Thursday, July 03, 2008

Commerce in a fair haven


Call me obsessive. Some months ago—never mind how long precisely—having a few spare shekels in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me in Watford, I thought I would board the Metropolitan line and see the covetous part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the preoccupations of the present and regulating excess income. Whenever I find myself growing dry about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly February in my neighborhood; whenever I find myself involuntarily pawing through Yixing-ware houses’ catalogues, and bringing up the rear at every cocktail party I attend; and especially whenever my loathing of modern, mass-marketed miasmas gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into a Starbuck’s, and methodically tipping people’s lattes into their laps—then I account it high time to get to tea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for television. With a philosophical flourish Melville throws himself upon his harpoon; I quietly take to the kettle. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew their options, almost all people in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings toward the camellia with me.

Portobello Road and environs host one of the English-speaking world’s great street markets. Though the lingual qualifier is somewhat restrictive, it’s still a fine place to while away a few bob. I first walked the tempting gauntlet almost 30 years ago, constrained by financial circumstances largely to window-shopping. (-No mean feat, at an outdoor mall.) The market is organized, so to speak, in three sections: the fancy bit, up by Notting Hill Gate, which features “important” antiques in a warren of arcades, fronted by in-street and sidewalk stalls with mostly mass-produced tchochkes, many now from the former Soviet states as well as African crafts. There are a few food carts, latterly much more eclectic than then, and a few chic restaurants including one that proclaims the best burgers in London. (Since I don’t mix religion with shopping, I instead had a nice plate of fried mollusks from a little stand, both of indeterminate species.) The whole confabulation, perhaps two thousand shops in all, only occupies a couple of hundred paces’ worth of Portobello Road itself, extending a block or so along two side streets and close-packing much of the space thus circumscribed. Further downhill is less self-conscious neighborhood street market where locals buy essentials comestible, wearable and electrical. The real flea market then runs to and under the Westway flyover, with a potpourri spanning cellar-cleanouts, classic clothing, pre-discovery famous-fashions-to-be, stolen goods and a few established shops with relatively congenial pricing. The first time I was there, both un- and disoriented, I started at the bottom. Not very impressed with the goods, I was at least not shocked at the prices (compounded by a dollar weak even by today’s exchange rates and a pitiful research stipend that fed two). I bought what turned out to be the first of a series of silly face pots for a pound or so, a couple of saveloys (a nominal foodstuff just a small step up from the chip buttie in nutritive merit), and not much else. Older and somewhat richer now, but ever more impoverished in free time, I’ve not returned to the cheap end, and wonder how it stands. I have gotten to know the Notting Hill section better, though; in 1994, for example, I was captured by one of these

at an outdoor stall. Repeated approaches and a plea of colonial poverty dropped the price to just 60% of appalling. I still don’t know its use or provenance, but it’s tangibly magical and was clearly made (by whatever shaman, in whatever century and locale) to adorn my office. A cartwheel tuppence’s weight in purest Rohini oolong from The Darjeeling Tea Lady awaits whoever provides the most interesting and plausible illumination.

Last winter, I happened to have a Saturday’s layover west of London following a lightning raid on Berlin that left me Excel-shocked and feverish. (Yorkshire Gold and Ciprofloxacin, respectively, handled both tidily.) While my host was off coaching soccer football, I made the rail trip into Hammersmith to see if there might be any worthy teaware to bulk up the suitcase left half-empty for just such a contingency. I might have preferred the somewhat mellower Camden markets, but they’d only just conflagrated and not yet reopened.

It was a very cold day, even by whaling standards, so vendors were in a mood to sell out and go home. I quickly located a few of the face pots I admire for just £7 each at a stand personed by a seriously hypothermic rosebud, who appeared to be clearing a closet for her SO. After building rapport and indicating the decadal depth of my enthusiasm for this populist art form, I asked if she had any more. She hauled out a large box of the same, and I wound up with six for twenty, thereby illustrating the power of both timing and the bulk purchase. Most were of my favorite marque, Sadler,

with a few more desirable (sez the Web) but to me less whimsical pieces from other kilns. More importantly, at one of the arcade shops, I located stoneware jars originally loaded with various preserved-fish spreads (here Bloater Paste and anchovy butter), presumably invented to make Marmite taste good by comparison.

These are urgently required at home for purposes as yet to be determined. However, we have not yet touched on teaware.

Though somewhat impoverished in paraphernalia generally

(that’s the quotidian equipage), I was not seriously looking for pots as such. The only two uniquely British styles that really appeal are the true Brown Betty and the cute art-deco Railway sets. Of the former I inherited an archetypal example, perfect except for chipped spout; in a hundred or so UK trips, I’ve never seen as nice a one for sale at any price. (This visit unearthed a fairly manky piece from the late 18th century; too fragile and expensive to use; it was the only red-clay example I saw that day.) One vendor had one railway pot, at a high price, recovered from a tip where the line had smashed thousands when styles changed. I would have taken it had the ruthless raconteur stopped talking long enough to accept my cash. I also saw these two early 19thC. wheat-eared beauties, both to my Sinocentric eye possibly occidized renderings of Yixing originals.

Though usefully sized at about 150 ml, neither had apparently ever been tainted with actual leaf; and at about $300 each, even my compulsion to negotiate was stymied. Further, the shop owner didn’t seem to have much use for Yanks. Probably too young to remember the 8th Air Force’s help in the recent unpleasantness.

I also perused a stallful of alleged jade carvings (neither jadeite nor nephrite to be found). The owner saw me eyeing an implausibly viridian gaiwan, and seemed surprised that I had any idea what it was for, much more that I used one daily. It transpired that he didn’t know how to hold it, and only drank coffee anyway. (No shame there—good coffee in England, if one steers clear of US chains.) By contrast, a dark, dusty and largely untrafficked corner presented a very pleasant youngish Chinese man with possibly the finest gaiwan I’ve ever seen outside of (or even in) a museum, superbly hand-painted and two or three centuries venerable. At £300 a bargain, but the guineas were not running so thick in my wallet; besides, for someone who usually brews in a 45 ml gaiwan, the thing was a monster at ten times that or more. I almost bought a small scholar rock just for the pleasure of doing business with him, but paying excess baggage to fly rocks across the pond somehow violated my sense of propriety.

In any event, per above, I wasn’t much seeking pots anyway. What I really wanted was some nice creamers: small for fair-pots, and larger for cold water. Also something nice to display a series of spent leaves. The latter will now be well-served by my first Meissen, the long traylet below, ca. 1860. The lovely oaken-bucket creamer from Royal Worcester is just right for gongfu-for-two. For some reason predating my awareness of feng shui, I have a strong predilection toward the octagon, and managed to negotiate a good price on the cup and saucer. These are wreck salvage. Interestingly, several of the classier shops specialize in such porcelain; they have thousands of pieces organized by ship, style and function. Each piece, tagged with provenance and date, costs tens to hundreds of pounds (or more).

This pair, the cup with a bisque-firing floor leak and the saucer fine to my eye, were about £15 avec the magenta-painted cup, allegedly Kangxi ca. 1700 and the second most compelling ceramic piece I own, ahead of a small Royal Doulton flambé vase picked up at the Alexandra Palace in the ‘90s. (As a Singaporean friend commented on hearing that a jade amulet I’d picked up for $20 in Kowloon had a beard a thousand years long, “There’s a lot of old stuff around.”) It brought to mind the Flower of Forgetfulness in Heinlein’s “We Also Walk Dogs,” a must-read for anyone interested in either science-fiction or ceramics.

The real find, however, was this delightful pair of Art & Crafts pitchers, from the charming people at Orchard Antiques. (Not a twee moniker, that’s actually the family name, and they had exceptionally many nice things.) Only because these caught both my eye and the remainder of my simoleons did I evade purchasing a magnificently kitschy 1960s ashtray in the shape of a shark for a relative who’s in the business of protecting them.

What I most wanted to bring home, as so often happens, was not on offer. The survival of the sessile stallkeepers was ensured by the near-manic peregrinations of a charming and stunningly beautiful young American lass who would collect and memorize the orders of each group of shivering vendors, disappear into the throng, and return moments later in perfect equilibrium with a tray piled high with steaming drinks, sweet rolls and savories. For her extended company I’d have traded all the tea in China, but didn’t happen to have it with me at the time. The porcelain and stoneware, and the rich brews they proclaim, will have to keep me warm through my own chill mornings back in the New World.


Anonymous said...

Obviously, your first photo shows a hat stand for a wizard's hat. Chinese hat stands are often mis-identified, so it is understandable that a garden variety wizards's hat stand would also be difficult to recognize.

[tom V]

{make sure it is a George II sized Cartwheel tupence}

Lew Perin said...

With the authority vested in me due to one of my best friends' father being a retired admiralty lawyer, I declare you have Melville fast, not loose.

Remember, better Moby Dick than Moby!