Generous Objects: A Jug

Published 3rd July 2023

Monday 3rd July 2023, Hove

The jug is a generous object, or at least one that presents an opportunity for generosity. I’ve noticed from being in restaurants and cafés with friends that there is a pleasure derived from being the one to to fill everyone’s glasses from the communal water jug. The person pouring takes care to distribute the contents as evenly as possible, filling their own cup last. It’s one of those small acts that gets interpreted as being revealing of person’s character - their willingness to share, consideration of others needs etc. It’s an easy, kind thing to do - a simple gesture that makes people think well of you. It’s in these situations that a jug seems to embody feelings of care and tenderness; they become vessels through which a person can offer such acts to others.

An image which depicts these feelings is Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Milkmaid (c. 1657-1658), held in the Rijksmuseum. Though the woman is painted alone in the scene, she appears to be in the process of baking something, presumably to be shared with others judging by the quantity of ingredients. She pours from the jug with such softness, gently cradling one hand around its belly while the other, grasping the handle, guides the stream of milk beyond the spout and into the bowl. She looks totally absorbed in her task, concentrating on the liquid running steadily from the jug. When I look at this image, I’m also thinking of the scene that would follow it - people gathered at a table to enjoy a meal together, much noisier and more energised than the calm, quiet scene in the painting.

I’ve been thinking of communal eating while making these jugs, picturing them sat upon tables covered with food outside in the sunshine, people reaching across one another to load their plates and pour drinks. A classic sort of still life image in lots of ways, just with more people present. It’s a very romanticised image - one I can’t actually bring to life myself given that I don’t have a garden to construct it in - but this idealised aspect of the image is also what makes it pleasing. It’s a simple little fantasy in which I happily fill the glasses of my guests while they look gratefully upon the table I’ve laid with an abundant lunch. None of the food is overcooked or badly seasoned; no one bickers or finds anyone else irritating; there is plenty for everyone. After eating we all laze about and chat easily, basking in the warm afternoon sun. As in Vermeer’s painting, serving others becomes a virtuous act, to enact slowly and to find pleasure in.

The imagined scenario I’m describing here is also partly informed by looking through cookbooks at the stylised images of food. One in particular that sticks in my mind comes from Anna Jones' book, A Modern Way to Eat from 2014. In my memory the photograph, taken by Brian Ferry, shows a large platter with a crisp-looking salad piled on top of it, juicy red tomatoes and some kind of cheese all coated under a glistening dressing. But the stronger sense of the general atmosphere of the image: the apparent warmth implied by the light cast over the tablecloth, the sense of it being early evening, the buzz of people as they approach the table ready to eat and drink. It’s an image I’ve been thinking of a lot when photographing my work , wanting to imbue this atmosphere of communal gathering into a staged image that exists totally separately from anything like the aforementioned scenario. Interestingly, searching for the image in the cookbook to reference here, I was surprised to find it different than I remembered - no tomatoes or cheese at all, but a totally different plate of food comprised of squash and lettuce. This image was flicked past in search of the one I held in my mind, not totally able to describe its detail, but sure I would know it when I saw it. It took a bit of convincing to realise that this was the photograph, and then an understanding that this literal image had essentially acted as a start point for the formation of my own scenario, the overall atmosphere the same but filled with specifics that are to my preference, in this instance, tomatoes and cheese.

It’s interesting to think about the power of a singular object to convey such a strong narrative or fantasy, how easily we are able to project ideas and images onto them, to conjure all the other elements needed to form a cohesive narrative. A person might look at a jug and imagine grasping the handle, how heavy it would be when full of water, the liquid flowing steadily from the spout as they tilt it, how they could make a show of pouring from it at height to lengthen the stream. I want a jug that I make to have this capability, for a person to look at it and have an idealised scene– made specific with preferences of their own – brought to mind.

Published 3rd July 2023

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