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Behind the Scenes | Part 2 - Ted Sandling

At The Shop Floor Project we have been lucky enough to meet some very interesting people over the years, and we thought it would be fun to introduce them to you. In this new series we are going behind the scenes, exploring the homes and studios of some of the makers, collectors and collaborators on our radar. In part two the author and historian Ted Sandling welcomes us into his world...

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

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TSFP: Ted, we’ve come to know you so well through your book London in Fragments, which inspired our summer exhibition: The Mudlark. It's a fascinating book, exploring your collection of fragments found along the River Thames. My copy sits on the bedside table where I like to dip into one entry a night, before I close my eyes and hope to dream of treasure or lost cargo. It’s such a special book, we give copies as gifts to equally special people!

Thank you for opening your doors to us for Behind the Scenes, I'm really looking forward to seeing what treasures you have hidden inside your home.

TS: That is such an incredibly generous thing to say, thank you! I’m very happy that you’ve had such a response to reading the book. Many of the things that are in it are dotted about the house. These finds are in a compositor’s tray hanging above the fireplace in the living room, where we often talk about restoring the chimneypiece but never have. It hosts a changing selection of small things I’ve picked up. I chose them for their interest, or their appearance, or because they fit into the really small holes.

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

I keep my best finds in this dye cabinet. The green-glass torpedo bottle fragment above it is a really early version of Schweppes’ bottle. I wrote about torpedo bottles in my book, because they’re such a remarkable form, but I only found this amazing pre-1830s example when it was too late to include.

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

On this little cabinet in the hall I have some of the bigger, more complete things. The bottle full of brown water was once crystal clear. It’s a sealed bottle of mineral water, but over time the seal has perished and allowed some traces of mud, or rubber, or grime to get into the water. I’m hoping it will settle out one day, but it hasn’t happened yet...

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

And this is a selection of delftware fragments from the Thames - so colourful, and thickly glazed, and naively decorated. My absolute favourites!

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TSFP: Something told me you'd have many treausres, the delftware pieces are glorious! Does the house itself hold any stories?

TS: We’ve lived in our terraced house in Kensal Rise for a little over ten years. It’s an Edwardian House, built around 1903. The developers added lots of decoration that would be visible from the pavements. So the streets are full of beautifully tiled little porches and nice stained glass in the doors, where it survived the Blitz. The houses were built for single occupants, but as was often the case, the market couldn’t bear it and they rapidly filled will multiple families. This house was home to an old invalided woman, an adopted child, a photographer’s messenger boy… Families seem to have moved out from the East End, presumably for the clean air and green fields, and I’m not sure they found them. There’s a 1930s film of the neighbourhood where the architect Maxwell Fry discusses the poor conditions he found there: families sleeping in the same room they ate in, and cooking on the landing. He built some ideal Modernist flats about ten minutes away to counter the squalor.

TSFP: That's a really interesting film with Maxwell Fry, "Kensal Green is not the ideal place to live in"... The question to demolish or rebuild seems to be a perennial one. You studied History of Art, focusing on garden history and becoming a landscape historian. Has excavating the past always fascinated you?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: I’ve always been interested in the way we change the landscape around us - whether it’s the built environment or rural. And I’ve wanted to connect that to human stories, the experience of living in a place, and the way the landscape affects one’s experience. But I think tying that to objects only really came with mudlarking.

TSFP: I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but can you remember what your first find was, or what was the most special piece you’ve found when out mudlarking?

Doulton Pottery Works on the River Thames at Lambeth

TS: There are too many! I think there are pieces which are particularly evocative because I can connect them to specific individuals, or locations - such as the contemporary wallet that belonged to a German holidaymaker, with whom I am now friends, or a toothpaste pot lid with an address in Lower Marsh I could trace the history of - or objects that I feel bring me closer to turning points in history, even if it’s just the history of pottery! For example, I have a heavy delftware floor tile, made just about the point that potters from Antwerp were first bringing the technology to London.

TSFP: Could you select a piece in your home that you treasure, which hasn’t been found in the Thames?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: One really important piece is our wedding quilt. When my wife and I got married, we asked our friends and family to bring us swatches of material instead of gifts, which we slowly sewed into a giant quilt, now hanging in the hallway. It holds stories of our friendships.

TSFP: That is incredibly romantic, I see your love of fragments extends to textiles. Is that a wall hanging I see in your hall too?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: Yes, that’s a nineteenth century Indian woollen piece, made ‘in British India’ by W. G. & S. Ltd. I haven’t been able to trace them. It’s decorated with birds, and rather sadly, moth holes from our pestilential clothes moths.

TSFP: That's a beautiful piece! I imagine it's impossible to find any antique textile fragments in the Thames? I wonder, if the word 'mudlark' refers only to searching the Thames foreshore? We like to search the rivers and lakes and estuaries near us and find all manner of things, especially on rivers dotted with old farmhouses. We say ‘let’s go mudlarking!’, though is probably not the correct term? Perhaps ‘river-combing’ is more accurate? Have you found any gems in any other places that you've brought home?

TS: Is mudlark an acceptable term outside of London? I say yes! Definitely yes. Contemporary mudlarks have appropriated the name from a class of people who led the most miserable lives over a hundred years ago, so we have no right to be precious about its usage today. I think if you’re hunting by a river you’re a mudlark. If you want to be. Otherwise you can be a waterdabbler, or streamsiever, or rivercomber or whatever you choose. I love that the passion for finding a connection to human history, combined with the meditative pleasure of walking by running water, is so universal.

TSFP: Oh, I like 'waterdabbler', I'll use that.

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: And have I found gems in other places? All sorts and all over. I know to look down, now, when I’m walking where people trod before. This is a little dish of grapeshot (I think) that my family and I found in the carpark of National Trust property.

TSFP: How thrilling, to find something in a carpark! What exactly is grapeshot?

TS: It’s like large scale shotgun pellets. Bags or cans of the stuff were fired from cannon: they’d spread out and do terrible damage. I’m not a huge fan of militaria, but you can’t turn down the gifts of a carpark…

TSFP:  Moving back inside, the way you display your artefacts among other items seems to be in a carefully curated, almost minimal way. Could you talk us through this rather lovely arrangement and backdrop...

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: This is our bedroom. There are a couple of Liberty pewter vases, which were a gift from my mother. She, in turn, had been given them in the sixties when they were lying in a shed, their art nouveau forms completely unappreciated. Then two old Wedgewood candlesticks with butterflies, and a fossil echinoid in the shape of a heart that I found recently. The wallpaper is Bird and Pomegranate by Morris and Co.

TSFP: In material culture theory, it's thought we all live our lives as part of a network of material things, each with a story, or fragment of a story, that connects to a larger history. Your book (and home) seems to really explore this. Do any of your found objects act as a catalyst for a particular memory?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: It would be an exaggeration to say they all do, but many have resonance, and those are the ones I love to write about. I wrote about this just after finding the heart-shaped fossil above:

It was in Norfolk that I found this fossil. We were there with friends one weekend, by the seaside. There was a second-world war pillbox out in the water, submerged at high tide, but when the sea fell, exposed sufficiently that the children could swim into its chamber, where their voices echoed out of the gun-holes. On the shore, changed out of our swimmers after an icy plunge, we parents looked at each other anxiously, our eyes simultaneously saying that it was fine, and that maybe it wasn’t.

It was fine.

The next day was cold and grey and raining, and I found myself on my own, wearing two coats, bulked up like a fairground inflatable. I walked by this heart-shaped rock, then stopped to pick it up, and rinsed it in the sea, and stowed it away in my back pocket, where it left an uncomfortable wet patch.

I’ll never tire of fossil sea urchins. I’ve written before about the many layers of meaning ascribed to them, even by hominids hundreds of thousands of years ago. They are so simple, and so beautiful, with their elemental forms and their symmetry. To hold one is to leap through time. And this one, dear God, is heart-shaped; I’m not sure it could get any better.

TSFP: What a lovely story. I think you are quite a romantic, would that be fair to say? Apart from the stunning wedding quilt, are there any more objects that have a similar significance?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS: Possibly more in the nineteenth century sense than a dozen scarlet roses on Valentine’s Day! But this one is an anniversary gift. It’s a seventeenth century bible box that I gave to my wife on our wooden wedding anniversary, which was, I think, the first time I discovered I was supposed to stick to certain materials each year. It’s now our memory box, filled with the ephemera of our lives. A late 18th century Staffordshire slipware mug sits next to it. 

TSFP: Yes, much more desirable than a bunch of roses! Are there any other special pieces you’d like to share with us?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling 2018

TS:  It’s hard to photograph under glass, but this is the original pen and ink map of the Thames by Domenica More Gordon, which she created for the endpapers of London in Fragments. Working with Domenica was one of the highlights of producing the book, and I love the characters that she’s created. Each one holds the original object of a fragment that appears in the book.

TSFP: Domenica’s illustrations are wonderful, they really bring a kind of hustle and bustle to the book…

Image copyright: Ted Sandling / Domenica More Gordon

TS: We met through Instagram! Domenica had drawn some incredible illustrations of old ceramics, and we became friends. I was overjoyed that she was willing to work with me on the book. Her characters (and her dogs!) bring such life to the book.

TSFP: Could you take us on a tour of your bookshelves?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling

TS:  We have too many books! I think we’ve exhausted all available wall space as potential shelving now, but books are extremely hard to let go of. Here are some of the non-fiction shelves - the section on London is covered by a couple of pictures. A lovely work by Unity Coombes, where the Staffordshire dog rhymes with a real one on the shelf above. There’s also a bartmann jug and a Doulton hunting one. I love the ‘Modern Art makes me want to rock out’ painting – it’s by Eddie Argos, the frontman of the band Art Brut, and celebrates their song about how modern art…makes him want to rock out. It does me, too. The painting is the very definition of art brut.

TSFP: And who is this on that very comfy looking chair?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling

TS:  Sylvie the black and white cat. She accompanied me around the house as I was taking photographs for Behind the Scenes. She’s almost thirteen, and extremely talkative.

TSFP:  Talking of books. Congratulations of the success of London in Fragments, did you think it would be quite so popular?

Image copyright: Ted Sandling

TS: I had no idea it would be so popular, at least while I was writing it. I was just enjoying myself immensely: by the river, in the research. I’d forgotten how blissful it is to be in the British Library, at a desk piled with books. I used to go up to one of the science rooms, where it was quieter, and read seventeenth century books about drinking wine. But then, as publication got closer, there seemed to be something in the air, and it was remarkable. It was so exciting to be a part of, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have been at the confluence of so much good fortune.

TSFP: What it is that draws you to the river?

TS: It’s never only been about the finding. I first when down to the Thames foreshore not to mudlark, but to walk through the city in a new way. There I found a sense of calm; long, uninterrupted, paths; gravel that crunched under foot in the middle of such a frighteningly busy and modern city. Where else in central London can you feel alone? Of course, finding things adds to the experience!

TSFP: As well as a best-selling author and busy mudlarker, you are also programme director for online courses at Christie’s Education. You obviously have a real passion for sharing and developing knowledge of the history of art. Would you share with us five of your favourite museums, galleries or gardens?

TS: This is such a difficult question to answer! For me, my formative garden experience came at Chatsworth. I grew up near the Peak District, and would go once or twice a year with my parents. Walking through the gardens, and the surrounding parkland gave me such a tingle of happiness.

TS: I’ll do a London museum next, and really, how can you choose just one? I think I’m going to go with the Courtauld, for their collection of Cezannes - his views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. And the fauvist works. I love colour.

Then I’m going to choose landscape - not a garden. Although man-made all the same. I walked a lot in the moors when I was growing up, and I’m devastated to see them on fire now. They’re such an empty, barren, desolate landscape. Walking in them gives a very fine sense of perspective… And then I read George Monbiot’s Feral, and saw how unnatural they are, and unhealthy, ecologically, and it’s rather tarnished my idealistic appreciation of them.

Next I’m going to say MoMa, because otherwise everything is very English, and honestly, if you’re going to rock out to modern art, where better?

And lastly, St. James’s Park, in London. It’s my favourite park in the capital, and London’s park life (apologies to Blur) is such an essential part of living in the city. Across the whole city they’re used, properly, not neglected, or liminal, but lived in, daily, by all Londoners. And St. James’s is such a perfect garden, and forms part of my daily commute now too. I love the artfully constructed vista over the Serpentine to Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall Court.

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Explore The Shop Floor Project's summer exhibition: The Mudlark, inspired by Ted Sandling's book: London in Fragments...



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Behind the Scenes | Part 1 - Claudia Rankin

Behind the Scenes | Part 1 - Claudia Rankin

At The Shop Floor Project we have been lucky enough to meet some very interesting people over the years, and we thought it would be fun to introduce them to you. In this new series we are going behind the scenes, exploring the homes and studios of some of TSFP's makers, collectors and collaborators. In part one, the ceramicist Claudia Rankin welcomes us into her world...

TSFP: Hi Claudia, thanks for opening your doors to us, shall we begin with your beautiful home?

(above) Claudia Rankin home - copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: Our house is a very tall and rickety Georgian building in a small market town in Northumbria. We’re attached on one side to neighbours whose house is the exact mirror of ours. It was built around 1790 by a man who apparently kept his family on one side and his mistress on the other. Any connecting doors have now been filled in! I’ve recently been adding to a wall of pictures and objects in the sitting room (above) that is giving me a lot of pleasure. The little ceramic figure is I think originally from Cameroon though I bought him on a trip to Australia. His head had to be glued back on after a tumble but it was amazing to look inside at how he’d been made. The clay was so rough and full of little stones, like it was just a handful from a riverbank.

TSFP: You're always busy in the studio, can you remember your first memory of making something?

CR: When I was a kid there was a bit of a thing for craft kits involving really noxious materials. One of my favourites was Plasticraft which involved casting objects in resin. I think you were supposed to charm your family with shell filled paperweights but I cast my mother’s front door key into a solid lump of resin, which was not the popular gift I’d imagined. I also blocked up the plumbing at home pouring plaster of Paris down the sink whilst casting an Alsatian ornament using a similar kit called Plastercraft. I don’t remember being given any more kits for Christmas after that.

TSFP: Well, we're very pleased it hasn't stopped you making and experimenting!  Could you describe your studio to us?

(above) Claudia Rankin studio - copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: My studio is a little stone building in our yard at home. It’s a lovely light space with windows onto the street and into the garden. I’ve got most of the kit I need for making and decorating work there including a small kiln. A day a week though, I work at a pottery studio in Newcastle where I keep my moulds, do my glazing and take larger work for firings. Thursdays there are also a sociable working day with a roomful of other artists working and technical support if I want to try anything new.

TSFP: As you know we love books here at The Shop Floor Project, what are you reading at the moment...

above) Claudia Rankin workbench - copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: I’ve had a book by a French artist called Guidette Carbonelle out on my workbench recently. I hadn’t heard of her until I found this book in a museum shop in Paris - I’d love to see her work in real life. There’s something about the loose way she handles her modelling & colours that I love and a real wit to her imagery. Her tiles and tapestries are incredible too (see below)...

(above) Owl Tapestries by Guidette Carbonelle

TSFP: You have really interesting ways of making ceramics, could you describe your process...

CR: I use a combination of casting & hand building. The plates are cast by laying white terracotta slabs onto plaster moulds I’ve taken from old plates. The caddies are cast using liquid clay slip into moulds which gives you a nice thin layer of ceramic. My sculptures are made using both casting and hand building techniques. Everything is then decorated using coloured slips before their first firing. After that they are sprayed with clear glaze I fired again. This seals the whole surface and makes the colours pop up.

(above) Claudia Rankin workbench - copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: My tools are a motley mixture of wooden modelling tools and rolling pins, metal knives and dental instruments and customised bits of ephemera e.g. old bank cards which do the job of trimming around the tops of moulds perfectly.

TSFP: We know you love to travel, is this where you get your inspiration?

copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: Inspiration comes from a huge variety of sources. I’m constantly distracting myself with books, magazines and the whole world on my laptop via Pinterest & Instagram. Museums and galleries are also rich seams of inspiration and I need regular doses of city culture to balance the peace and solitude of my studio. My eldest son has moved to Paris for a couple of years and we’ve been loving the excuse to visit regularly and explore the city’s art collections and markets. The Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (above) is a particular favourite.

FRANCE. Nice. August 1949. Henri MATISSE in his studio. Robert Capa.

CR: I also take great inspiration from artists who express themselves through a whole variety of activities and who’s creativity spills out into all aspects of their life. An exhibition at the Royal Academy last year,  Matisse in the Studio (above) showed many of the actual objects and textiles he incorporated into his still lives. The photographs of his studio showing his models in their composed environment were so inspiring, as was his unerring eye for colour, form and pattern reflected in his collections and interiors. 

TSFP: That reminds me of your collages and the way you incorporate found fragments, textiles, antique embroidery and screen prints. They somehow remind me of stage-sets and the curtains have just opened, revealing surreal dream-like compositions.

copyright Claudia Rankin 2018 

TSFP: It's always hard for us to resist keeping all of your pieces for our own homes. Do you hold any pieces back for yourself?

(above) Claudia Rankin home - copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: Well I have a set of tiles around our fireplace, which I’m ashamed to say still haven’t been grouted, a couple of years down the line. I also like mixing my work into an arrangement of objects with flowers and other pieces on the mantlepiece or kitchen shelves. (Eagle-eye readers will notice two Beaded Beasts in Claudia's living room which she hand-selected on a trip to Cape Town a few years ago - you can see our current collection here).

TSFP: Thanks Claudia for letting us take a little peek inside your world. Have you got any new projects coming up?

copyright The Shop Floor Project/Claudia Rankin 2018

CR: It's been a pleasure! It’s so great working with you at The Shop Floor Project and I feel very lucky to be part of your community of artists and makers. I think the fact that you're both artists in your own right means that we have a sort of shorthand in how we communicate, you challenge & inspire me to take my work in new directions. For example, you saw that the mask like faces in my ceramics could be developed as a collection of cushions, and it's been fun working together on perfecting the ‘characters’ from my watercolour paintings (see below). Plus deliveries of work to TSFP HQ in Ulverston is always a treat & usually includes a great cafe & a trawl around the local junk shops

copyright Claudia Rankin 2018

TSFP: What lovely things to say, it's always an exciting time when you bring over your boxes of treasures! As you know we share a love for museums, from the quirky to the grand, could you finish we sharing your own top five museums to visit?

The Paula Rego Museum, Portugal. Claudia visited this museum last year and was very impressed. It's now on our 'must-see' list!

Musée de la Chasse, Paris. An extraordinary museum of hunting and nature located in the 3rd arrondissement of Paris. A real find!

The Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Claudia's many snaps of objects from the Victoria & Albert Museum, which she has visited hundreds of times, as it was just around the corner from her childhood home.

The Bowes Museum, County Durham. The Silver Swan clockwork automation is a favourite with both Claudia and The Shop Floor Project. The iconic piece migrated to the Science Museum in London last year as a star attraction at the 'Robots' exhibition.

The British Museum, London. Claudia often pops in for a whistle-stop tour of this classic Museum en route to Kings Cross to get the East Coast train home. Favourite rooms include: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, China, Japan and India - well the whole place really!

CLAUDIA RANKIN'S current collection for The Shop Floor Project: Tiles, Plates, Platters, Caddies & Collages can be found here...

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