The Need to Touch

If you ask anyone that works with clay what it is that attracted them to the medium, the vast majority will begin to tell you how the raw material feels: moist, soft, cold, malleable, squishy. And if they close their eyes, they will tell you that clay smells of the earth after a soft spring rain. The tactile qualities of clay make it appealing to everyone from toddlers to seniors. For those that throw on a wheel, the “magic” of taking a ball of clay and creating something useful “from nothing but mud” astounds them. They love feeling the clay move between their fingers as they shape it.

One of the exercises that my first year ceramic students would undertake was to create forty 15-centimetre tall perfect cylinders. (For those used to measuring in inches, that would be six inches tall). A perfect cylinder does not lean; it has a clean 90 degree angle where the base meets the wall on the interior. It is not an easy task and across North American many wheel throwing classes begin this way. It is an assignment that is both frustrating, anger producing, and exhilarating when completed correctly. The successful completion of this assignment ensures all future achievements on the potter’s wheel because “everything begins as a cylinder.”

Student cylinder projects.

Once the centring of the clay is mastered and the students can repeatedly pull even walls to a height of fifteen centimetres, they are ready to move on, with confidence, to more complex shapes. In order to demonstrate that there are contemporary artists who employ the cylinder as a device for conceptual installations, I often had my students research the work of British artist, Edmund de Waal.

Porcelain vessel with lid courtesy of The Victoria & Albert Museum Collection.

de Waal is internationally known for his book, The Hare with the Golden Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance.

The subject of his best selling book is his inheritance of 264 netsuke from his uncle, living in Japan, Iggie. In it, de Waal barely mentions his own work with clay while he traces the fate of his Jewish family in twentieth century Europe. One area that fascinated me that began in the book is the idea of sacred objects, grouped together, and encased in a glass cabinet or a vitrene. That theme permeates much of de Waal’s porcelain cylinders that are grouped together, never alone, in various styles of installations but either always in some type of enclosing device or placed so high, as in his exhibition at the Victorian & Albert Museum in Kensington, that no one could possible touch them. They were removed from the very tactile nature that is ceramics. Whether the raw material or the finished object, people want to touch the vessel or the sculpture, rub their fingers along the smooth or rough surfaces, always turning the item over to see the base. That was then and this is New Year’s Day 2021.

A new exhibition of work by Edmund de Waal is opening at the Gagosian Gallery in London. As a reaction to 2020, when everyone in the world wanted to touch another living person or have a good long hug, de Waal has created a series of work that are deliberately intended to be held.

In its press release, the Gagosian Gallery said that the London based artist worked on the pieces during lockdown. They note that it is the first time in sixteen years that de Waal has made single pieces rather than installations. The brochure quotes the artist: “I made these pots in lockdown during the spring and early summer. I was alone in my studio and silent and I needed to make vessels to touch and hold, to pass on. I needed to return to what I know—the bowl, the open dish, the lidded jar. When you pick them up you will find the places where I have marked and moved the soft clay. Some of these pots are broken and patched on their rims with folded lead and gold; others are mended with gold lacquer. Some hold shards of porcelain.”

Touching and being touched is widely known to be important for both mental and physical health. Touch can actually convey many emotions to a person including the most positive ones of being loved, of compassion, gratitude, happiness. Touching another human or non-human has the ability to alleviate their stress. Touch has the ability to demonstrate that one is loved.

One of the things that most people said they missed during 2020 with the lockdowns during the SARS Covid-19 pandemic was hugging.

I would like to think that Edmund de Waal has, during his time of working alone in his studio during lockdown, returned to that most fundamental element of working with clay: touch. I trust that as an artist he has realized that the absence of touch in his earlier installations speaks to the preciousness of a grouping of objects just like his inherited netsuke but they do not address some fundamental human conditions. The pandemic separated family members from one another, the death of one often meant that they could only see their loved one through glass or on a digital screen. What was missing was a human finger running down the cheek, stopping a tear. What was missing was a human hand grasping another as the last breath leaves the body. What was missing was a husband holding his wife as they both lay dying in separate hospital beds in separate rooms. As a contemporary artist, Edmund de Waal has responded to that great absence by allowing us to feel every surface of the vessels in the exhibition. By doing so each of us can close our eyes and hold the hand of the maker who alone in their studio working might have wished for someone, just once, to reach out and touch them.

The hampers all began with Tricki Woo…

It all began with Tricki Woo and the pandemic this year. Do you know who Tricki Woo is? Have you watched All Creatures Great and Small? James Herriott was a vet in a rural area of North Yorkshire from the late 1930s through the 1950s. Those books formed the basis of the television series that lasted seven seasons. One of Harriet’s clients, the very wealthy widow Mrs Pumphrey, had a long haired Pekinese named Tricki Woo who loved ‘Uncle Harriet’. In gratitude, Tricki often sent Uncle Harriet hampers filled with exotic treats from Fortnum & Masons, Piccadilly, London. Tricki was not the first to be unable to resist those hampers. Fortnum & Mason had been preparing baskets full of exotic treats since the 18th century. They began as traveller’s or hunter’s baskets. These woven containers full of delicacies made their way across the world by ship, to the top of Mount Everest, and with the archaeologists first exploring Tutankhamen’s tomb in Egypt. Pretty impressive! They advertise them as “The Original and the Best”.

During the pandemic, we watched every episode of the seven seasons of All Creatures Great and Small. Then exhausted by the news of hospitals filling up and people dying of the Covid-Sars 19 since the beginning of the year, the big question on what could possibly make the holidays special became a central focus. In order to not fall into the ‘oh, pity me’ stage of doom and gloom during lockdown, I decided to do something different. The Harriets had just received a hamper from Fortnum & Masons on the episode I was watching and the thought breezed through my head that if they could supply hampers during times of rationing then surely in an age of on line buying and international shipping, Fortnum & Mason could get a hamper to Canada. Of course, they had been able to do this for years but it never occurred to me til I saw the delight on the faces of James and Helen just how happy one of those hampers might make someone.

When we lived in England, the holidays meant getting on the early train from Grantham to London to see the windows of Fortnum & Mason. There are eight main windows on Piccadilly and by the end of October or the beginning of November the paper is removed to reveal the magical scenes. They were different every year and for three years we got to enjoy this incredible tradition that the British have delighted in for eons.

Fortnum’s has been decorating their windows for 313 years, since 1707. For these Canadians, the only windows decorated in our City were those of the Hudson Bay Company and really, they were not decorated at all if a comparison were made. We had not seen anything like the wonders that filled all of those spaces from mechanical drummers and angels to glitter and magic and all the treats that the store had on their shelves. Everything was larger than life. The beauty of the painting, the sculptures, the lights and even the feathers of birds was magical. It was almost as if you you could step inside and become part of the festivities.

Fortnum and Mason’s holiday windows from 2016. Courtesy of Fortnum & Masons, Wikimedia Commons (above and below).

To try and create some of the magic that we had experienced so long ago, I checked on the possibility of a hamper coming to Canada in time for the holidays. It was only after I began exploring the options that I discovered that there are several well known shops in London supplying hampers. Another was Harrod’s, the iconic department store in Knightsbridge. In the end, I decided to order a similar priced hamper from both major shops and compare them.

Both companies used international shippers (for a charge on top of the price of the hamper) and both estimated the time of arrival at my door as being four business days. Both hampers were ordered on the same day in mid-November. The Fornum & Mason hamper arrived promptly on the sixth day after ordering by DHL. The hamper from Harrod’s, also handled by DHL, required that I either hired my own broker or allowed DHL to act on my behalf. The parcel was caught up in Canadian customs for three weeks. After 10 days, I contacted Harrod’s Customer Service. Both the customer service agent and myself assumed that the proper commercial invoice had simply not been attached and they provided me with another one immediately. They also gave me a 25% refund. That still did not help me with the parcel. I contacted DHL Customer Service, gave them a copy of the commercial invoice noting that it specifically stated that all customs duties and taxes were included in the price that I had paid. It all seemed very ridiculous. In the end, the hamper was released and duly delivered by DHL on December 12. Ironically, the commercial invoice was right on the box in a plastic envelope that had never been opened. Who could be faulted for the delay? and why did the parcel from Fortnum & Mason not have a problem? It is difficult to say. If you are going to order a hamper for international shipment, I urge you to do so early. They will not ship perishable items outside of the country so you could order yours and have it without the stress of worry even in October. And note that taxes and duties are already included in the price. You should not have to pay anything extra.

Each hamper was opened on the morning of the 25th with some excitement. While similar in price, there were a few differences. nImmediately the shape of the hampers and their construction was quite different. The one from Fortnum & Mason was a traditional picnic hamper with the double flap and handle at the top tied by a turquoise ribbon with the F & M name and logo in gold lettering. The hinges were real leather and I could imagine myself using it in the summer for a small picnic. In their enclosed brochure, F & M states that the baskets are “handmade Wicker wonders” woven with wicker that’s “grown in sustainable wetlands”. The hamper from Harrod’s is a flat rectangular basket rather like a suitcase. As you can see from the photo above, there are buckles on the side. These are not leather, something that would make my Vegan granddaughter very happy. Sadly, the hardware on one of the buckles was broken on arrival. With the thousands of hampers ordered, I felt that Harrod’s can do a better job sourcing the hardware so that the hamper could definitely be reused. F & Mason’s basket contained a printed brochure in their traditional turquoise with gold letter that stated the contents and the history. It was a lovely treat to find inside, well designed and full colour.

The contents from the F & M basket were: three 25 gram tins of flavoured tea including their famous Christmas spice blend (plus Christmas Green tea and Plum, Apple, and Cinnamon Infusion), a St James Christmas Pudding, a tin of Christmas Fruit and Spice Biscuits, a small jar of Strawberry preserves, and a box of chocolate Reindeer Noses. The hamper from Harrod’s had a pound of ground coffee, a large tin of English Breakfast teabags (50), a tin of Belgium fudge (both blond and chocolate), a chocolate bar, a large jar of Raspberry preserves, and a large tin of ginger biscuits. By quantity and weight, the Harrod’s Christmas hamper would immediately win out. But what about the quality?

I will begin with the tea. If you are fond of flavoured teas, then the F & M basket is for you. The tea leaves are a very high quality and stand out from the very run of the mill English breakfast tea bags from Harrod’s. But both are actually problematic. The Christmas Green Tea is so infused with licorice that if you do not like it, you will find yourself gifting it to someone who does. One of my British friends dislikes flavoured teas so much that they would run for the rather generic tea bags of Harrod’s. I would personally recommend that F & M offer an option or include a larger tin of the finest hand rolled black tea along with a small container of their Special Christmas blend. Harrod’s should definitely make theirs a fine quality hand rolled tea leaf as well. Ditch the teabags concealing the tail end of the tea that is processed!

Harrod’s contained a reusable pound tin of good ground coffee. F & M did not.

Each had a preserves. Both are excellent. F & M included Strawberry and Harrod’s Rasperry. Harrod’s was twice the size.

Each had a tin of biscuits. F & M were a subtle fruit and spice blend and Harrod’s was an amazing buttery ginger. Both are great for dunking but the taste of Harrod’s captured me. They were also slightly larger.

Both had decent chocolate – F & M’s in the form of Reindeer Nosettes and Harrod’s in a standard chocolate bar.

Harrod’s had a tin of Belgian fudge with about a dozen pieces of both standard chocolate and the blond brown sugary fudge. Divine.

I have not tried the St James Pudding at the time of this writing.

Clearly, the Harrod’s basket gives you more bang for your buck, so to speak but the quality of the tea was simply average, not outstanding. I have not tried the coffee yet. If you prefer PG Tips then you will like the English Breakfast Blend they include. And if you do not like flavoured teas, then the F & M basket would simply not suit you. I have to admit that the fudge contained in the Harrod’s basket was something you can dream about. You could taste the real butter and the squares simply melted in your mouth. I will think about it often long after the tin is empty. It was just stunningly delicious. Both tins of biscuits were equally good but I did like the heat of the ginger ones particularly from Harrod’s.

In the end, both of the baskets have been a delight and it would be difficult to choose between them. I wish that Harrod’s would use real leather and make strong buckles so that the basket could ultimately be used over and over again for picnics. I might well try to fix all of that myself so it can be used. Will I order a hamper again? Absolutely. Maybe a larger one from each shop next year just for fun! And anyone with a sense of creativity could make their own which isn’t such a bad idea. Surely the arrival of such a treasure would put a smile on receiver’s face, just like it did the Harriets when Tricki Woo sent them their Fortnum & Mason’s hamper!

As the sun sets over London, I am packing my bags and getting ready to say farewell

It has been an incredible time in the United Kingdom.  The Residency at Hospitalfield was inspirational, and my attitudes towards ceramics have been permanently altered in new and exciting ways.  I made good friends, ate beautiful food, slept in a historic room in an ancient house, learned about tweed, devoured the best cod and chips in Arbroath, and saw amazing scenery.  The time in London, a 180 degree turn around from the rural countryside of Scotland, has been just as enjoyable.   So what did I learn that I could pass on to you?

First, in London, do your homework.  Get a hotel or a Bed and Breakfast near to the sights that you want to see.  There are many ways of travelling in this well laid out city.  You can take the London Underground.  An off-peak day ticket is around 134 GBP or $26 CDN$.  This means you can ride the tube as much as you want and there are underground stations all over the place.  You can take one of the red double-decker buses.  Your tube ticket allows you to switch between them.  Alternatively, you can catch a black taxi. They take credit cards so no need to worry about exchanging money or running short.  The machine is in the back with you, not upfront with the driver.  Very easy.

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An excellent example of the cost is that it is about 25 GBP from London King’s Cross to Hyde Park in a cab whereas it is less than 6 GBP on a single tube ticket.  When you arrive, the amount of luggage that you have will really impact the transport that you need to get to your hotel.  One other word of warning, if you have a considerable suitcase like I do with all of its ceramic supplies and a plaster mould inside, you do not want to book yourself into a B & B and be staying on the top floor unless you have Hercules with you to carry that suitcase up those stairs!  OK.  Maybe you are 20something and reading this but seriously, try not to pack your entire house if you can. You will have many more options.  Once you get settled in you can take the tube, take a taxi, rent an electric bicycle for 2 GBP a day, or you can walk.

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Many of the sights are actually close together, and you can get some good exercise in.  It is also good to ‘get lost’ and discover places you might not otherwise see.  There is history in every corner of London!

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I chose to stay right across from Hyde Park because I was going to meet a long time friend and co-author, Richard Barnes, at the Albert Memorial.

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Richard and I agreed to meet at the ‘America’ corner which his relative had carved out of gorgeous marble, John Bell.  Each corner was designed to represent the four corners of the globe with America being represented by the bison.  Canada is on the left looking on as the United States is on the right.  Some of Britain’s finest Victorian sculptors have their work on this grandiose memorial.

The Albert Memorial has Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria looking over to the Royal Albert Hall and the Science Museum.  That is another attraction in the area which is really a ‘must see’.  Of course, he is also looking towards the Victoria & Albert Museum (assuming his eyesight is better than mine!).  You can easily spend an entire day at the Museum.  Their blockbuster exhibition, Dior, has been extended and do not get distressed if you see the ‘sold out’ sign and don’t have a ticket.  If you really want to see this comprehensive exhibition of one of the world’s great 20th century designers then go over and purchase yourself a membership to the museum.  I promise you will get a ticket to the show!  Inside there is the new Cast Court exhibition area.  Richard told me that people went all over taking casts and bringing them back.  The Museum has art from all over the world including an excellent Asian section.

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And they also have ‘the’ Moon Jar.

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The Victoria and Albert Museum has a cafe where you can get salads, sandwiches, hot meals, cakes, tea, or other drinks.  On a sunny day, you can sit outside, or you can relax in the William Morris room.  It was a sad day for me.  My old friend, Pauline Rohatgi and I, used to meet to have lunch in the William Morris room or sitting outside on a bench every time I was in London.  Pauline was the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings for the India Office Library.  That was how I met her.   Over the years we worked on publications and exchanged information on British sculpture sent to India.  Pauline has health issues and now lives permanently in India.  I hope that we can have tea there soon!  But she was very much missed.

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But that wasn’t the only reason.  Within walking distance, inside the park, you can tour Kensington Palace – the home of the Cambridges and the Sussexes.  You can tour their gardens.  You can visit Princess Diana’s children’s playground, go to the Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, sit and eat ice cream by Princess Diana’s Memorial Fountain, or have tea by the Albert Memorial.  You can even feed the pigeons, crows, geese, and swans at the Round Pond.

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One of the things I wanted to do was to visit the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain.  I am a bit curious.  When I was a teenager, everyone remembered where they were when President Kennedy was shot in Dallas.  I wonder how many people remember where they were when the news came of Diana’s death?

The fountain was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 6th July 2004.  Using contemporary technology, 545 pieces of Cornish granite were shaped and placed together using traditional masonry skills.  All of the information says:  “The design aims to reflect Diana’s life, water flows from the highest point in two directions as it cascades, swirls and bubbles before meeting in a calm pool at the bottom. The water is constantly being refreshed and is drawn from London’s water table.”  It is a very quiet, contemplative memorial that sits in the landscape in the same way that Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial does.

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There are many reasons to visit London this time of year if you are from Canada.  The first is an escape from the last remnants of a long, snowy, cold Canadian winter.  The flowers are bursting forth.  The temperature is about 11-14 degrees Celsius.  You can get by with a lined windbreaker.  Hotel prices are more reasonable, and you can get special deals on air tickets.

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If you are flying in at either of the two main airports that serve London, London Heathrow or London Gatwick, there are reasonable ways of getting into the City and back out again.  If its Heathrow, you can take the London underground directly into the City.  Arriving at Gatwick presents several options.  One is the Thameslink train that will take you into the City.  Or you can take the National Express bus which will get you to London Victoria.  There are various limo services and flat rate taxes that cost around 62 GBP.  These could be helpful if you have too much luggage.

All of the museums in London are free except for their special exhibitions.  You could keep yourself busy, as I said, right here near to Hyde Park.  One other one I didn’t list is the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.   If you want to have high tea, Harrod’s is in walking distance.  They will continue to refill the pot and the plates until you leave.  Down Exhibition Road into South Kensington, you can find some of the very smart places for meals all during the day.  If you are looking for Middle Eastern food, including Persian, try Queensway Road.

Happy travelling!