lovely in their simplicity. I struck up a conversation and she told me about how she makes the patterns on her serving platters using strips of newspaper and slip (a runny coloured clay) which is then fired to a high heat to produce a metallic glint where the iron burns out. It was hard to choose which piece needed to come home with me, and in the end I chose a rather unusual serving tray.
By then I had seen everything and spent my budget, so I headed back to the city center. As luck would have it, the city center was a little over a mile away and it was pouring rain. You can imagine what that meant for the paper bags in which I was carrying my highly fragile cargo! I needed a bag that wouldn’t disintegrate in the wet and, if possible, a place to stash the lot until I was ready to go home. Fortunately, I knew just the place.
The Ashmolean Museum was situated in the heart of Oxford, would surely have a gift shop selling canvas tote bags, and with any luck, would have lockers to hold all the bags they wanted people not to lug through the exhibition halls. I got to the museum just as my paper bags were disintegrating, stashed everything in a locker downstairs, and headed out to find the kintsugi lady.
It turned out she was roughly in the middle of nowhere, certainly not within walking distance in the pouring rain, so I dragooned an unwitting cabbie into venturing out with me, dropped of the dish, and then had him bring me back.
By then I was starving and cold and wet. Surely a bowl of warm pasta was what was called for . . .
. . . from there, it was back to the museum for more ceramics. They had a terrific exhibit showing the evolution of the porcelain trade over the centuries — first brought back by explorers and merchants, then part of a booming luxury goods trade, where traditional patterns were painted on dishes styled for a European market (such as the bowl below, which was made in Turkey with traditional Turkish designs but in a form of dish popular in Italy) . . .
. . . my favourite section of the exhibition showed the moment in the 18th Century when Europeans finally figured out how to make the coveted blue and white porcelain that had been a Chinese secret for centuries (the Germans at Meissen were the first). In the photo below, the dishes on the left were made in China in the early 1700s. The dishes on the right were made in England about 70-80 years later, after the secret had been discovered, and you can see how clearly they were imitating the Chinese style while at the same time not quite achieving the delicacy of the Chinese painting. It made me wonder if they had tried but failed, or if the differences were intentional and reflected European aesthetic tastes.
Speaking of imitations, the Ashmolean has a huge room full of casts made of some of the best sculpture in the world. The casts were made to help students learn to draw without having to travel to where the originals are. This one has always been one of my favourites.
The museum closed at five, and I managed to see everything I wanted to see and still buy a tote bag before everyone was ushered back out into the rain. Feeling more secure with my gift-shop tote, I took the long way to the train station and discovered some picturesque canals, which I realised are the ones that feature so prominently in Philip Pullman’s stories about Oxford. I do always love seeing the places that are written about and realising that they are just as perfect in real life as they are in my imagination.
From there back to London and my flat, where I set about finding homes for my new pieces among my growing collection . . .
. . . when suddenly I suddenly remembered the little pot that was serving as a pen-holder on my desk. Could it be . . . ?
Yes! I turned it over and found a KB stamped into the clay at the base that was identical to the stamp in the serving tray I had bought earlier that day. Karen Bunting. So I guess I have two of her pieces. If only I had remembered in time to tell her when I met her earlier in the day!