The importance of objects as holders of memories – two Sylvac bird’s nest planter jugs

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SylvaC bird’s nest planters/jugs, porcelain, item number 1305, made in England, c1936-1940. Photographs Carol Roberts.

This is the third post in my series on the importance of objects as holders of memories and I have chosen two SylvaC bird’s nest planter jugs – identical except for colour.

The significance of the pair of porcelain planter/jugs, is that they each belonged to the parents of family members and friends. The green planter/jug was a wedding present given to my parents-in-law when they married in 1939. My father-in-law was employed at Prouds the Jewellers in Sydney at that time and it is believed that the planter/jug could have been a present from staff at Prouds. It has been in the family for the past eighty years. The brown planter/jug belonged to the mother and grandmother of friends of our family and has also been in their family for about eighty years.

The planter/jugs have been fulfilling useful purposes in more recent years, albeit not as they were originally intended. The green one has been used in an outdoor fernery as a plant holder and the brown one has been used as a door stop.  They are identical in design and depict what appears to be a bird’s nest in an oak tree, as there are raised oak leaves around the base.  There is a large bird perched on the edge of the nest, with wings curved in at the tips and the bird’s tail forms a handle.  The bird’s head is leaning into the nest, which could depict feeding young birds in the nest.  The bird could be a rook, which is a common British bird related to the crow family usually found in rural areas of Britain. It builds its nests out of twigs in the treetops of ash, beech, elm, oak or sycamore trees.

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Both planter/jugs have the same item number (1305) and Made in England stamped on the base.  There are no other distinguishing marks to identify the maker.  After extensive research, it was discovered that these planter/jugs are, in fact, English SylvaC pottery collector’s items, called ‘bird’s nest jug’ and about ten years ago price at auction in the United Kingdom was likely to be up to around two hundred pounds sterling (nearly $AU370).

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SylvaC bird’s nest planter/jug, porcelain, item number 1305, made in England, c1936-1940, rear view. Photograph Carol Roberts.

SylvaC was the trade name of The Sylvan Works, a pottery firm established in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire, by William Shaw and William Copestake in 1894. By 1898, Richard Hull (senior) had taken over from William Copestake as partner with William Shaw. Richard Hull’s son (also named Richard Hull) and Eric J. Dennis were Directors of Thomas Lawrence Limited of the Falcon Pottery in Longton. On his father’s death in 1935, Richard Hull (junior) took over as partner in The Sylvan Works. In 1936, The Sylvan Works became a limited company and William Shaw became Managing Director. In 1938, Shaw and Copestake Limited took over Falcon Pottery and when William Shaw retired in 1942, Richard Hull became Managing Director and Eric J. Dennis, of the Falcon Pottery, was appointed to the Board of Shaw and Copestake Limited. The two companies continued to operate independently until new premises were built in Longton in 1957. The Falcon mark ceased in 1964 and Shaw and Copestake went into voluntary liquidation in 1982. After a series of unsuccessful co-operative ventures, the factory was finally taken over by Portmeirion Potteries in c1990.

The SylvaC name is synonymous with pottery vases and animals, such as rabbits and dogs. Planters, bowls, small novelties called ‘Fancies’, toby jugs, tableware and baskets were also produced. The green and the brown bird’s nest planter/jugs with matt finish are typical of the colour and finish of many SylvaC ware items. A gloss finish was not introduced until c1970. Many of the early SylvaC ware carries no mark other than a printed ‘daisy’ mark or ‘Made in England’ with an item number impressed on the bottom. During the 1930s, metal foil tags were introduced but these were not successful. From the 1940s, a typical impression carried ‘SylvaC’, ‘Made in England’ plus an item number, but there are a number of variations of identification marks.

The first step in conservation of porcelain such as the planter/jugs is to evaluate the item by carefully checking the body of the piece, the glaze and if any repair work has been carried out. The next step is to clean the piece and it is recommended to use pure soap and water to remove dirt on ceramic or porcelain objects, as detergents can damage the glaze. As with the piano and the scrapbook written about in my first two posts in this series, porcelain should not be exposed to extremes of temperature or high humidity and the ideal temperature should be between fifteen to twenty degrees Celsius and the humidity between forty and fifty-five per cent.  Objects such as these planter/jugs should be handled very carefully to avoid breakages.

One problem highlighted by historian Grace Karskens is that of separation of collection and interpretation. Supporting documentation is essential to enable correct interpretation and to understand the social history of an object and how the owners thought or expressed themselves. Keeping records enables correct interpretation and as historian Gaynor Kavanagh suggests, keeping ‘objects as evidence’ can ‘unlock and reveal’ how previous generations lived.

These objects could be the focus of many stories, such as the significance of SylvaC pottery, the importation of English-made goods to Australia before World War II, or the relationship between the rook and British farmlands. For example, the green planter/jug was chosen as an ornament for an exhibition called ‘The Windsor Group 1935-1945’, at the Hawkesbury Regional Gallery in Windsor, New South Wales, from 1 September to 26 November 2006 because it was appropriate for the timespan. The exhibition focussed on a group of artists who had painted in and around the Hawkesbury area in the years 1935 to 1945 who became known as ‘The Windsor Group’.

Each of the SylvaC planters/jugs remains in the possession of their owners and now, at least I have hopefully provided enough background information about the provenance and significance of these objects to ensure they will be cared for into the future.

copyrightCarol Roberts, 2019.

References:

Gilroy, David; Godfrey, Ian (eds). A Practical Guide to the Conservation and Care of Collections, Western Australian Museum, Perth, Western Australia, 6000, June 1998, pp. 87-93.

Guldbeck, Per E. The Care of Historical Collections: A Conservation Handbook for the Nonspecialist, American Association for State and Local History, Nashville, Tennessee, 1972, p. 126.

Historic Houses Trust. The Art of Keeping House: A practical and inspirational guide, Hardie Grant Books, South Yarra, Victoria, 3141, 2004, p. 167.

Jones, Shar. Community Culture & Place: A local government handbook for museums, Sydney, Museum Studies Unit, University of Sydney, NSW, 2006, May 2000, p. 13.

Karskens, Grace. ‘Engaging artefacts: Urban archaeology, museums and the origins of Sydney’ in Humanities research, vol 9, no. 1, 2002, pp36-56.

Kavanagh, Gaynor. ‘Objects as Evidence, or Not?’ in Museum Studies in Material Culture, edited by Susan M. Pearce, Leicester, Leicester University Press, 1989, pp. 125-137.

‘Rook’, The Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB), https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/, accessed 29 September 2019.

Shaw & Copestake Ltd, www.thepotteries.org, accessed 29 September 2019.

‘The Rook – a successful farmland bird’, Birds of Britain – the Monthly Web Magazine for Birdwatchers, http://birdsofbritain.co.uk/bird-guide/index.asp, accessed 29 September 2019.

Family information from author.

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