One of the joys of collecting is talking to other collectors, so it was a pleasure to receive an e-mail this week from someone in Bala who wanted advice about a rather smart antique pottery jug. That’s Bala, Ontario, not the lakeside village in North Wales, which is one of the joys of the Internet (see panel). Never has there been a better way to exchange knowledge and trade with collectors, wherever they might live.
So, in the never-ending quest, we resolved to identify the maker of the jug and learn all about it. The first part was easy. As can be seen in the accompanying illustration, the base of the jug carries and impressed mark which reads “Published by W. Ridgway & Co Hanley, October 1, 1835.
What makes this jug particularly interesting is that it is decorated with the famous story of Tam O’Shanter, based on scenes from the poem by Robert Burns (1759-96).
But first things first. The famous Ridgway family of potters have a complicated history. In simple terms, brothers John and William succeeded their father, Job, who trained at Swansea and Leeds before returning home to Hanley in 1781 to found a pottery company of his own.
He built the Cauldon Place Works in Shelton in 1802 and the two boys joined him in 1808. Job died in 1813 and the brothers continued trading as partners until 1830 when they went their separate ways.
John retained the factory where he produced porcelain fine enough to receive Royal assent as Potter to Queen Victoria.
William, meanwhile, concentrated on fine quality domestic earthenware and was clearly successful — he went on to own six factories in the Potteries.
How it got to Canada is unclear, but the fine relief moulded jug is a William Ridgway speciality, one of more than 25 with different designs, made over a period of almost 30 years at his Church Works in Hanley.
Fortunately for today’s collectors, the varying designs or either published or registered and many bear impressed marks,which means they can be dated with some certainty.
Interestingly, the Tam O’Shanter jug is the earliest Ridgeway jug to carry a date mark.
It tells the story based loosely on Douglas Graham of Shanter, Ayrshire (1739-1811), whose wife Helen was a superstitious shrew.
He was prone to drunkenness and womanising on market day and on one such occasion the local wags clipped his horse’s tail – a fact he explained away with a scary tale of witches which his wife was naive enough to believe.
On one side of the jug we can see Tam carousing away the evening of market day in the local hostelry:
Fast by an ingle, bleezing finely,
Wi reaming sAats, that drank divinely;
And at his elbow, Souter Johnie,
His ancient, trusty, drougthy crony:
However, “the minutes wing’d their way wi’ pleasure”, the clock on a wall showing almost midnight, Tam must quickly make his way home.
But in his inebriated and confused state, he claims he is waylaid by a couple of warlocks and witches and is forced to run for his life.
Ah, Tam! Ah, Tam! thou’ll get thy fairin!
In hell, they’ll roast thee like a herrin!
In vain thy Kate awaits thy comin!
Kate soon will be a woefu’ woman!
The witches give chase and Tam heads for the river, knowing that they are unable to cross running water.
But before his grey mare Meg, or Maggie, reaches the bridge:
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
The other side of the jug shows the chase. One of the two witches in the seen is shown clinging on to the horse’s tail just as Tam reaches the bridge over the stream, while the jug handle is modelled with a hand clutching the tail.
The designs are almost certainly copies of contemporary prints taken from pictures in circulation at the time. Most notable among them are illustrations by the eminent engraver Thomas Landseer ARA (1795-1880) brother of the famous Sir Edwin Landseer, which were published in an edition of Burns’s poem by Marsh & Miller of London in 1830.
The email from Canada asking for information about Ridgway jugs in fact began: “Hello from the Moon”!
Its sender went on to explain that his home was situated where the Moon River flows into Lake Muskoka in Bala, Ontario. “We live on the Moon River. And so, we live on the Moon!”
Bala was founded in 1868 by Thomas Burgess, a settler born in Scotland who had visited North Wales prior to emigrating. On his arrival he said the area and its lake reminded him of Bala and he decided to adopt the name.
Burgess built a sawmill, opened a general store, bakeshop, blacksmith’s shop and post office and in 1917, the family helped establish a hydroelectric plant on the site of the original sawmill.
In 1922, Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, vacationed at Bala and was inspired to write The Blue Castle. The boarding house she stayed in is now home to the Bala Museum and has become a shrine to her.
The town is officially twinned with our own Bala in Gwynedd.
Interestingly, the scene inside the inn and the handle formed by a witch’s hand clutching the horse’s tail can also be seen on a Burns jug manufactured by another potter which appeared a year before the Ridgway version.
The coincidence is too great and it can be safely assumed that Ridgway copied the idea from the other potter. At the time, the laws of copyright were but a twinkle in a lawyer’s eye.
It was common practice in the middle of the 19th century for potters to take their inspiration for events going on around them. Modellers of Staffordshire flatback figures depicting famous politicians, soldiers and actors copied the illustrations in the broadsheets, penny dreadfuls and playbills and printers made a good living by publishing prints of engraved illustrations specifically for the pottery industry.
Another charming Ridgway jug is modelled with the story of John Gilpin’s ride, while others are similarly decorated in relief with classical motifs, arabesques, fruiting vines and other naturalistic elements.
Oddly, such crisply modelled examples of the potter’s skill, whilst becoming less common, remain surprisingly affordable. It is more than possible to pick up an extremely fine and undamaged example for under �200, while �80 to �120 is the going rate for most at auction. Of course, replacement value for insurance purposes is somewhat more.
As a result, it is eminently possible to build a collection of Ridgway jugs picking up an examples of the many different designs available without breaking the bank. They make a fascinating documentary of middle-class aspirations during the course of the Industrial Revolution that brought great wealth to a relative few.
Pictures show, top:
The Ridgway jug showing poor Maggie in full gallop but with a witch hanging on to her tail
Below: left to right: The reverse of the jug decorated with the scene inside the tavern showing Tam enjoying a foaming quart being poured by the landlord�s wife
The illustrations of the same scenes by Thomas Landseer from an edition of the Robert Burns poem Tam O�Shanter published in 1830
The jug handle formed by a witch�s hand grasping the horse�s tail
The impressed mark on the base of the jug, It reads: Published by W Ridgway & Co Hanley October 1, 1835