The Spitalfields Bowl
One of these streets’ most-esteemed long-term residents summoned me to view an artefact that – until today – few have seen, the fabled Spitalfields Bowl. Engraved by Nicholas Anderson, a pupil of the great master of the art, Laurence Whistler, it incarnates a certain moment of transition in the volatile history of this place.
I arrived at the old house and was escorted by the owner to an upper floor, and through several doors, to arrive in the room where the precious bowl is kept upon its own circular table that revolves with a smooth mechanism, thus avoiding any necessity to touch the glass. Of substantial design, it is a wide vessel upon a pedestal engraved with scenes that merge and combine in curious ways. You have the option of looking down upon the painstakingly-etched vignettes and keeping them separate them in your vision, or you can peer through, seeing one design behind the other, morphing and mutating in ambiguous space as the bowl rotates – like overlaid impressions of memory or the fleeting images of a dream.
Ever conscientious, the owner brought out the correspondence that lay behind the commission and execution of the design from Nicholas Anderson in 1988. Consolidating a day in which the glass engraver had been given a tour of Spitalfields, one letter lists images that might be included - “1. The church and steeple of Christ Church, Spitalfields, and its domination of the surrounding areas. 2. The stacks, chimneys and weaving lofts. 3. The narrowness of the streets and the list and lean of the buildings with their different doorways and casement windows.”
There is a mesmerising quality to Nicholas Anderson’s intricate design that plays upon your perception, offering insubstantial apparitions glimpsed in moonlight, simultaneously ephemeral and eternal, haunting the mind. You realise an object as perilously fragile as an engraved glass bowl makes an ideal device to commemorate a transitory moment.
“It took him months and months,” admitted the proud owner,“and it represents the moment everything changed in Spitalfields, in which the first skyscraper had gone up and there were cranes as evidence of others to come. The Jewish people have left and the Asians are arriving, while at the same time, you see the last of the three-hundred-year-old flower, fruit and vegetable market with its history and characters, surrounded by the derelict houses and filthy streets.”
Sequestered in a locked room, away from the human eye, the Spitalfields Bowl is a spell-binding receptacle of time and memory.
The Jewish soup kitchen
To the left is the Worrall House, situated in a hidden courtyard between Princelet St & Fournier St
A moonlit view of Christ Church over the rooftops of Fournier St
The bird cage with the canary from Dennis Severs House
“He was a tinker who overwintered in Allen Gardens and used to glean every morning in the market…”
To the left is Elder St and the plaque commemorating the birth of John Wesley’s mother is in Spital Sq.
An Asian couple walk up Brushfield St, with the market the left and the Fruit & Wool Exchange and Verdes to the right
Photographs copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies