Museum Magpie: The plate with the holes
Read about the fascinating stories behind some of the objects in Gladstone Pottery Museum’s collection in the Museum Magpie blog
At Gladstone the flower-makers are highly skilled at producing beautiful ceramic blooms but in the museum’s collection we have very few tools that relate to their very specialised trade. One reason for this could be that traditionally flower-makers often improvised, making their own tools out of everyday objects. They came up with inventive ways of replicating various elements of the flowers they created, for example a marble-sized ball of clay pushed into the sieve of a tea strainer makes the perfect centre for an anemone. These home-made tools made it quicker and easier to make almost identical flowers many times over. As piece-workers on a factory you would get paid by the dozen and be expected to reach a certain daily target to earn your wages, so these tools could give you an advantage. In Gladstone’s store we do have one particularly unusual flower-makers’ tool. It’s a bone china plate, never glazed still in biscuit-ware, pierced with a pattern of 18 oval holes. Faint pencil marks read ‘MARY’, could she have been the flower-maker who used the plate? It has been in the collection since 1977 and was described as a flower-maker’s tray when donated, but we have no other details of where it came from or exactly what it was used for.
Our flower-makers have not seen anything similar before, nor has anyone else at Gladstone but together we came up with some ideas. We decided to adopt an experimental approach to test some of those theories. Firstly, our caster made an earthenware replica of the plate.
The deliberate pattern of the holes seemed to be the key feature in understanding its purpose. So, the flower-makers decided to try fitting a range of different flowers in a variety of stages of manufacture, sizes and arrangements into the holes. Was it used as a rack for drying clay flowers? This idea was discounted almost immediately, it didn’t hold enough flowers to be useful and the holes were too close together, the soft clay flowers would have pushed each other out of shape. How about a simple holder for other tools? Unlikely, the tools used by flower-makers are not uniform in size or shape and have no need to be kept apart in individual holes. Was is a template used to position holes in the bottom of a posy bowl for the stems to sit in. Probably not, stems were generally pushed directly into a lump of soft clay. That would have given a firmer hold than putting them into a pre-made hole, a template seems unnecessary. Could it have been a design aid used decide on the position of the flowers in an oval posy bowl. This could only work if the flowers had been biscuit-fired and our experiments proved that it was extremely difficult to find any flowers of a suitable size or shape to produce an attractive workable arrangement.
Perhaps it was used by a caster, not a flower-maker? Ceramic bowls used to display fresh floral arrangements often have a flower frog. A flower frog in its simplest form is a bowl ‘lid’ with holes in which flower stems can be placed individually. The advantage to the florist is that they will be held in the desired position without moving. Is our plate a template used by the caster to position the holes whilst making a flower frog? Or maybe we are on the wrong track entirely and it was made as some kind of dish drainer as used in a watercress bowl or a fish serving dish? The plate is an example of one of those unique tools custom-designed by the person who used it and we will probably never know exactly what it was for. The original plate has been returned to the museum store for safekeeping, but you can see the replica at the Gladstone flower-makers’ work bench, where it continues to intrigue us.