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All Around My Life

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Thursday 9 February 2012: Tranquillity in a Teacup

Some music here

As I may have mentioned, I have a thing about small jugs and creamers. In fact, this extends to cups and saucers - but they must be bone china and of generally delicate appearance. I think I can pinpoint the moment when my fascination with teacups began: it was when I was watching Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano' in the cinema in Mission Bay, Auckland. The film's opening had been eagerly anticipated in New Zealand as it was filmed on location in Auckland, and co-starred New Zealand actor Sam Neill alongside Holly Hunter, who played all her piano solos herself. The film also marked the acting debut of Wellington schoolgirl Anna Paquin.

I was particularly keen to see it because the beach scenes had been shot at one of my favourite of Auckland's West Coast beaches, Karekare. Although in many ways it is rather a dark film, I was utterly spellbound by it. It really brought home to me how hard life was for the early European settlers in this country, having to carve livelihoods out of the dense bush. There was just so much mud in the film!

However, I digress. The film was shot very artistically and there is one moment, probably only a second or two at most, where the camera looks directly down upon a cup of tea that has just been handed to a woman. She stirs the tea and looks down into the Victorian cup in a moment of awkward silence. The cup was beautiful, and I was captivated by it.

I bought this cup and saucer in an antique shop here in Nelson in July. There are many antique shops in the city and surrounding areas, stuffed full of all sorts of wonderful things.... I could spend days in them. I was immediately drawn to the cabinet full of teacups and saucers and decided to treat myself to one - if I could find something that I liked at a reasonable price. This one immediately stood out to me because of the translucence of the china; the delicate ('Gainsborough') shape and the simple but elegant pattern. I asked the owner of the shop to get it out for me and as she wrapped it up, she turned it over and said "Shelley - that's a good one, you chose well."

I know very little about china marks, though I was brought up in a house where we were often told that certain pieces were Minton, or Wedgwood, or Meissen, or Spode. My mother seemed to know a bit about it. This particular cup and saucer are indeed made by Shelley* and are back-stamped Late Foley, which was a mark that Shelley only used between the years 1910-16.

I love the idea that this cup and saucer were produced in such an interesting historical period and especially like to imagine all the conversations that must have gone on around the tables on which it has sat ever since..... perhaps concerning the sinking of the Titanic; the First and Second World Wars; the Wall Street Crash and the Depression; the conquering of Everest; the splitting of the atom (Ernest Rutherford was born outside Nelson!); the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Moon landings; the Korean and Vietnam wars; the Tangiwai disaster; the assassination of JFK; the rise of The Beatles; the sinking of the Wahine; the births, marriages and deaths of kings, queens, princes and princesses...... and all those unknown but so important family milestones, too. Was it exported to New Zealand for sale here in the early 1910s? Or did an immigrant family bring it - and if so, when? Has it always been in Nelson or did it, like Holly Hunter's character in The Piano (and me!)move here from Auckland? Has it survived an earthquake? So many questions. Tonight it is sitting by me with peppermint tea in it, but when I photographed it earlier it contained my absolutely favourite tea, Lapsang Souchong.

After yesterday's storm in a feeding bottle, I thought I'd go for something more restful today, so here you have a Victorian film and an almost-but-not-quite Victorian teacup to go with it. I hope you enjoyed it!

There is a lovely (to my mind!) excerpt from the beginning of The Piano here.

And here is another photo showing the shape of the cup.


*Shelley was established around 1872, in Fenton, Stoke on Trent as Wileman & Co. On the death of Henry Wileman, his son James Wileman took over and recruited Joseph Ball Shelley to work with him in with a particular view to developing export markets. The industrial revolution meant that transport and international trade was much easier than it had been, and Wileman and Shelley understood the opportunities presented by this.

Soon after Joseph Shelley joined the business, his son Percy Shelley also came to work at Wileman & Co and was despatched to the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. He came back with a much better understanding of the American and Canadian markets. Several ranges designed specifically for the North American market soon followed and their success marked the beginning of one of Shelley's biggest success stories - exports.

The late 19th Century was a creative time for Wileman & Co and it continued to do well with a number of well-respected Art Directors until the period between the two World Wars, which was a difficult time for many of the English pottery companies. The Shelley works were eventually closed in 1966.

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