Jim Harris, Andrew W Mellon Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean, tells us the story of a silver teapot hiding a rude joke underneath it. Please be advised in advance that this episode contains an expletive.
Silver Teapot – View it here
If you want to take a closer look at the silver teapot discussed in this episode, you can view it at the link above, or visit the podcast page on the Ashmolean website: ashmolean.org/museum-secrets
Producer: Lucie Dawkins
Presenters: Lucie Dawkins and Jim Harris
About Museum Secrets: The curators at the University of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology have been recording bite-sized tales of the wonderful, and sometimes unexpected, life of a museum. We can’t wait to share them with you! Join us every weekday for 3 weeks, from 28 December onwards, for a daily dose of cheer.
Lucie: This is Museum Secrets from the Ashmolean.
I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and every day I’ll be bringing you a bitesized undercover story from our collections. Step in through the front doors, and join me for some joyful, wonderful, and sometimes bizarre tales hidden in the objects. We will be going behind the scenes and beyond the labels, into dark corners of the storerooms and into the minds of the curators.
Today we are rejoining Teaching Curator Jim Harris, who discovered something startling hidden underneath an object in the storerooms. Please be advised in advance that this episode contains an expletive.
Jim: Professors Abigail Williams and Adam Smyth of the Oxford English Faculty teach a course to third year undergraduates called Texts in Motion. It’s about the material forms of books and the ways they circulate. Some years ago, they asked me to gather some material for a class in the Museum to help their students think about how we encounter texts outside books; lurking in pictures or inscribed on objects. I found myself, therefore, in the stores, trying to find writing in unlikely places. And the longer I looked, the more I found myself returning to one part of the collection in particular – to the silver, where inscriptions of one sort or another abound.
What then can we say about silver?
Silver is everywhere.
It has been fought over, stolen and hoarded.
It has been the cause of some of the most appalling excesses of colonial violence and oppression, and its acquisition has been at the cost of uncountable lives.
We have built our economies on it, minted our currencies from it, and destroyed forests, mountains, cities and nations for it.
It has inspired us, hypnotised us and shamed us.
Silver is in our pockets and on our fingers; it hangs from our wrists, ears and necks.
We have told the time with it, fashioned trophies from it, commemorated anniversaries with it and kept things in it, from matches and visiting cards to cigarettes and medicine.
And in the Ashmolean it is all around us.
It is in our coin collection, from ancient Lydia to the present day.
It lies among the glistening grave goods of our ancestors.
As tarnished, blackened leaf it adorns the surface of our paintings.
Most of all, though, it sits on the imagined tables of our predecessors.
Silver cutlery and candlesticks on our dining tables; silver brushes and boxes on our dressing tables; silver tongs, sugar bowls and milk jugs on our tea tables.
Silver is grand, but not too grand.
Silver is prosperous and substantial but not vulgar or ostentatious.
It is valuable and yet it has always been ubiquitous.
This, then, is a story about silver; about silversmithing and silversmiths.
It is a story about quality control, about politeness, unspoken communication and class.
It is a story about how much meaning can be invested in a text that contains not a single word and only a handful of letters.
And it is a story about what may be the only materially identifiable joke in the whole museum.
It is a story about a teapot.
The teapot in question is a squat, shallow vase shape, with a flat-topped spout and a fruitwood handle, designed after the form of an ancient roman lamp.
It was made in 1814 in London, by the partnership of Samuel Hennell and John Terry, and emblazoned with the arms of an English clergyman, the Reverend John Foster, and his wife, Emma, co-heiress to the 13th Baron St John of Bletso.
The teapot has been much used. The Foster arms have been all-but polished smooth, and inside, the surface of the silver is thick with the dark tannins of a thousand cups of tea.
Although few of us now use silver teapots for our daily cuppa, it is nonetheless a deeply familiar, almost comforting sort of object, instantly recognisable and, by virtue of its style, material and quality, instantly able to be located in the subtle, invisible and yet entirely obvious network of the English class system.
The material facts of the teapot are confirmed, as they are of all English silver, by its hallmark, the punched symbols required by the Assay Office since medieval times to guarantee the purity of the metal and the provenance of the object.
As is proper to early-nineteenth century silver, there are five marks here, comprising a dense, compact text, terse and to the point but packed with information.
There is a crowned leopard’s head to show that the pot was made in London.
A lion passant to show it is sterling - that is, 925 parts per thousand pure silver.
There is a roman capital letter T in a shield to show it was made in 1814 and there is the head of George III to indicate that duty has been paid.
And finally, there is the sponsor’s or maker’s mark that advertises the teapot as the work of Mr Hennell and Mr Terry.
Samuel Hennell was the third generation in a family of silversmiths. His Grandfather, David Hennell started the business in 1736 and it was then run successively by Samuel’s father, Richard and his brother, David the Second, until 1811, when after his father’s death and his brother’s retirement, Samuel became the sole proprietor.
As was commonplace at the time, Samuel sought a partner and in 1814 he found one in the husband of his niece, one John Edward Terry.
Like any new silversmithing business, Hennell and Terry were obliged to register a new sponsor’s mark for their partnership, and it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what that means in practical terms.
A sponsor’s mark will commonly comprise the initials of the maker or makers concerned, set in a surrounding cartouche of some sort. The design must registered with the Assay Office, at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, and be cut into a die that can then be used to punch everything that the firm makes.
The makers mark, then, represents a series of design decisions concerning form, font, abbreviation and name order that are both intensely personal and wholly public.
A makers mark is as deliberate and decisive a thing as it is possible to conceive.
So Hennell and Terry’s mark tells us a great deal about them. It is the one mark, among all these five, that bears a subtext, a poem almost, in only four letters.
In Hennell and Terry’s mark it seemed appropriate that as senior partner in the firm, Samuel initials should come first. Equally appropriate was the decision to romanise the J of John to an I, in keeping with the style of the time and the classicising form of the teapot.
For the sake of clarity the two pairs of initials were then placed neatly one on top of the other in a simple square, giving the clear, unmistakable, four-letter impression: S H I T.
There is, I fear, no possible way of construing this mark other than the most obvious, and this therefore, is the point in the story when delicate ears should be covered.
Because Hennel and Terry’s maker’s mark is shit.
Now this is surprising.
Who, after all, would wish to stamp the product of their hand, this beautiful, elegant object with such a word.
Jeweller to the masses, Gerald Ratner, once famously described his own company’s products as shit and in so doing destroyed his business.
That cannot have been Samuel and John’s aim.
But it’s not as if the word itself can possibly be misunderstood.
Shit is everyday. It may not be a word used by the polite classes but it is certainly a word known to the polite classes.
English poets, from Chaucer through Shakespeare to Dryden and Pope have always had a scatological turn. Jonathan Swift’s line in ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, ‘Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’ is merely the most celebrated in a long literary tradition honouring that universally shared bodily function.
This is not a mysterious word.
It is not a code or a cipher.
It is not some abstruse piece of street slang, an arcane lexicon known only to a handful of initiates.
Everyone knows it. It bears no nuance of interpretation to soften its plain meaning and its plain meaning is everywhere acknowledged.
Shit is shit: rooted in our daily lives and discourse and, if too vulgar to be spoken, never very far from being heard.
So why has it been punched onto the bottom of this elegant Regency teapot, to infiltrate and inhabit the politest social rituals of that politest of social classes, the English clergyman’s teatable?
Of course, we cannot know and unless there is correspondence lurking in the archives of still-surviving firms descendant from Hennell’s, we may never have any concrete clue;
but it is worth asking the question of this nice lady’s teapot - who saw the hallmark?
Certainly it wasn’t the clergyman’s wife as she poured the tea for her guests.
And it wasn’t the guests as they admired their hostess’s taste for fashionable tableware.
But when the tea was cold, and the guests had gone, and the tray was carried down to the servants hall for everything to be washed and polished, the teapot was turned upside down and emptied, and the hallmarks winked up at whichever maid or footman found themselves rinsing out the leaves, spelling out shit to whoever was there to look.
And it seems to me then, that Hennell and Terry were making a joke; speaking out into the lives of the servants of their clients, sending a nod from workshop to below stairs, from trade to service.
Jokes on objects are very rare and, like jokes in Shakespeare, even more rarely funny.
And it may be that I am simply more puerile than the average museum person, but here, surely, is a funny joke and a joke that contains that vital characteristic of any good gag, a touch of solidarity, of mutual understanding, and perhaps even in this case the slightest hint of compassion in the shared acknowledgement that silver may be silver but shit is shit - and life, sometimes, can be both.
Lucie: Thanks to Jim for revealing the double life a teapot can have, and the way an object can have different conversations with you, depending on who you are, and how you are looking at it. You can see this teapot by following the link in the podcast notes. Join us tomorrow for another episode about how we look at art. If you enjoyed today’s story, please rate, review, and share the podcast. It helps other listeners find us.