First Ten

16th February 2023
First Ten


Art Deco Vase

When my parents, Hilda and Ken married in 1931, Art Deco was in fashion. I once visited the house near Dartmouth built for the D’Oyly Carte family, who made their fortune monopolising Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The house was built in the Arts and Crafts style with Art Deco furnishing, and as I walked in, I felt as though I was entering a preserved and up-market version of my parents’ home tastes, in particular the chairs in limed oak, and the Clarice Cliff tableware. Elizabeth and I had a parallel experience when we visited Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside Copenhagen and saw the stainless steel and coloured glass in a modern Scandinavian style, some items exactly the same as wedding presents we had received.

The golden orange vase fits exactly into this style. It needs a large space and tall flowers to show it at its best; and because of its size and weight when full of water it is rather alarming to use. We have found it too big for everyday use, but has kept it stored away, and carefully bring it out when gladioli are in season.

Oak Chest

Oak Chest

When we lived as a family at 19 Routh Road on Wandsworth Common, an enormous six-bedroom Victorian semi-detached house, this chest lived in the hall at the bottom of the stairs, next to the front door with its hammered glass panels. It was a taken-for-granted fixture in my young life, always there, never spoken of; I don’t remember it ever being opened or what was kept in it.

My mother regularly used it as a place for a decorative arrangement, often in the glass vase – in spring, pussy willow; in autumn, copper beech twigs that she preserved with glycerine in the water; the dead heads of hydrangea. Sometimes, we would have a family excursion the bluebell woods of Surrey and come back with armfuls of flowers – unthinkable now – which would quickly wilt and be thrown out.

I have no idea where the chest came from. I suspect its origins are on the Reason side of the family, as Nanna, grandma Whittlestone, was still living in No 1 Routh Road with all the furniture from that side of the family. Nor do I know anything of its history or value.

The chest was one of the few old pieces that Hilda and Ken took with them when they moved to Camberley in Surrey; Ken later brought it with him to Bath, so my guess is it has some sentimental value to them as they were quite ruthless in throwing old stuff out. We acquired it when Ken died.

Serving Platter

Clarice Cliffe platter

In keeping with the art deco style Hilda and Ken had a complete set of Clarice Cliff tableware – not one of the elaborate patterns but a simple design of cream ringed with green and blue. All that is left is the large serving platter, which we still use when we serve a very large roast. The original set was complete with plates for dinner and tea, serving dishes, and teacups – as a child these fascinated me, as they had a solid triangle as a handle and were quite difficult to hold. We continued to use some of the plates up to the 1990s, until the glaze deteriorated beyond use.

China Tea set

Tea Service

There is an occasion from my childhood associated with this china that is etched in my memory.

I must have been eight or nine. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon at Routh Road. Well past Sunday lunch, my mother had enjoyed tea in the garden, served in the tea service with the dragon image. Wanting to be helpful, I carried the dirty china back on a tray back into the kitchen to wash it up. But the draining board was full, occupied by the meat roasting pan, yellow enamel, with a rounded top, that had been left to soak clean. I could neither put the tray down nor, as my my hands were full, could I clear a space to set it down, so I carefully balanced the tray full of tea things on the top of the roasting dish. I was so sure it was well balanced, and indeed it was, until I lifted off the first cup to wash, and the whole trayfull slipped sideways onto the floor with a crash.

My father came in from the garden. I was deeply upset, but no one seemed to be cross with me. We cleared up and never spoke of the incident again. But I have always since then been careful of how things are set on the draining board.

Sometime after that, Mother bought the new green and beige china tea service from Branksome China of which she was enormously proud. So I wonder how much she actually liked the dragon set, and whether I gave her the opportunity to treat herself! (These pieces are reportedly collectable)

The cake plate is the only piece of the old dragon tea service that survives. We still use it.

Table and Chairs

Table and Chairs

My Uncle Stanley, my mother’s sister’s husband, was an amateur furniture maker. At least, that is what I was told, although he never made any furniture in the time that I knew him. He made this oak table, with an accompanying sideboard, for my parents as a wedding present. The sideboard is long gone: it was ugly and inefficient, so I broke it up and used the old oak wood in other projects. But the table survives. When I was little we used a metal table for family meals in the ‘breakfast room’ next to the kitchen (it was a very big house). Stanley’s table was in the ‘garden room’, by the French Windows that my mother had installed as part of the war repair damage, and used for Sunday lunch and special occasions.  When my grandmother died and the family inherited her mahogany table and mock Chippendale chairs, the oak table was demoted to the breakfast room, and the metal tables to the garden. After my father died, we put in our basement room where Elizabeth uses it as a sewing table.

The chairs – again in Art Deco style – not made by Stanley (too many joints for an amateur) to make) but were bought to go with the table. We now use them every day to go with our more modern oak table. Our son Ben, for his final art school project, made a meticulous reproduction of one of them the chair as part of a response to Joseph Kosuth’s conceptual art piece ‘One and Three Chairs’.

Moroccan Pottery Charger

Moroccan Pottery Charger

At least, I think it is Moroccan. I believe my parents went to Morocco in the early 1930s – presumably by sea for that would have been quite a trip in those days. My sister Ann told me that they always giggled when she asked them about it, and she suspects that she was conceived sometime during that visit. It clearly carried sentimental value, as it was one of the pieces that my father kept after mother died and he downsized to move near us in Bath.

The charger itself is very soft subdued colours under a matt glaze. In the tradition of Islamic art, it is imperfect, one of the rings having a section in the ‘wrong colour’ because only Allah can be perfect. At least, that is what I was told. It is a very special piece. We keep it on top of the oak chest, usually with oranges and lemons.

Cake Tester

Cake Tester

“Come and help me see that the cake is done”. Elizabeth calls from the kitchen. On the counter is the Dundee fruit cake that she has just taken out of the oven; she flourishes a curious object that we have laughed over together for so many years. It’s an item that carries a family history.

It’s a small gauge, steel, double-ended knitting needle, about six inches long, stuck into a champagne cork. The steel is blackened from many years of use, and slightly bent. The cork is also stained by the many hands that have held it, hands often coated with oil or butter from cooking.

I have been called in because, somehow, I am the expert consultant on whether Dundee cakes are cooked through or not. I hasten to be clear this is not a case of ‘mansplaining’ – I leave cake-making in Elizabeth’s very competent hands. But it is always difficult to be sure a fruit cake – Dundee, Christmas, or Simnel – is properly cooked in the middle. And since we have recently installed a new oven, that question is compounded. So I am called in for my opinion.

I take the spike from Elizabeth’s hand and choose a crack between two flaked almonds, near the middle, where the cake batter might still need some cooking time. It slides in smoothly and comes out quite clean. “That’s nicely done”, I say to her, “Lovely cake!” “I have to make what my boy wants”, she replies. Our elder son Ben, his partner Mette, and their son Aske are visiting us this coming week.

We look together at the curious object in my hand. “That should be one of your One Hundred Objects”, she tells me. Of course it should. “It was your mother’s”, she reminds me – her mother would just have taken the cake out of the Aga when she knew it was done without the fuss of testing. “And it’s your mother’s cake tin too, I get much better results with that than any of the new ones I have bought.” The cake tin, like the steel spike, is patinaed from many years of use. It leaks ancient grease from the joints when heated, so must be carefully lined with greaseproof paper before the batter is spooned in.

But I don’t think the cake tester was just my mother’s, I think it was my grandmother Nanna’s. Or at least, she had something almost identical. I remember, with quite ridiculous clarity, as a small boy of four or five, watching her with Gracie by her side – dear Gracie who had lived and worked with the family since she was about fourteen. It must be the late 1940s. They are standing together in the scullery at Turret Lodge under a single dim lightbulb, next to an ancient gas stove. They too are testing to see if a fruit cake is cooked, just as we are doing in our bright modern kitchen. They seem satisfied with the result, and at that point my memory fades away.

I watched my mother, too, slide the metal spike into her fruit cake, standing in her rather more modern kitchen. It was she who explained to me how it worked: if the spike comes out clean, the cake is done, but if uncooked batter is clinging on it needs to be put back in the oven.

Was she using the same metal spike as Nanna? And is ours the same one? And when and how did it arrive in our house? We can’t quite remember.

Elizabeth’s cake is done. She slides it from the tin, peels off the greaseproof paper, and leaves it to cool on the cake rack. The cake tester is returned to its place alongside the potato peeler, the zester, and the egg whisk in the drawer under the refrigerator.

Dundee Cake

Uncle Frank’s Clock

Uncle Frank's Clock

Uncle Frank was my Mother’s younger brother. He was killed on a bombing raid over Berlin in the last months of the war in Europe, shortly before I was born. His room in my grandmother’s house was kept very much as he left it, with a big bed in the middle that I slept in when I stayed there, under an eiderdown that always slipped off in the night. In the bookcase were piles of his aircraft recognition handbooks, with their silhouettes of Lancasters and Halifaxes, Spitfires and Hurricanes; and, of course, Junkers and Messerschmitts. I poured over these, fascinated, with no understanding of their life-or-death significance. On top of the bookcase was this alarm clock, nothing expensive, but in art deco style of the times. I am strangely fond of it, although never quite sure when to put it, as it makes an irritating noise.

There are so many stories about Uncle Frank: my sister told of watching his long fingers on the piano keyboard; my mother remembered how he hugged her in the street when he learned I was ‘on the way’. When we went on a city break to Berlin, we visited the War Cemetery where he is buried, read the family’s inscription, ‘Yours was the courage, laughing soldier; may ours be the fortitude’. I weep gently again as I remember this visit; it is odd to live in the shadow of one so much loved.

The picture below shows Frank with his mother Julia Bluebell (undated)

Frank with Julia Bluebell

Plough Plane

This specialist plough plane was pretty much state of the art in its day. It was part of Uncle Stanley’s tool kit, passed on to my brother John, who was equally good at woodwork. The plane has multiple blades of different widths and shapes; and is used to make joints and decorative finishes. I am not at all sure how I got hold of it, but I did use it for a while in my own woodwork projects, until I bought a router and router table, which is far quicker and accurate – and significantly noisier. When I searched for it for this project, I found it tucked away at the back of a remote shelf in my workshop, dusty and neglected.

John’s Tools

My brother John, five years older than me, was a great woodworker. He used one of the cellar rooms at our family house as a workshop. His major projects included a folding canoe and a guitar. He developed a skill that I, as a much smaller brother, attempted to emulate with little success – I was too impatient and not strong enough to handle the grown-up tools. It was not until I was in my 30s that I realized that, with care, I could do just as well has he did. Indeed, once when he visited us he suggested I had surpassed him, which was generous.

When he went to live in America he left his tools behind – I still used his hammer, set square, and measuring gauge. I remember him every time I pick them up or notice them in the place on the tool rack.