Rare 17th century bowls found at London dig site

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Three 17th century ceramic bowls have been unearthed in an ancient quarter of London frequented by William Shakespeare and their workmanship ranks with high art of the period, experts who found them said on Monday.

17th century Delftware bowls found by archaeologists at a site in Southwark, London are seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/Museum of London/Handout

The richly decorated hand-painted Delftware bowls were excavated by archaeologists from a rubbish pit in a yard close to Southwark Cathedral and the site of old London Bridge on the south bank of the River Thames.

The group consists of a charger decorated with tulips made in the 1660s, the decade of the Great Fire of London, a bowl depicting a boy tormenting a dog with a stick and another celebrating the marriage of one Nathaniel Townsend -- an employee of a local industry, the Leathersellers Company, dated 1674. The bowl is adorned with the crest of the firm.

The area where they were found was settled in pre-historic and Roman times and was a boisterous place in the 17th century famed for taverns, bear-baiting theatres and brothels.

Roy Stephenson, Head of Archaeological Collections at the Museum of London, said the richly decorated bowls should be seen as rare pieces of fine art in their own right today.

“The thing about tin-glazed wear is every piece is unique because it is painted individually by hand,” he told Reuters.

“The analogy I use about 17th century Delftware is: if you were to try and acquire 17th century art today you would have to be a multi millionaire,” said Stephenson, adding that it was the most unusual group find he had seen in the last 20 years.

“Each of these items is a piece of art in its own right, it’s just that we don’t know who the artist is. They may not have been regarded as top class pieces of art of the day. But I think we should regard them as pieces of fine art now.”

The term “Delftware” was widely used from the 18th century onwards to refer to tin-glazed earthenware made in Britain, rather than the products of famous Dutch center of Delft.

The vessels, each about 30-35 cm in diameter, offer a glimpse into a Londoner’s life at the time. The bowls would have been displayed on a dresser in a typical home, experts say.

The artifacts, found in pieces at a site being prepared for a central London rail extension, have been painstakingly reconstructed and will go on display at the museum’s new “War, Plague and Fire,” galleries which opened in May.

Stephenson said more research was needed to shed light on why the bowls were discarded.

“Are these things that have gone out of fashion. Or, has Mrs Townsend come home and found Mr Townsend in bed with someone and thrown all of them away?” he said.

“Maybe the Townsends went bust, maybe the bailiffs arrived and chucked their stuff away. My preference is that they simply went out of fashion.”

Reporting by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Keith Weir