BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 110

Made Anew: Stories from the Broken and Mended

Nineteenth-century rivetted plate

I’m a mender. Make it go another day, my Nanny used to say. I darn, patch and blanket stitch. I don’t glue, preferring the slow, by-hand process of needle through cloth. Stitches, make them neat, make them even, make them invisible.

‘Made Anew’, the current exhibition at Aberystwyth Art Centre’s Ceramics Gallery, is all about pots. Damaged pots. There are china cups, stoneware bowls, majolica tureens, blue & white plates, porcelain jugs and large biscuit-fired vases. I am caught by a group of four small nineteenth-century teacups. Their snapped rococo handles, fragile as dried seahorse tails and too tiny for most hands, have been re-fashioned, made robust, in a dull, lead-like metal. I peer in close, nose up against the glass. What a remarkable refashioning. The swirls and curlicues have been followed, not perfectly, not prettily, but it will do. Rather like the silver finger Baines crafts for Ada in The Piano, it serves its purpose. It will last. It will go another day.

The enlarged facsimiles of pages from CSM Parsons & FH Curl’s 1963 edition of China Mending and Restoration that cover the wall of the far cabinet suggest that this is indeed mending on another level. A heavily brylcreamed man, in sagging blue-jeans, a black leather jacket and caramel brogues fumbles in his shoulder bag for his glasses. He bends forward, hands on knees, staring at two before and after photographs. A smashed pot in smithereens. Ninety-eight pieces, glued back together. The man straightens up, chuckling to himself. Oh dearie, dear, he says out loud. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.

‘Riveting exercises’ Parsons and Curl call them. And, suppressing a smile at the image of a dour-faced woman perched on a stool demonstrating a riveting-drill, I too bend in closer. Beneath the drawings are a row of dinner plates with their backs to me. Each one is cracked, held together by rivets. The rivets look like stitches. Threads of steel. It’s as if the plates have been corseted, laced-in, laced-up. In another cabinet I come upon a little yellow creamer. Its ceramic handle long gone, there is now an iron one attached to two bands that grip the neck and waist of the jug like a vice. It is a strange marriage, this metal with ceramic – one once molten now rigid, the other once pliable now brittle. I think about rusting metal cutting into flesh and hear the shutting clang of a scold’s bridle.

Nineteenth-century mosaic plate

Not all the mending here is of the exquisite kind. There are the botch jobs. Some on purpose, like Bouke de Vries’ plate, a hotchpotch of highly coloured fancy-ware collaged onto blue and white willow, fused with oozing seams of kintsugi, and Paul Scott’s slab-built triple-legged form, a hybrid, a lustred monster of eclecticism. The making-do domestic mending is clearly more about preserving, precious or otherwise. The remains of a mosaicked plate leans against a stand. The show’s subtitle promises us stories and here they are. Imperfect triangles of pottery pushed into clay. A patchwork of household china passed down from mother to daughter showing traces of hand-painted flowers, a weeny black heart, a monochrome transfer print of bonneted girl and a moulded shard of white glass. Broken but not lost, these remnants have been bonded as one, a lumpen, yet poignant, testament to a family story.

In turn the labels, catalogue numbers, the yellowing newspaper inside the Wedgewood teapot, the paper taped to the lid of a Michael Cardew tureen that reads ‘cracked’, the scribbled note left inside a turquoise-glazed crab-shaped dish, asking ‘Is this Wheldon ware, this piece is not unlike?’ and the dried-up demerara sugar in Ann Carr’s bowl; all narrate the life of the archivist.

Visitors come and go.

We have like an hour before our train, says a pig-tailed woman, pulling on the arm of a tall man in khaki.

With its beauty in the detail, ‘Made Anew’ deserves our attention.

Let me look, says the man, kissing the top of her head. Will you let me look?

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

'Free at Last' by Paul Scott

‘Made Anew’ runs until Sunday 5 June at Aberystwyth Arts Centre Ceramics Gallery. The next International Ceramics Festival, Europe's premier festival for the subject and hosted by the Arts Centre, will take place in summer 2017 (tickets available this November)


previous blog: The Glass Menagerie
next blog: Jenny Hall’s Hollow at Aberystwyth Arts Centre


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