January 2007

This was the introductory feature of my Oxfordshire Limited Edition (The Oxford Times) series in 2007. I used this story of my own and combined it with the parallel story from Blenheim Palace to invite readers to send in their stories. They did and the series continued for a year but the entries I received were often not substantial enough to fill two pages so I had to consider starting another series in 2008 ie. The Castaway Series now in its sixth year. Did Neil MacGreggor see it? In 2010 he broadcast a History of The  World in a Hundred objects but he had the stories of all the collections in The British Museum at his disposal.

Every Antique tells a Story

Possibly, but some are more evocative than others. Antiques seem to invite questions like why, how, who and what for? This year, I would like to invite readers to contact me with interesting stories. If you have an object, possibly a family heirloom, that brings with it tales of daring-do or mysterious secrets uncovered, then do get in touch on the email address below.

I thought I would begin with one of my own. In the early days of the Antiques Road Show, Arthur Negus was asked what wonderful things he had collected. I sympathised with his reply. His livelihood was from selling antiques so he could not afford to keep the ones he loved the most. My position was much the same: the Meiji Satsuma vases and the Galle planters had to be sold. Sometimes, some fascinating but not perfect pieces came my way that I could buy for myself. In 1987, an Oxford house clearer came to me with two ginger jars. They were badly damaged. He said he had been called to clear the back of a barn and these were among the pieces he found there. He asked £15 for the pair and I gathered from his body language that he expected me to haggle. To his surprise, I gave him £15 and became the proud owner of a pair of soft paste porcelain vases. I am sure some readers must feel quite sorry for me getting excited about some broken pots. I hope you will understand when I tell you the story behind them. 

 I had an idea what I was buying but began to research them. Under these vases in blue paint were the initials PVM. I have sometimes taken the ginger jars to illustrate talks and I ask the audience, ‘Where did they come from?’

The answer is, invariably, China. That is a sensible answer, because they look Chinese, but not the right one. They were made in Delft, in Holland. Looking up PVM- in my venerable copy of Chaffers, I discovered that the maker was one Petrus Van Marum. I wonder if his name was really ‘Pieter’ (Dutch for Peter) but he thought it sounded better in Latin?  He was proud of these jars or he wouldn’t have signed them. He was, however, proud of a failure. He was trying to copy ‘the must have’ luxury in Europe at that time.


In the seventeenth century, the Dutch dominated international trade in goods from the Far East. When the ships, coming from China, were unloaded; they discovered this amazing ‘new’ material called porcelain. It was to have a profound influence on the visual arts in Europe. Until then, the wealthy ate from silver plates whilst the middle classes used pewter and the poor, wood. Suddenly, like magic from the east, appeared this exquisite substance which was beautiful, strong and durable. The Dutch imported over 12 million ceramics. Considering the population of  England in those days was around  4 million, this represented a huge demand.


Peter wanted to get in on the act. He was not the only one. In England  entrepreneurs were also trying make porcelain. An alchemist named Johann Friedrich Boettger, with the help of Walther von Tschirnhaus, was the first to succeed. He produced it, for the Elector of Saxony. The formula was a jealously guarded secret. The Prussians even tried to abduct him! For some time the poor man had been locked in a castle until he made gold. He failed in that but he did discover   the formula for porcelain and it became Dresden’s gold. The Meissen factory broke the Chinese monopoly and became one of the wealthiest companies in Europe. So England, France and Holland wanted the knowledge to break the Meissen monopoly! When I hold my vases I am in touch with one of the most exciting quests of the eighteenth century. They are not hard and strong like porcelain but rather light and fragile, hence the description ‘soft paste porcelain’. It is a miracle they survived at all.


  Where can you see a good collection of early Meissen and Chinese ceramics?


Blenheim Palace has one of the finest collections of Meissen and Chinese ceramics in the country. I spoke to their archivist, John Forster.  The story he tells is almost a continuation of mine.  ‘In 1740, a friend of the third Duke of Marlborough was ambassador at the court of the Elector of Saxony. The Elector desperately wanted to own a well trained pack of hunting hounds. The ambassador, Sir Charles Hanbury Williams said the third duke could fulfill his wish. The Elector asked how much he should pay but the duke did not want to sell the dogs. He said they could, however, be a gift. The Elector wondered how to respond to his generosity. He went to the Meissen factory and ordered two large dessert sets. These were duly dispatched to Blenheim and the hounds to Dresden.’   


I think the duke had the best part of the deal. After all we can still see the Meissen but the hounds are long dead. John said that they were not a great success at the time. It seems they only responded to commands in English and didn’t understand German or Polish!


The Spalding Collection of Chinese ceramics is wonderful.  John said that Samuel Smith Spalding was assistant bible clerk at Saint John’s College and later curate at Binfield. He wrote to the Fourth Duchess identifying himself   as a ‘person in possession of an immense collection of fine old China and Japan’. He would gift his collection to the family in return for it being displayed according to his wishes. He proposed an incognito meeting in any coffee house in Oxford. He explained that his collection was ‘one that would do credit to the first Sovereign of Europe.’   This obscure Oxford cleric was a well travelled man and an obsessive collector.  How a curate was able to afford to buy 36 chests of ‘Ancient China’ is not clear. I think it shows how the nation’s horizons had widened in the eighteenth century and even fairly modest people were acquiring antiques from the east.  John said that the meeting took place in one of the country’s earliest coffee houses, situated on the corner of Queen Street in Oxford. Should you go there for a tete a tete, remember the curate and the duchess!


For me, the attraction of antiques is precisely that they are not new. They come glazed with hi-story. So, if you have an antique with an interesting story to tell, do email it to me, the story that is not the antique!.