Mudlarking: Colorful Utopian Visions
By Jason Sandy
Collection of colorful pottery sherds, Jacqui Wise.
Unlike the scenic, picturesque beaches and golden sandy shores where many normally go beachcombing, the exposed riverbed of the River Thames in London is an unusual and often unwelcoming terrain. At low tide, the surface of the foreshore is littered with broken shards of sharp glass, rusty nails, bent pins and needles, animal bones, dead rats and other unsavory surprises. The color of the foreshore in most places is a dull mix of sombre grey, brown, and black tones. In stark contrast to this dark background, delightful and colorful pottery sherds lie waiting to be discovered.
Mudlark Florrie Evans has been mudlarking along the Thames for several decades. She and her young daughter, Cecilia, have found some incredibly colorful sherds of pottery.
Collection of Thames pottery sherds, Florrie Evans. Colorful oriental sherd on the Thames foreshore, Anna Borzello. Victorian pot lid, Jacqui Wise.
“Pottery was the first thing I ever collected from the river as a child. When my daughter was old enough to toddle along with me on my larks, she was drawn to colorful pieces just as I had been,” exclaims Florrie. “Although today I’m more interested in uncovering hidden treasures, I still get to live out my first pottery passions with my daughter! When she’s not with me, I find myself picking up pretty pieces especially for her. There’s instant eye-pleasing satisfaction to be had from a colorful or patterned design, peeping up at you from the mud, begging to be loved again—the Thames’s answer to seashells and sea glass! We love fragments of ‘story’ best—little people, birds, or animals, tiny city-scapes and pieces which take us on an imaginative journey.”
Over the past few years, mudlark Jacqui Wise has discovered some extraordinary sherds of broken pottery along the Thames foreshore. One of her most colorful pieces is a Victorian Prattware pot lid made in Staffordshire, England, in the 19th century. Victorian manufacturers often sold their popular fish and meat pastes in ceramic pots. To make the products more attractive and increase sales, Felix Pratt (1813-1894) introduced multi-colored printing on his Prattware ceramics inspired by historic paintings. This colorful image of a battle scene is from an old oil painting by Dutch painter Philips Wouwerman entitled “Cavalry Battle in Front of a Burning Mill” from circa 1660.
Art Deco sherd of Japanese geishas, Jacqui Wise. Picturesque scene on Victorian teacup, Jason Sandy. Egg cup depicting Tower Bridge, Anna Borzello.
Jacqui has also found a stunning 1930s Art Deco fragment manufactured by Rubian Art Pottery in Staffordshire. It depicts two Japanese geishas in traditional dress engaged in conversation under a colorful parasol decorated with a bold floral pattern. One of the geishas is gently fanning herself as birds fly through the sky above the landscaped garden in the distance.
England is often associated with tea drinking. That’s why one of my favorite pottery sherds from the Thames is a broken Victorian teacup which is decorated with an idyllic, utopian scene in the British countryside. An elegant English woman wearing an elaborate dress and broad hat is depicted within a beautifully landscaped garden. She is carrying a cornucopia bursting with fruit and vegetables, and her cute dog stares at her, awaiting a treat. In the distance, a tall Japanese pavilion is surrounded by weeping willow trees on the other side of a serene pond in this picturesque scene.
A few years ago, mudlark Anna Borzello found a beautiful porcelain egg cup decorated with a painting of Tower Bridge in London. It’s a wonderful connection to this iconic bridge and feat of Victorian engineering. Tower Bridge was completed in 1894 and is still one of the most famous bridges in the world.
Various birds illustrated on pottery sherds, Anna Borzello.Three peacocks on Victorian chamber pot, Anna Borzello.
Animals are a common theme depicted on Victorian pottery. Anna has collected some extraordinary pieces of porcelain depicting birds of all different species. One of Anna’s largest pottery sherds is a broken Victorian chamber pot decorated with three beautiful peacocks. The transferware pattern is highly ornate and was created by taking a black monochrome print on paper and pressing it onto the surface of the chamber pot before it was fired in the kiln. This technique for transferring the design was developed in England in the late 18th century. It became hugely popular in the 19th century to mass-produce and decorate ceramics using this inexpensive method of transferring a repetitive pattern rather than laboriously hand-painting each item.
One of the most common types of transferware pottery found along the Thames foreshore is the famous blue and white transferware called the “Willow pattern.” Over the years, Anna has collected a lot of sherds with the iconic pattern which was created in Shropshire, England, towards the end of the 18th century. The pattern was used to decorate ceramic serving dishes, plates, bowls, cups, and saucers, which were mass-produced and affordable for most households. Although the pattern looks oriental, it was created by English artists combining and adapting motifs inspired by hand-painted patterns imported from China.
Sherds of Willow pattern, Anna Borzello.
To boost the sales of the Willow pattern pottery, a fictional story was invented based on the imagery depicted in the chinoiserie pattern. It tells the plight of the daughter of a wealthy mandarin who had fallen in love with her father’s accounting assistant. After the mandarin fired his assistant and arranged for his daughter to be married to a powerful duke, the young accountant returned to rescue the mandarin’s daughter. They escaped by boat to a secluded island were they happily lived for years, but they were later discovered and killed by soldiers in revenge. The lovers were magically transformed into a pair of doves who flew away together.
Giraffe hunting scene in Africa, Anna Borzello.
The most bizarre pottery sherd found by Anna portrays three giraffes galloping away from a hunter riding a horse with his rifle aimed at the exotic animals (below). Anna says, “It is one of my favorite sherds. I didn’t even know giraffe hunting was a thing, but here it is—colonialists treating Africa as a playground and then carrying the image back to the dinner table of the Imperial heartland.”
Colorful painting of Thames pottery sherds, by Jacqui Wise.
Several mudlarks are artists and keen collectors of these colorful pieces of pottery. Their artwork has been influenced by the diverse pottery sherds they have discovered themselves. “Color inspires me as an artist, and it’s exciting to group colorful, decorative pieces of pottery together to paint, especially those with traces of gilding,” explains Jacqui. Describing her favorite pottery sherds (above), Jacqui proclaims: “I love the colors, the beautiful flow of the brushstrokes, and the network of cracks on the surface of the glaze, all of which make it a more interesting piece for me to paint as a watercolorist. The beauty and history of the River Thames and the objects I find mudlarking provide a constant source of inspiration for my artwork.”
Jacqui’s personal favorite piece of art is an assemblage of various colorful pottery sherds from the 19th and early 20th centuries, which she has collected while mudlarking along the Thames. The colors are bold and vibrant, and the ornate floral patterns complement each other, creating a beautiful collage of historic pieces.
Bee created with pink pottery sherds and music scores for wings, by Lynne Pew.
Lynne Pew is another British mudlark and artist who creates extraordinary artwork with the tantalizing sherds of pottery she has collected over the past 20 years. When Lynne first started mudlarking along the River Irwell in Lancashire, she “started to notice beautiful bits of pottery in and around the river’s edge and would pick them up and take them home to display. I was fascinated and intrigued by their beauty and had absolutely no idea why they were there or where they had come from. Each piece was beautiful in its own way. Colors faded and cracked, edges worn smooth, snippets of designs reminiscent of my grandparents’ ‘best china.’”
I asked Lynne what inspired her artwork, and she explained: “I just really wanted to put these broken little pieces back together as something beautiful. It seemed like they’d been on such a journey. Discarded into the river then tumbled about for over 100 years at the mercy of time and tide.”
When Lynne found her first striped piece of pottery, she knew immediately that she wanted to make little bees as a nod to Lancashire’s history. “The River Irwell runs right through Manchester, and the ‘Worker Bee’ was first adopted as a motif for Manchester in the 18th century. The bee reflected a time when the city became a leader in the Industrial Revolution, symbolizing it being a hive of activity and enterprise for its hard-working citizens. I incorporated music scores for wings to represent Manchester’s rich musical heritage,” explains Lynne.
Incorporating her colorful pottery sherds, she has created many bees and other motifs such as dragonflies, butterflies, hearts, and angels. Lynne’s favorite creation is a bee formed with pink pottery.
Colorful pottery along the Thames by Jason Sandy
Discovering a piece of colorful pottery in the river is a magical experience! These colorful sherds give us a tantalizing glimpse into the past. The illustrations of people show us what life was like back then. Images of scenic landscapes demonstrate the highly romanticized and utopian visions of the Victorians. Bold, creative patterns and vivid colors attest to the popular tastes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. These stunning, colorful pieces of history have inspired many artists, such as Jacqui and Lynne, to create beautiful, imaginative works of art. The broken pieces once discarded in the river are now cherished again for generations to come.
When speaking of broken pottery, the words shard and sherd are interchangeable, though the term sherd is preferred by archaeologists.
Mudlarking on the Thames Foreshore requires a permit. Learn about rules for mudlarking in London ›
If you want to see more artwork by Jacqui Wise, visit her Instagram account @jacquiwise or her online Etsy shop at JacquiWiseArt. Lynne Pew regularly posts photos of her artwork on Instagram @alice_and_the_mudlark and her Facebook page: @TheMudlark. Check out her website at themudlark.co.uk for custom-made works of art with colorful pottery sherds found in England.
Learn more about mudlarking
Learn more about the experiences of mudlarks, who search the shores of rivers, bays, and seas for historical finds and other objects. Articles ›
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.
Thanks for this article – loved it! My son, 5, has just started collecting pottery shards from rivers around south Manchester (mainly the River Mersey & Bollin). I’m looking into why they are there in every river – fascinating