Authors: Priscilla Masters
Yes, I thought. I would.
‘I inherited a legacy which gave me the opportunity to buy the shop and open up. It was a good start.’
‘And do you buy anything?’
‘Some furniture, a few clocks, bits of silver. I specialise in Staffordshire pottery, particularly Victorian portrait figures. It’s my passion.’ As yours is your house, I could have added.
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Why portrait figures?’
Was he interested? Really interested – or was this polite affectation? I was finding it difficult to gauge. But it might be an idea to share confidences. I wanted the story behind
the jug and so I tried to put my passion into words.
‘Because the whole world is there seen through the honest eyes of the potter. It’s a naive microcosm. Politicians, criminals, royalty and circus performers. Animals they would never see, famous people they would never meet. All fashioned in simple clay to stand on their customers’ chimney breasts.’
‘I see. And are some of them valuable?’
‘Some of them – yes. Very. Others you might buy for as little as three pounds.’
‘I see,’ he said again and fell quiet.
The silence between us grew as I waited for him to broach the subject of the jug but he didn’t. He poured me another glass of wine, met my eyes, smiled, and continued to eat his food.
I knew I would have to ask him. In fact, as I looked up from my food, I caught him looking at me, his lips twitching into an almost-smile.
He was waiting for me to open the subject.
Well, I thought, two can play at this game.
It was a good salad, in an olive oil and balsamic vinegar dressing and the pasta al dente, full of garlic. I wondered if he had been here before. With a wife? Mistress? Girlfriend? I was full of questions about him as I watched him eat but we were largely silent for the rest of the meal, both sipping the wine very slowly as though to delay departure.
I looked across at him and caught him watching me. I knew then that I should sell him the jug, that however
much I wanted it it should return to Hall o’th’Wood – whatever the story. I could have named a price and he would have paid it without argument. But some possessiveness, some mischief, some Midas complex held me back from offering to let it go and take a small profit. I know now that in my heart I wanted to retain something of Hall o’th’Wood and of its owner. But now I can be honest with myself. Then I was making excuses. Once I’d found out the provenance and the story which lay behind this lovely piece of pottery I could either treasure it myself or take a good profit. It is often not a good idea to sell your best pieces without considering them for a while.
We lingered over coffee, finished the bottle of wine. And temporarily we moved on to other subjects, to travel and paintings, the horrors of thalidomide, the tragedy of Campbell’s death, at growing ease with each other. Reluctant for the meal to end we ordered a second coffee and sensed that the waiters were hovering, ready to close the empty restaurant for the afternoon. We were the only people still sitting.
We skirted round the subject of the jug but I knew he would return to it before we parted.
He asked for the bill and paid it and I felt suddenly awkward. I stood up, knocking a knife from the table as I did so. I bent to pick it up but he was there before me. He picked it up, setting it back on the table.
My conscience pricked me. ‘Richard,’ I said.
He met my eyes and I had the fleeting suspicion that he
believed his charm would have worked and I was about to offer him the jug. But the demon within me whispered objections. It is a valuable piece.
You should take it to David, in the museum, and at least find out a little about it.
In your cottage it would look wonderful on the shelf above the fireplace.
Soon it will be all you have left to remind you of this lunchtime interlude and the man who has shared it with you.
‘Richard,’ I said again.
The grey eyes warmed as he inclined his head towards me. ‘Susie?’ I caught a look of amusement flash across his face.
I had been wrong, I thought. He was not so much manipulating me as mocking me.
‘I don’t want to sell the jug. Not just yet,’ I said quickly. ‘But I promise I won’t sell it to anyone else. I shan’t put it in the shop. It won’t be for sale. I’ll keep it at home, with me.’
Being thwarted didn’t dent his good humour. ‘I shall enjoy thinking about that,’ he said, ‘my jug on your mantelpiece.’ He put his hand on my arm. ‘So that’s your decision, is it?’
‘Well – it will have to be good enough for me, won’t it, Susanna Paris?’
By being so very formal and good humoured at my refusal to sell him the piece he had taken the wind out of
my sails. I had expected a battle. Not such an easy victory. I was taken aback. It had the effect of making me feel I was playing his game rather than my own. I still had the strange, drowning sensation. And I didn’t want to surface.
We walked slowly back through the streets, finally separating at Sotheby’s front door. He shook my hand. ‘Well, Susie,’ he said. ‘I can tell that you are a very determined woman. I’ve failed to persuade you to sell me the jug. It’s possible then that having set eyes on it only via a catalogue photograph I never will see it again. But…’ Again the grey eyes flickered over me. ‘I hold you to your promise,’ he said. ‘You have given me your word that you will not sell it to anyone else.’
I met his eyes as I repeated my vow – that I would sell it to none other than he and that until I did feel I could part with it, it would remain in my possession and not grace the windows of my shop. He turned on his heel then while I walked slowly back up Sotheby’s stairs.
I packed my pieces carefully into boxes, including the precious jug. Then I fetched my car round to the back door, loaded up and drove back towards Stoke.
But the return journey felt nothing like my outward trip. Something had changed irrevocably. I sensed it even then. Everything had changed. The sky was a different colour. Flowers were colourful, even the tarmac of the road had a pretty sheen on it, like jet. It wasn’t just the acquisition of the jug. Something in me was singing along with the music on my car radio.
All the way home I tried to analyse what had happened. I ran through the light conversation, recalled his deep, clipped tones and decided. There was an aura around Richard Oliver, I realised, a few people have it, this ability to charm people, like the man playing his slow flute to the swaying cobra. He holds the animal in its thrall. Richard Oliver had that effect on me – the magnetic gaze which attracted mine. The aura around him was like that which clings to the air around a piece of fine and expensive furniture or an Old Master painting. The best way I could ever put it into words was that he reminded me most of the lovely jug which was mine – for now: beautiful, unforgettable and potentially dangerous. He could be, I decided, a treacherous mystery.
I reached the shop just before five – much later than I had planned but once there I soon regained something of my normal, exuberant spirit. Turning into the car park always gave me a frisson of pure liquid joy. My shop, Bottle Kiln Antiques, was long and low with a stumpy bottle kiln at one end. It had once been a small potbank. But during the early part of the twentieth century it had finally closed. The kiln was now a round showroom with glazed shelves and spotlighting all the way round. This held most of the pottery while the long, low building which had once been glazing sheds and painting tables now held the furniture. From the day I had opened my doors it had been a successful business and I loved the place. It was mother, father, lover and child to me. One
cannot plan to become an antiques dealer. You either have it in your blood or you do not. No amount of money can select the right stock and no amount of charm can sell so-called naughty pieces – items which have had substantial alterations done to them, cutting down large pieces to make them small, dainty, desirable and much more expensive – or downright cheats – wardrobes made into chests of drawers, square pianos turned into bookcases. There is no end to the antiques dealer’s wicked inventiveness. While the buyer needs to be wary the dealer needs the rare combination of knowledge, taste, money and luck. Luck? How so? You need to be in the right place at the right time – a field at dawn in Stratford-on-Avon, a little known saleroom in the industrial north, a bleak country-house sale on a chilly November evening. It is not always so glamorous as that sunny, April day, in Sotheby’s Chester saleroom.
I was one of the chosen few.
Susanna Paris’s Bottle Kiln Antiques had become famous in the antiques world and the more my fame grew the faster my turnover increased. I worked hard and travelled many miles to keep the shop filled with good quality pieces. It could seem a losing battle. I was constantly chivvying my ceramic and furniture restorers to speed up their ‘turnaround’ time to keep my windows filled. The Sixties were heady days for ‘the trade’.
Carrying one of the boxes of china I shouldered open the door. Joanne had been about to switch the lights off and go home but she stayed and watched as I unpacked my
trophies. She picked each one up and made her comments.
‘Shame about the broken ear.’
‘You could easily have the horse’s head repainted.’
I smiled at her. Plump and pretty with olive skin and thick, curly dark hair, she was a farmer’s daughter from the Moorlands who had left school with no GCEs and no idea of what she wanted to do with her life. She had answered my advertisement and as much to her own surprise as mine had taken to ‘the trade’ like the proverbial duck to water. I had become really fond of the girl with her honest ways, her broad Potteries accent and her ability to deal with the most difficult of customers. A useful talent. Most buyers of antiques were discerning.
I think what had impressed me too was the way she had learnt quickly and seemed to feel, as I did, respect for the work of her ancestors, the Staffordshire Potters. It sometimes struck me as ironic that while pottery firms were being soaked up by the few big names, Wedgwood, Portmeirion, Doulton, she was busily selling – often for export – the wares of her Stoke-on-Trent forefathers.
I sorted the pieces out. Some would have to be taken straight to my pottery restorers, Steve and Jules; others could be priced up and put straight in the showroom. I could see Joanne’s fingers itching to place them around the kiln. Finally I fetched in the last box, the one containing the creamware jug and flourished it proudly. ‘What do you think of this?’
Her mouth dropped open and she reached out to take it from me.
It is a strange thing. I trusted Joanne implicitly. I knew she would not drop the jug. In the years she had been with me she had never broken a single piece. And yet I was reluctant to hand it even to her.
But I did and she gazed at it with its due admiration.
‘Oh, Susie,’ she said, holding it at eye level and turning it around. ‘It’s so – perfect.’ She stopped as she studied the hanged man. ‘And so horrible,’ she said.
I nodded, mesmerised by the words,
Rychard Oliver, hys jug
and the magic date,
And to myself I whispered the name, ‘
‘It’s a real place,’ I said dreamily. ‘And what’s more – its owner, also, coincidentally’, I smiled, ‘called Richard Oliver, took me out for lunch today.’
She looked again. ‘Was one of his ancestors the hanged man?’
‘He says not.’
She shuddered. ‘Well however lovely the house is,’ she said, ‘I wouldn’t want this piece standing on my mantelpiece. Too spooky by half.’
She looked at the bottom of the jug. ‘Well, well, well,’ she said. ‘A signed piece. That gives you a great excuse to spend some time with your friend David, at the museum.’
‘I wonder what…’ She traced the words,
Matthew Grindall, hys work
Rebekah Grindall hys sister
…‘a humble potter has to do with a house as grand as Hall o’th’Wood and what
connection Rebekah Grindall has with…’ She turned the jug round again, ‘…Rychard Oliver.’
‘Nothing pleasant, I suspect.’
‘I’m surprised the current Mr Oliver didn’t buy the jug himself,’ she said.
I took the jug from her and held it myself. ‘He tried to. Luckily for me he didn’t really understand the way salerooms work so his bid wasn’t accepted.’
She was watching me now. ‘Didn’t he try and buy if off you?’
‘Why do you think he bought me lunch?’
‘But you didn’t sell?’
‘I promised him first refusal but no I didn’t sell.’
‘Good for you,’ she said then added, ‘What’s he like?’
‘Very suave,’ I said smiling. ‘And very nice too.’
She smiled. ‘Well if I were you I’d give him a wide berth. There’s a murky connection somewhere.’ She gave me a playful punch. ‘And bad blood will out.’
‘Yes.’ I stood up. ‘Maybe. But he wasn’t telling me any of it. Anyway. I can look after myself. Now then I’ve kept you late. I’ll give you a lift home.’
We set the alarm and locked up the shop. I left behind the pieces which would be for sale. Joanne and I would price them up tomorrow. I loaded the pottery that needed restoration back into my car, together with the box containing the precious jug.
After dropping Joanne off at the house she shared with two other girls in Milton I drove towards my home.
My home was a grey-stone cottage in a tiny hamlet called Horton, north-east of the Potteries, just off the A53 road to Leek. Horton was a small village with little more than a pub, a thirteenth century church and a group of farm workers’ cottages clustered round a large, elegant, stone farmhouse. Mine had been one of the farm workers’ cottages set a mile along a narrow road. This road skirted a shallow, marshy valley populated by cows – and little else. It was a haven of peace and tranquillity and I loved it.
Horton Cottage too was my idea of perfection. Built in 1847 it had a small sitting room with views right across the valley, a dining room just big enough for four chairs round a Victorian, walnut loo table and a narrow kitchen at the back which overlooked my patch of garden – now bright with daffodils. Upstairs it had two
bedrooms with low, sloping ceilings and gabled windows and a good-sized bathroom. I had bought Horton Cottage not long after I had bought the antiques shop and soon after I had moved in I had resolved that I would never sell it. It was such a comfortable home. A haven. My stability. Perhaps even then I sensed that it would, one day, become both a retreat and a refuge.
I reversed my car into the drive and carried the boxes inside. There was no hall. The front door opened straight into the sitting room, small and square with a brick fireplace, a comfortable sofa, a table, two chairs and beneath the leaded lights of the window an oak coffer. I set the boxes down on the table and, as I inevitably did when I had been out for the day, crossed the room to stand in front of the fireplace and stare up at a painting I had bought last year. I had known at the time that it was valuable but at dawn in an open-air antiques fair, people are not quite concentrating and the vendor had failed to recognise the antiquity and quality of the picture. This, of course, is the very fish hook which drags dealers out of their beds even at dawn on a cold, winter’s morning. I had felt the quickening almost before I had spotted it on the floor, on a grubby sheet, propped up against a cartwheel. I had picked it up, affecting nonchalance. This affectation of nonchalance is as important an attribute to a dealer as that great well of knowledge. The dealer had demanded fifteen pounds for it, eyeing me slyly and though I had known it was worth more than a hundred times that amount I had demurred
and grumbled. It was all part of the game; he had let me have it for fourteen.
Haggling becomes a habit and to agree too readily to a price implies that the object is worth more. Far more.
The subject should have told the vendor of its value but I’d realised he had assumed that it was a recent copy. True it was dark and unattractive. It needed cleaning. It was a portrait of a Tudor woman, painted in muted colours on an oak panel and the dealer had wrapped it up for me in newspaper tied with twine. I had no sympathy for him. If he had no eye for art he should, at least, have recognised the antiquity of the oak panel the portrait was painted on. There was no signature on the bottom. Possibly there never had been one and that was another reason why he had undervalued it and missed its worth. I was wary of signatures anyway. They are easy to fake. But the lack of one did not detract from my instinct for the portrait. Besides – behind the lady was a dark linen fold panel draped with a curtain and from my experience it was possible that the artist had concealed his mark amongst the drapes of the material.
She was wearing a fine dress bordered with Brussels lace. Around her neck was a ruff. Her hands were white and slim and sported one large ruby ring set in gold. Her hair was a lighter shade of brown than mine and her eyes seemed to me to hold a certain compassion. She was not, in my opinion, a beautiful woman but she had a fine face, pale porcelain skin (probably aided by lead), an obstinate, strong chin and intelligent eyes. I did not
know her name but between myself and this nameless woman in her fine clothes and hard stare had sprung up an odd acquaintance. She had become both friend and confidante. At times I almost felt a physical bond between myself and this unknown woman from four hundred years ago. The picture felt part of my heritage now, as I believed the jug might soon become. Other women may have a cat or a dog or a budgerigar to welcome them home from a day’s work but my welcome was this proud friend who never even looked at me other than coldly, with her own brand of supercilious hostility, as though my very presence offended her.
And yet we were friends. I stared up at her. Oh, she was a haughty one, this Tudor woman, studying me proudly from the wall, in her feathered cap, richly embroidered gown and pearls in her ears. Eyebrows and hairline plucked, lips full and reddened yet without seduction.
All I had done to the painting was to have it professionally cleaned. And that was what had thrown up the details of the work, the richness of the colour and the intricacies of her costume. It was even better than I had anticipated when I had handed over my fourteen pounds.
It is these lucky buys which keep antiques dealers chasing so hard. I had gambled and won.
I unwrapped the jug from its layers of newspaper and cradled it in my hands, feeling again the warm, waxy feel of the creamware body and the thrill which its sinister
decoration gave me. With my finger I traced over the name, Rychard Oliver, and wondered whether I would ever meet the current owner of Hall o’th’Wood again or ever go there. The crooked walls of the house held a great magnetism for me, its casement windows staring blindly out with an obscure invitation. I wondered which one was his bedroom window. Using a magnifying glass I made out the detail of the panels of the great, oak front door and the face on the knocker. I turned the jug around and ran my fingertips again over the picture of the man hanging. As often happens I could see so much more now. The agonised expression, the rough shirt
the hands flailing against his fate, the bulging staring eyes. It was, in fact, horrible. Mesmerising, fascinating and ultimately horrible.
Why did he want it so much? Was it his obvious love for the house or was this jug the only witness to some family secret? Was it important? Did Richard Oliver want to keep it hidden? Was it so shameful?
Perhaps I should have paid better attention to the simple statement. Rychard Oliver, hys jug.
Tomorrow, I decided, I would take it into the museum and let David take a look at it. Together we would unearth the story.
And then I would decide whether to sell it or not.
I believed that it would be my decision.
I turned the jug upside down to study again the two names, Matthew and Rebekah Grindall. They sounded like fine Potteries names.
I set the jug down on the coffer and went to make myself a cup of coffee, then sat down on my sofa, picked up my eyeglass and studied my acquisition again.
It was skilfully painted in overglaze enamels in colours rather lurid for the late eighteenth century. I moved the glass over the man’s face. The painter had taken great trouble to show the results of a slow hanging – the face was bluish, the tongue protruding, the eyeballs bulging. Peered at this close it was even more horrible. In all my years of dealing in Staffordshire pottery I had never seen anything quite so graphic as this. And that added value.
So what was the story behind it? A poacher caught on the land of Hall o’th’Wood? A murder? Who was Rebekah – apart from being ‘hys sister’?
I couldn’t wait to show it to David. I held the jug up to my Tudor woman. ‘So what do you think of this then, madam?’
Needless to say she didn’t answer.
I spent the next hour sorting out my other purchases of the day, deciding what restorations I would organise. Sometimes I had to refer to a book to decide whether a hand had held a bird, a staff, a book but Gordon Pugh’s Guide to Staffordshire Portrait Figures provided all the answers.
It was too late by the time I had finished to bother with supper. Besides – I had eaten well enough at lunchtime. I read a book until I was tired then lay in the bath until I was sleepy enough to go to bed. I see now it was a solitary life – talking to a painting, reading books and
spending evenings alone – but I was content.
I did not dream that night and for that I was glad. The dreams would inevitably have been a wander through the dark corridors of Hall o’th’Wood, and around every corner I would happen on a man hanging.
Next morning I drove early into Hanley and parked outside Bottle Kiln Antiques. Early though I was I still arrived a little after Joanne and found her busily dusting and polishing and setting the new pieces out, some in the windows, others already in the showroom. I laughed at her.
‘Leave a bit of dust on them, Joanne, it makes people think they’ve found a hidden treasure. People like their antiques a bit dusty – a bit mysterious.’ I made a face at her.
She dressed me down with a severe look. Joanne was a prosaic Potteries lass who had a great conscience about cleaning. Her very character would be judged by her prowess with a duster – or so she felt.
‘You’re looking very pleased with yourself,’ she said.
‘I am,’ I said. ‘I see you’ve put the new pieces around already.’
‘It was getting embarrassing, Susie,’ she protested. ‘The shop was so empty. There was nothing here and someone came all the way from London yesterday on a buying trip for Staffordshire pottery and was most put out that we had nothing for him.’
She winked at me. ‘I still managed to flog him a few pieces though. The nice big figure of Victoria and Albert
and two blue-and-white Spode serving plates.’
‘Good,’ I said and Joanne looked smug. ‘Fancy a coffee?’
She vanished into the back leaving me to think. I could feel some curious stirrings. I knew that at some point I would drive out to Hall o’th’Wood. Not simply out of curiosity to compare the house on my jug with the real thing but I have a true appreciation of all things old. And I have to confess I wanted to see the place where Richard Oliver lived. On the other hand I didn’t want him to catch me spying on him.
Joanne was back, a steaming mug in each hand. She handed me one.
‘I’m off to the museum in a bit,’ I said. ‘I want David to take a look at my new acquisition, see if he can tell me anything about it then I’ll go to Steve and Jules. The sooner I get these pieces restored and up for sale the sooner I can buy some more.’
We sat and drank coffee for an hour or so, gossiping and serving the few customers who wandered in. Antiques shops are rarely busy and never crowded. In fact they should not be crowded for two reasons. The first is that you cannot appreciate fine pieces when they are hemmed in by people and the second is that their value attracts the light-fingered. The shop owner needs to be vigilant and it’s hard to keep an eye on more than a few people at a time. At twelve I stood up. ‘I’m off,’ I said.
David Bradshaw had been a friend of mine ever since I had first come to the Potteries to live. He had run a course on Teach Yourself Staffordshire Portrait Figures and I had attended, knowing the museum possessed hundreds of figures which were never put on show but kept in locked vaults. During the course we had been allowed access to these vaults and encouraged to handle these rarities. There is no substitute for touching the real thing. Every week after the talk David and I had gone out for a drink and the friendship had blossomed. In fact, he was not only one of my closest friends; he had become almost my best customer, acquiring pieces both for the museum and his own personal collection.
I found him in his office, a tall, bony man in his early thirties, with mouse-brown hair that flopped over his brow. He wore a shapeless tweed jacket and faded brown corduroy jeans with saggy knees. I could not help contrasting his appearance with the neatly suited Richard Oliver. And David came a very poor second.
Which made me feel guilty as I plonked the box on his desk.
‘Look what I bought yesterday.’
His long, bony fingers probed the newspaper. ‘A jug?’ he ventured.
He pulled it out of the box.
‘Wow!’ he said, holding it up. ‘Wow! What a fantastic piece!’
I was so pleased. David was the one person who would
really appreciate the quality of the jug, know that its subject matter, attribution and condition made it a unique piece. David and I shared a passion for such objects and I drew in a deep breath.
He whipped out a magnifying glass from his desk drawer and spent minutes peering at the jug, scrutinising the two pictures – the beautiful house contrasting with the ugly scene.
After a few minutes he gave me a sneaky smile. ‘Where did you buy it?’
‘Sotheby’s. Chester. Yesterday.’
He set it down. ‘I hardly dare think what you had to pay for it.’
I told him and he whistled. ‘Doesn’t surprise me. I bet you had stiff competition.’
Stiffer than you think, I thought.
He peered again at the name of the potter. ‘I don’t recognise the name Matthew Grindall,’ he said, ‘which surprises me. He’s obviously a painter of great skill. How come his name is unknown? I should know of him.’
He was silent for a further minute. ‘And another thing,’ he said. ‘Who would commission this odd choice of subjects? I mean if someone wanted a jug with Hall o’th’Wood on why would they put such a grim scene on the back?’
He paused. ‘And if it was to commemorate a hanging why not put the man’s name, and the date and place of the execution? That would have been more usual.’ He turned to look at me. ‘I have no doubts that the piece is
genuine – eighteenth century Staffordshire – but I need to do some research – dig around and find out exactly what went on.’
He picked the jug up again. ‘It must have been in a private collection,’ he mused. ‘It’s in near perfect condition. Did you ask Sotheby’s what its provenance was? That might give us a clue.’
‘No. I understand it came from a local farm,’ I ventured.
‘But there’s no damage,’ he enthused. ‘The enamel’s not rubbed. It’s so perfect. Not a crack – not a chip. It must have been kept wrapped up – or in a cabinet. It’s flawless.’ He frowned. ‘How odd. That means it hasn’t even been touched.’ He put his face near it, scowling. ‘It’s strange,’ he said.