A Goddess Banish’ed

Many years ago, at the time when Top Of The Pops was hosting the likes of Suzi Quatro, Mud, George McCrae and Cockney Rebel, yours truly was employed in an engineering concern located in a former Lancashire cotton mill of the darkest and most satanic kind.

Now, I would never claim to have been an engineer of any great renown – Brunel’s legacy remained unchallenged during my tenure of the position – but wearing a long white jacket and holding a clipboard managed to suggest to the casual onlooker that I may very well hold a position of some importance.

However, cometh the days of the four-day week, underscored with the populist mantra of ‘Vote for Ted and three days in bed’ – alluding to our then Prime Minister,  The Right and Honourable Mr Ted Heath – yours truly was prompted to swiftly reconsider my (then) chosen career path.

I also readily admit that my school days would never have suggested that a noted career in academia lay ahead, or that I was likely to receive plaudits for any forays in to the realms of any studious or scholarly pursuits. That said I had always retained a passion for history, particularly that of Roman Britain – all the more so when it was relevant to the area around which I grew up.

My interest had been kindled by the knowledge that – a stone’s throw from my birthplace in Nelson – the Romans had built a sizeable fort at Ribchester which garrisoned a detachment of infantry and cavalry from the XX Legion Valeria Victrix based in Chester – a city known way back then in AD 74 as Deva.

Anyway – I digress – back to 1974 and the advent of a growing need for personal cerebral stimulation which had me checking out evening classes at the local College of Further Education, where I came across a GCE ‘O’ Level course (just think GCSE in modern-day parlance) under the heading of ‘Classical Studies’.

Having checked out a synopsis of the syllabus encompassed by such a grand-sounding title, I was intrigued to see that it related to both Greek and Roman history, with particular relevance to the theatre of those ancient civilisations.

I signed up for the year-long course and lapped up every single lesson, having had the great good fortune to be blessed by studying under an amazing tutor whose enthusiasm and energy enraptured those in his classroom.

My only regret was that I wish I had undertaken the course a few years earlier and had the opportunity to sign up for a visit to Greece – including Athens and Delphi – which would have enabled me to have a more informed and first-hand appreciation of much that I was to read about.

Anyway, my nascent engineering career would ultimately prove to be somewhat short-lived, courtesy of the economic malaise which afflicted Britain in the early 1970’s, but with hindsight being made redundant alongside my colleagues proved to be extraordinarily fortuitous, as it led to a new-found job working in the London art world at a little-known auction house run by the Bonham family.

My already-extant passion for ceramics landed me the position of porter in the Porcelain & Glass department and, in truth, I consider myself to have only really started ‘living’ as of the 4th January 1976 when I first took up the post. I viewed myself as being very much the small boy in the sweet shop and undertook a learning curve with the very steepest of gradients.

My ever-expanding interest in British ceramics has always resulted in constantly going off at a tangent, one such diversion being a growing fascination with 18th English porcelain figures, especially those made by the Bow and Derby manufactories.

During one particular Bonham’s auction I found myself smitten by a figure, in equal parts both intriguing and alluring, made at Derby in about 1765 and depicting Minerva – the Goddess of Wisdom.

Like most women Minerva was a capable multi-tasker, as she was also the Goddess of War, Art, Schools and Commerce in her role as Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess, Athena.

Gazing at the figure, I became transfixed by her still-colourful attire and gilt cuirass, her plumed helmet and her upright stance beside a shield with attendant – and endearing – small owl perched nearby upon a stack of learned tomes.

Her outstretched right arm was missing a spear which had been lost to the vagaries of time and insufficiently dutiful curation, but it was her headgear which intrigued me the most by virtue of a wonderful if somewhat blob-like solid glaze pendant at the rear.

Now, forgive me if all this sounds a little racy, but the seduction was complete and I simply had to possess this woman; having raised some modest funds having just sold a few bits and bobs, I decided to register my bid and hold my breath…

Come sale day the Gods and Goddesses were obviously smiling on yours truly, and Minerva became mine, all mine – and I whisked the lady away to her new home.

I was soon to realise how true was the dictum that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ as it became immediately apparent that (the equally alluring) Mrs K was not overly enthusiastic at the prospect of sharing her home – and husband – with another woman, goddess or otherwise !

My dalliance with ‘M’ lasted little more than a couple of years before I reluctantly bowed to pressure of the subtle yet unwavering female ilk, and Minerva was consigned for a return to the grand arena of the auction room.

This salutary tale took place over 35 years ago, but whenever I come across another Derby figure of Minerva in the pages of sale room catalogues or on line, I am immediately moved to ask for a condition report to check the rear of the helmet for that glorious blob of glaze…

In recent weeks, a fine example was offered for sale by Dreweatts of Newbury and, having asked my friends there for a condition report, my heart skipped a beat (for the briefest of moments) before I was informed that, yet again, the figure was blob-free; my once-cherished goddess remains at liberty.

‘C’est la vie’ as they say in certain parts.

No sympathy cards please, but please do take a look at the range of Derby Porcelain figures that we do have for sale.

Good Luck out there and – like the rest of us – for goodness sake keep washing those hands !

Eric Knowles FRSA. TR.