London in Fragments
Ted Sandling (Frances Lincoln, £16.99)
I FOUND a distinct frisson running through me as I read this book. Its subject is mudlarking by the Thames (see page 94). A mudlark is someone who searches the shores of the river for the unconsidered trifles that wash up there, edges worn smooth by the washing of many tides; every day yields a different haul, as the treasures displayed to view at one low water are snatched away, returned to the ooze and replaced by another sample.
The activity is free to anyone, although many readers, I suspect, will be happy that Ted Sandling has done it for them, recording the finds made since he began 10 years agoñcalling cards left in the 21st century by the long dead.
These aren’t precious items, but that’s the point. Often broken, they belonged to ordinary Londoners and were simply part of their everyday lives. But what an insight into the variousness of those lives they provide.
Some itemsña scrap of 16thcentury Italian maiolica, the top of a broken Tudor money box (Tudor money boxes were meant to be broken, when they’d served their need)ñare quite old. Others are of more recent date, but peculiar to the uninformed eyeñ the Ôsaggars’ that potters used to support the pieces in the kiln, for example, or the eerie, unjointed bisque doll known as a Frozen Charlotte (fun for a little girl to play with, possibly, but looking, now, more like a votive figure).
The majority, perhaps, may be obvious enough, but how evocative they are: clay pipes, buttons, perfume-bottle stoppers and pickle jars that got lost or discarded over time, their owners never expecting them to be found again or to have a new life in print.
Each has been indefatigably researched, to reveal, for instance, that a piece of NYK Line tableware (made in Burslem, Staffordshire, in about 1900) belonged to the first Asian company to ship from London to the East; both Mitsubishi and Tata & Sonsñstill familiar names Ñwere involved.
The surviving words on a tiny, 19th-century type block found at Vauxhall read like poetry: ÔGOLD Handsomeé graved, andé Pearls and fineé lustrous Gems.’ They could stand as a motto to the book. To the mudlark, every Waldorf Hotel teacup or lead-glazed pipkin handle is a jewel. Clive Aslet
English Houses is divided into three sectionsñ London flats and houses, houses in the country and larger country housesñand includes the author’s London flat and his old parsonage in West Dorset. All pack a powerful visual punch, although not all will appeal to every reader.
Mr Pentreath describes them as demonstrating Ôan approach to decoration that is unhurried and personal, which is a true defining characteristic of the finest English interiors’, although several schemes are recent and some, including his own interiors, are continually evolving works in progress.
What these rooms largely avoid is predictability. Here is a kitchen floor painted milkshake pink, a Syrian inlaid side table, framed pressed ferns and old maps, furniture loose-covered in a medley of unexpected patterns, even a corgi in his basket in a drawing room. This is a lovely, colourful, inspiring book to be savoured. Matthew Dennison
One man’s trash: the author’s finds include this piece of green transferware, which is probably 19th century