In virtually every place I visit, I seek out the museum to help orient me to the story of the place. A recent trip to Aberdeen led me to the Maritime Museum. Although the city’s recent history has been entwined with the petroleum industry and North Sea oil and gas, its roots run far deeper. I wasn’t as interested in the oil and gas, as I was in the roots when I visited the Museum — and it was here I found a connection to my family’s recent history. Well, a connection to an object from my family’s recent history.

For context, here’s the family story: Years ago, my paternal grandmother was shopping in a hardware store in Toronto. Standing in the middle of the floor near the till was a blue and grey jardiniere, sitting atop a pedestal. Vines snaked up the pedestal, in the middle of which was a shield held by two men. On the shield is a date which I cannot recall right now because the jardiniere is in Canada and I’m in Scotland, but it was sometime in the 1700s. She was intrigued by the piece, and asked the clerk — who was also the owner of the store — what he knew about it. He rolled his eyes and said only that it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen. Nan asked him whether he’d sell it. He told her she’d have to lug the thing home, so $0.50 was a fair price (yes, 50 cents). My Mum fell in love with it as soon as she laid eyes on it, so Nan gave it to my parents.

Like most objects one grows up with, it faded to the background, taken for granted, even though it occupied a prominent place in my parents’ living room. I remember playing around the base of the jardiniere as a small child, sometimes tracing the vines up the pedestal, or hooking my fingers through the gargoyles that serve as handles on the jardiniere’s bowl. The only plant it held in the years I grew up was a monster aspidistra that had started out as a small cutting from another monster plant my great-grandmother brought to Canada in the 19th century. Sadly, that plant died a few years ago, and was replaced with a spider plant.

As I grew older, I was curious about whether the year on the shield had anything to do with its year of manufacture, but didn’t have a clue where to begin searching for information (in the days before the internet). A few people suggested that my parents take it to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) to see if anyone there could help us to learn its story. Mum never permitted it, as she was concerned that if it turned out the thing had any value, word might get out and someone would break into the house to steal it. Strangely, after my parents retired and were able to take extended trips away from home, they were always careful to hide valuables like silver and the Royal Doulton figurines, but the jardiniere would be left standing out where all could see it, in front of the living room window, hiding in plain sight.

A few years before Mum died in 2002, I visited the ROM and saw a smaller, more colourful version of a jardiniere that resembled ours only by the fact that there was a bowl set atop a pedestal. I learned that these objects became popular in Victorian England with the new fashion of bay windows. Homeowners set a plant in a jardiniere in the bay window for all the neighbours to see, presumably to show they were people of quality and taste. But I was still no closer to figuring out where ours had come from. There were no distinguishing marks on it.

On Mum’s death, the jardiniere passed to me. Cleaning it off and preparing to set it up in my own living room, I had another look for distinguishing marks. None had developed since my last examination. More tantalisingly, a friend who saw it one day, told me she’d been in a museum in Florida years ago where she’d seen several pieces of varying sizes, that looked like the same pottery. Unfortunately, she couldn’t recall the name of the museum, where it was or the name of the pottery manufacturer. It seemed I’d never learn anything about it. The only thing I knew for sure was that my eldest daughter thought the piece so ugly that she was happy to defer to her younger sister when I was determining provisions for my own will, as I was updating it before embarking on this adventure in Scotland last year.

I didn’t really think much about the jardiniere, even though I love history and could spend hours in museums (much more my idea of a vacation than sitting on a beach somewhere), and was making an extended visit to country flush with museums. I wasn’t thinking of it when I visited that museum in Aberdeen — until I saw a case containing pottery fragments dug up at various sites around the city over the years. One in particular caught my eye because it had the same pebbly surface and was of the same grey and blue hues as my jardiniere. And there was a name: ‘Westerwald’ — pottery made in Germany since the 1500s, using a salt glaze that gave it its distinctive appearance.

Westerwald jardinieres that sold at Christie’s in Amsterdam in 2003

As soon as I got back to our flat in Edinburgh, I searched the internet for Westerwald. Though I was excited to see many examples of the pottery, all pieces were either tankards or chamber pots — nothing larger. I searched for jardinieres, but found nothing. I gave up. When I got up the next morning, the first thing I thought was “You didn’t search for Westerwald jardiniere. You searched each name separately.” I went to my computer, called up the Google page and typed in ‘Westerwald jardiniere’. Up popped the Christie’s site which told me that, in 2003, two jardinieres (pictured here, dated 1870-1880) sold in Amsterdam for over $5000 each! It also told me that, contrary to earlier information that said jardinieres were a Victorian phenomenon, these items were produced much earlier than that — as far back as the 1600s and 1700s. That means the 1700s date that appears on the shield of my jardiniere might be closer to the truth than I thought. Though mine is in safe-keeping with my youngest while we’re away, at the top of the to-do list when we get home is to have it insured. Then I’ll give it a thorough cleaning before putting it back in our living room. With Mum’s old concerns in mind, however, I don’t think I’ll put it in the living room window, but rather in a prominent place in the room where it can be admired, but can’t so easily be seen from the street!

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