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In The Gardeners Labyrinth of 1577 – the first English gardening book – Thomas Hill describes a similar container: “The common watering pot for garden beds with us, hath a narrow neck, big belly, somewhat large bottom and full of little holes, with a proper hole formed on the head to take in the water.”

It worked using a simple but effective principle. “When filled full, and the thumb laid on the hole to kepp in the aire, may on such wise be carryed in handsome manner to those places by a better help aiding, in the turning and bearing upright of the bottom of this pot, which needfully require watering.”

Such utilitarian objects, this one stands 101/2in (27cm) high, were no doubt made in large numbers during the 16th century and perhaps before, but very few have survived – perhaps only two. One, seen recently as part of a travelling exhibition, is believed to be in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The other appeared at Sotheby’s sale of garden antiques at Summers Place, West Sussex on September 23.

Found buried in the mud while digging foundations for an office building in London, this Tudor thumb pot had found its way into the celebrated collection of gardening antiques formed by Lord McAlpine. It was sold for around £3000 when the contents of his home, West Green House, were cleared by Sotheby’s in May 1990.

Reappearing at Billingshurst after 13 years with an estimate of £3000-5000, it immediately caught the attention of the National Museum of Gardening who – helped by a network of dealers and auctioneers – are still actively adding to what is already the largest collection of horticultural antiques in the country.
Mike Sagin, managing director of the Trevano Estate, Cornwall where the NMG is based, told the Gazette that the museum (which after six years as a private venture became a ‘national’ institution in 2001) has been looking for a thumb pot for a decade and until now have had to make do with a reproduction. At £4200 (plus 20 per cent buyer’s premium), they now have the real thing.

The 16th century pot slots well into the NMG collection of vessels in pottery, copper, brass, tin and plastic that together shows the evolution of the watering can over five centuries. Back in November 2002 at Sotheby’s Bond Street sale of the Charterhouse School collection, they were able to plug another gap previously occupied only by a reproduction.

This was one of a larger surviving group of lead-glazed earthenware watering cans probably made in the Sussex area in the late 16th/early 17th century – a more recognisable forerunner of the watering can with an outsize rose nozzle and handle, 111/4in (28.5cm) high. With a label inscribed Found in Moorfields 1856, it made £2600.