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Bless the potters and tilemakers

25 April 2014

Nicholas Cranfield goes from the BM to a Mayfair treat

Medieval craftsmanship: above: a panel of tiles from St Etheldreda's, West Quantoxhead, Somerset, late 13th-14th century; below, left: a 13th-century English whiteware jug, possibly from Surrey. Both are in the Sam Fogg exhibition

Medieval craftsmanship: above: a panel of tiles from St Etheldreda's, West Quantoxhead, Somerset, late 13th-14th century; below, left: a 13th-centur...

I WAS fortunate to be taken around the newly refurbished room 41 of the British Museum recently. Thanks to the generosity of Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock (whose philanthropy has already paid for the neighbouring room's renovation), the treasures from the Sutton Hoo ship burial are revealed in all its glory, 75 years after it was excavated in Suffolk on the banks of the river Deben.

Sue Brunning, the curator of early-medieval collections in Great Russell Street, has used the opportunity to locate the prestigious seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship burial within eight centuries of continental history, from the boundary of the Atlantic to the farthest shores of the Black Sea.

Repeated migrations gradually disseminated Late Roman culture and, in turn, spread Christianity and then Islam. Exquisite workmanship and fine materials for domestic use and the service of the Church are displayed to startling effect, and testify that this never was a Dark Age.

The Sutton Hoo treasury itself includes rich cloisonné pieces set with garnets and coloured glass laid into filigree patterns (much as in the more recently uncovered Staffordshire Hoard), as well as a staggering decorative gold buckle, weighing nearly a pound. Eleven Byzantine silver dishes found with a large silver platter (71.8cm in diameter) made in the reign of the Emperor Anastasius I (491-518) seem to underscore the status of the princely warrior once buried here.

In the wall cabinets, the creative wealth and often ostentatious splendour from lands as diverse as the Crimea, Cyprus, Morocco, Ireland, and Germany is shown and brilliantly captured in Sonja Marzinzik's Masterpieces: Early medieval art (British Museum Press), a recent publication fittingly dedicated to the Ruddocks. Hiberno-Viking brooches, carved ivory pyxes, coins and delicate glassware astound.

Amid all this show of material affluence, I came upon a yellow-glaze earthenware jug. I wonder how many visitors will search out the Angel Inn pitcher. It was uncovered when an old inn on the High in Oxford was demolished to build the Examination Schools (BM 1887/0307.B.200).

The 17cm-high pitcher is thought to date to the early Norman period (late 11th or early 12th century) and is an example of Stamford ware. The Lincolnshire market town had been a centre for pottery production from the ninth century, benefiting by a new technology, that of wheel-thrown potting. Many earlier pieces turn up in Scandinavia as Stamford lay on the border of the Danelaw.

Such technological mastery means that it is possible to identify Stamford ware from other contemporary Romanesque pottery imported from the Continent because of the sheer quality. The technique became widespread, and ensured that English pottery was still much sought after in successive centuries.

Sam Fogg's current exhibition perfectly demonstrates this and represents his own private passion for the past 18 years or so. Fifteen of the 22 pots on display are English, produced in centres as diverse as Malvern, Scarborough, and Burley Hill in Derbyshire, as well as Rye in Sussex.

The most demonstrative piece in the collection has to be the so-called "Dartford Knight Jug", around the neck of which two equestrian knights chase a stag whose extended antlers run up either side of the spout. Standing 40cm high, this ceremonial vessel has a weaving line pattern around its base on which the simple decoration is that of the potter's imprinted fingertip.

A late-13th-century shouldered jug with a twisted rope handle, from Lincolnshire, showed how often the potter used his thumbprint to pinch a handle on to the jug itself and to ornament the base.

Fogg's most recent acquisition, from the Scarsdale collection at Keddleston Hall, dominates the downstairs room. The coat of arms borne by the Ferrers family, the later Earls of Derby, included six black horsehoes (fer de cheval in Norman French). Five horseshoes have been impressed on shoulders of the 40cm-high olive-green cider jug, suggesting earlier 13th-century owners.

At the other end of the scale, in terms of size, is a delightfully small cruet made in Buckinghamshire, at Brill or Boarstall. Despite canonical prescription that precious metals should be used where possible for the sacred vessels themselves, cruets for the wine and water at mass were often made from clay. The olive-green glaze is broken only with a strip decoration around the waist, again achieved by printing a fingertip, possible a woman's or a young person's.

Alongside all these pots there are any number of tiles whose quality varies depending whether they had served as wall panels or been trodden underfoot in daily use. Often domestic but rarely humble, the tiles offered colour and design that was more economical than dressed stone would have been. Some clearly come from churches, such as the alternating lilies, griffins, eagles, and lions, from St Etheldreda's, West Quantoxhead, in Somerset, and the French tiles depicting the instruments of our Lord's Passion.

Others must only ever have served in households: a much worn "alphabet" tile would have allowed a particularly inquisitive toddler in the East Midlands to learn the 25 letters of the Lombardic alphabet which form a convenient 5×5 square.

Visitors to the showroom are amply rewarded by way of illustration. as the walls are hung with medieval paintings that show such jugs and tiles in everyday use. In the cycles of medieval York Mystery plays, potters were associated with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Fittingly, the first altarpiece here is that depicted by the Master of Regensburg Hostienfrevel, of c.1480, although in it my eye was more taken by the variety of stools and chairs for the apostles than by the floor tiles.

In the painting (oil on spruce), the Virgin is seated, surrounded by the disciples, as the flames of Pentecost descend on each of them. To either side in the spatial distance are the two previous scenes, of the first Easter Day, with the appearance in the upper room of the Risen Lord, and of the ascension, in which Jesus's upper body is wholly hidden in a billow of cloud, while an angel below explains to the baffled apostles what has occurred.

It has been suggested that the panel was painted soon after the notorious theft of consecrated hosts from a city church in 1476 caused a wave of anti-Jewish anger. Such thefts, putative or real, continue. In March 2012, the Archbishop of Monreale urged his priests to ensure that the consecrated elements remain locked after a wave of sacrilegious thefts in Sicily and elsewhere in Italy, from Monza to Piacenza and Milan to Seveso.

At York, the tilemakers were associated with the second trial before Pilate, and Sam Fogg shows a Flemish Man of Sorrows from the early 16th century in which Christ is in a rich blue robe, his hands tied across his bared navel, blood seeping from his lacerated belly and pouring down his face and neck.

The Roman martyrs Claudius, Castorius, and Simplicius (three of the four Crowned Martyrs), respectively the patron saints of sculptors, stonemasons, and builders, appear in a panel from another German altarpiece, once in St Lawrence's, Nuremberg, by Hans Süss von Kulmbach (1485-1522).

Painted in 1510, the year when Martin Luther visited Rome and stayed with the Augustinians on the Caelian Hill next to the basilica Church of the Four Crowned Martyrs, this shows doughty craftsmen quite the equal of the potters and tilemakers celebrated elsewhere in this remarkably beautiful and at times poignant exhibition.

"Pots and Tiles of the Middle Ages" is at Sam Fogg, 15d Clifford Street, London W1, until 16 May. Phone 020 7534 2100.


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