Pots and Apothecaries

Part of an assemblage of tin glazed delftware and maiolica from the collection of the late Professor Maurice Stacey CBE FRS which realized in excess of £20,000 at Toovey’s.

This week I am in the company of Toovey’s ceramic specialist Joanne Hardy who has just overseen the sale of a remarkable collection of tin glazed pottery which has realised more than £20,000.

Jo explains that the collection is part of that assembled by the late Professor Maurice Stacey CBE FRS who was a chemist at the University of Birmingham. She says “Stacey received many awards for his work which included the first synthesis of vitamin C and the separation of uranium isotopes for the World War II atomic bomb project. Professor F.H. Garner, also of the University of Birmingham, and a great collector of tin-glazed pottery, helped Stacey put the collection together. Professor Garner’s books on tin glazed delftware are still widely respected today, so his influence on Professor Stacey’s collection is important.”

Reflecting on the dramatic effects of Coronavirus in our own times Jo remarks “There is a race to find a viable vaccine that could potentially release us all from lockdown and give us back our freedom. In the absence of that vaccine we are relying on the medical care we currently have access to and put our faith in. It has been that way since records began with medicine being an important part of our lives.”

“Today we are used to blister packs of pills and glass bottles of medicine, but before these innovations, apothecaries – the modern day pharmacist – stored their supplies primarily in pottery receptacles. These were ideal for the storage of dry herbs or liquid remedies as they could be made in any size required, sealed with something like wax and labelled accordingly.

During the Renaissance period the role of the apothecary increased greatly as important innovations and discoveries were made in the fields of biology and human anatomy. An increased number of jars for the storage of drugs and remedies were required. An apothecary in charge of a large pharmacy attached to a monastery or palace could reasonably have around one thousand plus different drug-jars.”

“The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in particular saw these jars take on a decorative side as well as a practical one. Pharmacies would have a particular armorial or motif that was applied to all jars supplied to them, and areas of production would use a particular style, glaze or colouring. Much research has been done into the many different types of drug-jars which survive to this day, and we can now with reasonable certainty attribute styles, shapes and decoration to particular areas of Europe or even specific potteries or decorators.”

There were a number of maiolica drug-jars in Professor Stacey’s collection. Jo was able to attribute the vessels illustrated to Sicily, Calabria, Deruta, Venice, Faenza and Savona.

Jo concludes “A number of the drug-jars in the collection, or albarellos to give them their Italian name, had inscribed labels denoting specific drugs or remedies. We can only imagine the ailments and the people they may have potentially been used on 400 years ago.”