Abigail Bainbridge ACR: Things we found in the ground

Abigail Bainbridge ACR, Chair of Icon's Book & Paper Group, writes about finding potsherds in her garden

23 Apr 2021

Tristram Bainbridge ACR and I are partners, and business partners, and parents of four-year-olds (cue “two babies?!” the persistent refrain since the first sonogram, as hard to believe still now as it was then). Like the rest of the UK, we’ve been working & homeschooling and we don’t know what day of the week it is anymore. Our latest pandemic distraction/museology homeschool lesson was the subject of a recent social media “exhibition” for the Icon Book & Paper Group. Icon Chief Executive Sara Crofts enjoyed the story and invited me to share it.

Since the first lockdown we’ve been designing the new book & paper studio that we (ok,  Tristram) will build this spring. There is a shed on part of the site, so the first step in the logistics that we’re starting to carry out now is to make a new shed. We’re digging down for both buildings to get a bit more height inside while still staying within the permitted development rules for building height… by hand, slowly, in the wet soil of London in winter.

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We’ve noticed over the years that there are odd brick foundations or paths not too far underground in some areas of our garden. Tristram did some research when he hit one of these and found old maps showing that in the late 19th century this was the back end of a much larger plot for a larger house. In this particular area it looks like there were glasshouses; at any rate, what remains is areas with various layers of brick, mortar, hardcore, and asphalt.

Amongst all this we have been also finding sherds (bits of pottery) and shards (bits of glass) and other bits of thing. We love walking along the Thames looking for interesting things but I didn’t realise we could do something similar in our own garden although it’s not particularly surprising either given the city’s history. It’s nothing special or valuable, but there is a joy in finding these things buried in our own soil. I’m sorely tempted to just dig random holes, not for studio foundations, but I have a feeling Tristram would start protesting.

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Early on we found a few sherds that matched each other and that’s when we went all in. (A shard is a piece of anything brittle and a sherd is specifically a ceramic piece, usually archaeological in context.) I really enjoy teaching the kids about materials and ways of looking at things and the world around them. I love that they know the names of flowers and they like helping in the garden; they know how to make pancakes and fish leather and sew a pamphlet stitch; they know how to use an electric drill, although they think the goal is to produce sawdust.

And so we called my friend & colleague Tiago Oliveira for his ceramics conservation expertise and we talked to their aunt Sarah Moulden, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, about how to curate an exhibition. Tristram got out an old antiques dealer handbook and we found one of the registration marks on a piece of plate in the book (indicating late 19th century), and we did a lot of talking about what our sherds & shards may have come from: plate, cup, bottle… Tiago taught the kids about body types and they very much enjoyed shining a “torchlight” (from their British father’s “torch” + American mother’s “flashlight” of course) at each piece to see if it was translucent to distinguish bone china from earthenware.

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He also talked to us about how to bond the couple of sherds that matched, and we went into the furniture studio to carry out the treatment - following a quick chat about the Icon Professional Standards to keep it ethical, naturally. Hours of doing puzzles has paid off well.

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Then we got to work designing the exhibition. The kids carefully practiced writing the interpretation - as far as we could guess, taking a few liberties - on strips of paper, and attempted a few mock layouts with their magnetic tiles.

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Then the adults had to take over, for reasons of quality control. Tristram found an old document box with a sliding lid that we could turn into a display case; I lined it with silk (scraps someone gave me from the 80s: waste not, want not!) and fixed objects to it with monofilament. I blocked a title on rainbow trout leather I made this winter: Things We Found in the Ground.

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Since then, we’ve found loads more ceramics, glass, and a bit of metal in now digging for the actual studio foundations. A book conservation colleague, Peter Verheyen, helped me identify the text on some salt glazed sherds and I realised much of what I was digging up was pieces of 19th century German ceramic mineral water bottles, exported all around the world at the time. I found glass bottle stoppers, one that says Lee & Perrins in raised letters (Victorian worchestershire sauce?).

Other salt glazed sherds are from blacking bottles - blacking was a liquid/paste used (surprise) to keep things like stoves and fireplaces black. Some other favourites include a complete ceramic ink bottle, a shallow white ceramic jar, a copper alloy doorknob that metals conservator Camilla Zanon Paglione helped me clean up, and a large part of a ca. 1850-ish cooking pot that someone has clearly been mixing paint in since then. Loads of ceramic pipe stems and a few bowls, a few teapot spouts. I haven’t found any Roman glass yet, but there is always hope…

For updates on finds and studio building progress, see Instagram stories on @bainbridgecons