For as long as l have visited the pottery galleries at the V&A, I have admired their small collection of bear bottles and jugs. As my interest in pottery grew and turned into a hobby, I would notice more examples of these bears in museums and on specialist antique dealer websites.
Over the summer, I took a week out to stay home and make pottery all day, every day. I lined up the podcasts and figured out how I would make my version of a bear bottle. By then, I’d read up enough to know their origins and decided to omit the chains and dogs and thought a lot about the colours I would glaze them.
These bears were going to have happier lives. The more I made, the more I found out about them. Their history increasingly informed my plans for the little fellows and I decided not to turn them into something cute or funny.
Though, as strange as it sounds, I was happy to keep a slightly creepy weirdness about them.
I’m often attracted to the weird and wonderful and what first captivated me about these curious little things was their construction and purpose, and also the play on words; a ‘bear’ shaped ‘beer’ bottle. I loved the naivety of their form and the effect of the almost metallic glaze on the pottery ‘grog’ fur.
I thought that anyone able to make a chain from clay was very clever and to see surviving examples from the C18th, very special.
I amaze myself at how slow on the uptake I can be sometimes; how couldn’t I see what the chain might be for and why indeed these bears were holding dogs? The production side of my brain often takes over thoughts and it was asking ‘how would I make that?’ instead of ‘what is that?’.
The whimsical nature of my C18th inspirations portray the cruel yet popular sport of bear-baiting, a legal recreation in England until 1835. Made as souvenirs, they served as bottles, jugs and tobacco jars. The body of the bottle held the liquid contents while the head covered the opening and provided a drinking cup. Quite a social commentary of the time.
The bear bottles were made at a time when society was comfortable with the blood sport as entertainment. It was extremely popular from the Elizabethan period until it was banned in the C19th, over 300 years later. Every town and village throughout Britain is thought to have had a ‘bear garden’ (brings a new meaning to the word) where these spectacles were staged. What happened within these ‘bear gardens’ is truly too brutal to think about. Bulls were also dealt the same fate.
Despite being largely outlawed, sadly, there still remain small pockets in the world where bears continue to be cruelly exploited for this type of entertainment.
Since 1997, good work by the World Animal Protection charity has seen the number of bear-baiting events decrease dramatically. Success lies within working with local law enforcement officials and the bear owners themselves to support them in alternative livelihoods.
While the entire nature of this project has remained so very niche to me, with everything I have learned along the way, I have decided there is only one thing that I can do with these bear bottles that will help see their living counterparts into a better life - I will donate all proceeds of their sale to World Animal Protection. All bear bottles are available at Pentreath & Hall Ltd.
I’m really pleased to be able to help this wonderful charity in their mission to help to liberate and care for these wonderful creatures. There is still a lot of cruelty in the world - we can help to stop it, and this is where I would like to lend a hand.
The photograph of the bear relaxing is taken at one of the World Animal Protection supporter-funded bear sanctuaries - courtesy of World Animal Protection.