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The Spitalfields Bowl

December 7, 2013
by the gentle author

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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. December 7, 2013

    Oh my what a fantastic artifact! That engraving is magnificent. Is it ever possible to visit the bowl?

  2. Patty/BC permalink
    December 7, 2013

    Such an outstanding object! The craftsmanship is beautiful and haunting, as you mentioned. Thanks for sharing this time capsule work of art. It’s certainly a treasure.

  3. Sue Harding permalink
    December 7, 2013

    Magical! What a wonderful piece. I was at college from 1989 to 1995 and remember Dennis Severs and the old Market Cafe where we often had lunch.

  4. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    December 7, 2013

    What a wonderful artefact !

  5. December 7, 2013

    What a fantastic piece – I did not know that this bowl existed. Just spell binding! Thanks for sharing! Valerie

  6. jane gadd permalink
    December 7, 2013

    Thank you for showing us this most exquisite and wonderful piece.

  7. Vicky permalink
    December 7, 2013

    This is stunning! Beautifully etched, beautifully photographed, quite takes your breath away and now, thanks to TGA, we can all enjoy it.

  8. Barbara Hague permalink
    December 7, 2013

    An absolute delight – lovely to see the scene of the fruit and veg market that I never knew, but where my gt grandfather had his veg stalls.

  9. Patricia Celeveland-Peck permalink
    December 7, 2013

    What a delight – and how amazing that the artist managed to incorporate so many scenes. The moonlight one is especially ravishing. Thank to all concerned for letting us see this wonderful bowl.

  10. December 7, 2013

    Magical, exquisite work. Thank you (and the owner) for showing it to us.

  11. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 7, 2013

    Isnt that beautiful& so clever.

  12. Ros permalink
    December 7, 2013

    Wow! How beautiful the bowl is. Congratulations to the photographer too, and thanks to both of you for enabling us to see it in such detail. I too wonder if it’ll ever be shown to the public.

  13. Steven Gillan permalink
    December 8, 2013

    Thanks again for making me care and feel about the people and places you write about. From Steven in sunny, sort of but cold by our standards tonight (40′s, Southern California. Your writing means a great deal to me.
    Happy Xmas, Steven

  14. Emma permalink
    December 8, 2013

    Staggering. Would love an opportunity to see it for real.

  15. Mos Day permalink
    December 10, 2013

    Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful piece of history. Many of the streets it depicts is where my mother’s family once lived, and I have searched our history and discovered I come from a long line of weavers. I am unable to see these places for myself as I live on the other side of the world now, but it is so lovely that I am able to read about, and see, the places which I now also deem to be part of my heritage… Such a lovely piece of artwork. Thank you again.

  16. Nik permalink
    December 11, 2013

    I was miserable until I saw this.

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