Musings from A Seasoned Ruby Laner: Antique Makers Remembered

Several years ago, when we still had the 'bricks & mortar' shop, a man in his mid-70s came in, spent some time looking at a glass jug on a shelf, then brought it to the counter. 'I don't want to buy this', he said, 'I want to tell you that my father made it'.

It was a plain, clear glass water jug, finely blown with a ground pontil and with a factory mark engraved on the base, but, as is normal with commercial glass, no indication as to the identity of the original maker. I asked him how he knew.

'It's his handle', he said. He explained that each glass blower, because of the individuality of their hands and wrists, would make a simple S-shaped handle in a slightly different way. This was confirmed for him by the fact that his father had been employed by the factory that made the jug, around the era in which it had been made.

He, in his turn, had become a glass blower, and had worked for the Caithness glass company while it remained in our town as a working glassworks. I had been there myself to watch the glass workers, and it had been a popular tourist attraction. His daughter, also, was a glassblower, but had been obliged to move to another part of Scotland when the local factory closed.

I found a label and wrote on it the details he gave me about his father. I never saw him again. When I sold the jug, I explained to the new owners how I had obtained the information on the label.

When, at quite an early age, I became a silver collector, I believe that part of the attraction for me was that, in many cases, and especially with older pieces, the precision of the British Hallmarking system meant that I could identify who made the piece, where and when. Most makers confine themselves to their initials, or maybe a logo, but one amazing silversmith made a point of letting you know loud and clear that this was one of his pieces. In large letters he would inscribe it, in Latin, 'Omar Ramsden Me Fecit' – 'Omar Ramsden made me'. If only for his pride in his work,I would love to own one of his pieces.

Some ceramics, also, can be identified as to the decorator. In the case of the specialist artists for the great factories – such as the Stinton dynasty who worked for Worcester- the paintings, which are works of art on a ceramic body, are signed on the picture. In many other cases, however, individual decorators can be identified by initials and other marks they left on the base of the piece.

They did not do this for posterity. Most of them would probably be amazed that people are now interested in their marks. At the time the marks served but one purpose. The decorators were paid for 'piece work'. They were paid a set sum of money for each perfect piece produced, with deductions for any errors. Their mark simply identified their work for purposes of calculating their weekly pay.

Why do we care who made a piece?

Of course in some cases the name of the makers and decorators – such as the Stintons – on their work attracts a premium price for the signature, as well as for the quality of the work itself. Others, such as Omar Ramsden, were very talented and individualistic creators. Though a piece may be described as 'in the style of....', a piece by the original designer often stands out, even if the mark cannot be seen.

Another example of this is the work of Alexander and Euphemia Ritchie of Iona, in Scotland. Their work, mainly metalware, in the Celtic style spawned a wave of followers and imitators down the years, and many genuine craftsmen in their own right, but somehow the work of the Ritchies always stands out from that of their successors.

However, the fact that the name of the actual maker is not known does not, for me, make the status of the piece itself as a memorial to the maker any less. I recognise and appreciate the work of long-gone hands, and respect the maker, whoever he or she might be. For me, while their works remain, at least part of them remains alive.

I have quoted before, and no doubt will quote again many times, the words of D.H. Lawrence:

'Things men have made with wakened hands, and put 
soft life into 
are awake through years with transferred touch, and go 
on glowing 
for long years. 
And for this reason, some old things are lovely 
Warm still with the life of forgotten men who made them.'

*Pam served for many years as Customer Support Manager for Ruby Lane. She has been part of her family's antiques business for many years.  

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