Toby Jug

I have an old Toby Jug that belonged to my Dad; it’s one of my most special possessions.

Blog Toby Jug

It has been largely an unspoken attachment.  I own things that are more beautiful or more valuable, but sentimentally I now know that this, of all my things, is most precious.  I know it because I was temporarily homeless last year, and when all my belongings seemed like so much hard work, the Toby Jug was the first thing I thought to rescue.  While I was living out of backpacks, spare room to spare room, cutting back on sentimentality in favour of practicality, (and everything else I owned seemed like so much more stuff to weigh me down) I carried it with me carefully wrapped in multiple layers of bubble-wrap (even though it has been broken many times) and didn’t dare to unwrap it until I was settled again.

The point is; I carried around this essentially useless object because the importance I place on it is very real to me. It may only be an object, but like many precious things it is also a symbol, a representation of a person, my Dad, and a concept… home.

The Toby Jug was always there in the background when I was growing up.  It wasn’t treated as particularly special and it was already damaged then. I remember it most sitting next to the telephone, my Mum would fill it with pens and pencils and if you tipped it out you could find erasers, paper clips, sewing needles and dust in the bottom; the kind of detritus that had to be contained or hidden away.

Blog Toby Jug drawing

I’m not sure when it took on added meaning for me.  Maybe it grew over the years as this object sat on the shelf, a silent witness to my childhood.  I suppose it would be obvious to suggest that it gained meaning when my Dad passed away, but I already loved it by then.

A number of years ago I asked my Mum about the Toby Jug, where did it come from?  Why did Dad have it?  What did it mean to him, if anything?  She didn’t know.  It was an object that Dad had before he met her and she’d never asked.  I realised then that my Toby Jug had a secret life!  How it came to belong to my Dad is a mystery.  I don’t even know how important it was to him.  I suspect it held some value to him as an object, if it had survived so long with him.  He didn’t hang on to a lot of personal objects, (books, papers, photos yes, objects not so much), and yet it wasn’t displayed like a treasure, but pressed into service to hold odds and ends, pens and pencils.

Later, going through my Dad’s photographs, I found a self-portrait he’d taken in the mirror, I think it is from the 1950s when Dad first came to New Zealand.  To one side is a mirror framed with Christmas cards, my Dad’s reflection smiling, and there, on the dresser is the Toby Jug like an old friend, teasing me from the past.  ‘Here is the life I lived with your Dad’ it says to me, ‘proof without details’.  It is a younger Dad, and a younger Toby Jug, a Toby Jug without the scars.

Blogtoby jug and Dad

The Toby Jug has been broken a number of times, my Dad inexpertly (and very visibly) glued a crack in the arm.  And a few years ago I watched as it was knocked off the mantelpiece, I still remember the sick sound of the impact as it hit the hearth.  I cried over it at the time, which even then I knew was silly.  It was just an object, an already somewhat broken object, so why did I feel so wounded?

It now has a large triangular bite out of the rim. I have the pieces, and I have thought about getting it fixed, but the idea of passing it on to a stranger to operate on, someone who doesn’t understand its true value is too much for me.  And somehow I love it even more with all its scars.


  1. Beautiful Jus, such a poignant object, and the self portrait photograph is fantastic, like a window into the past (something that photography does so well). It’s always interesting to find out an objects back story, specially one that goes through time.
    On a lighter side-note it reminds me a little of how objects can be given new histories too, like the travelling gnomes prank.

    1. I really love the self portrait too. Julie tells me it was taken with a Medium Format camera , which is another little tasty clue to past lives (my Dad didn’t have this camera during my lifetime). I LOVE the composition, its exactly the kind of thing I would do (in a drawing) and I’d love to know whether my Dad did it intentionally or not.

      It’s funny to think of objects having lives of their own. Like the Traveling Gnomes, I was sort of taken aback to find a photograph of the Toby Jug being part of it’s own history that didn’t include me. I think we take it for granted that people have histories, but somehow forget that objects do too. Or maybe, even knowing that there is a history, it is just strange to be presented with the proof of that.

  2. Hi Justine,

    It is intriguing to see the difference in terms of ‘image’ between the photograph and the drawing of your toby jug. The drawing (for me) already places it visually into some form of narrative while the photographic image acts as a surrogate for the object, a stand-in, or as Barthes referred to it as its referent.

    Never underestimate the power of an evocative object. They are evocative through association and the emotional attachment is through having been handled by a loved one, not quite a relic but close.


    1. I know what you mean, it is very nearly a relic.

      You make a good point regarding the difference between the photograph and the drawing. In some ways, not being a photographer, I do tend to use photography more to document (usually because I am thinking of how it will capture what I need for my drawings).

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