Review by Elizabeth Gusler
A Passion for Pottery: Further Selections from the Henry H. Weldon Collection

Peter Williams and Pat Halfpenny. A Passion for Pottery: Further Selections from the Henry H. Weldon Collection. London: Sotheby’s, 2000. 369 pp.; color photography by Gavin Ashworth. $350.00.

Peter Williams and Pat Halfpenny’s book about the Weldon collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British pottery inspires lust in the heart of any collector of this material. The collection, built over the past twenty years, may be the best private collection of its type in the world. The two handsome volumes devoted to cataloging this extraordinary collection, with their splendid photographs, informative and well-written texts, and handsome formats, are manna to students and collectors. Williams and Halfpenny have continued the high scholarly standards established by Leslie B. Grigsby with the first Weldon catalog, English Pottery, 1650–1800: The Henry H. Weldon Collection (Sotheby’s, 1990). Gavin Ashworth’s exquisite photographs in both volumes are a delight for the student or collector who seeks to study clear, large-format pictures that reveal details and convey accurate color. Jeanne Snyder’s design is clean; her choices of paper stock, layout, and typeface make page-turning a pleasure. 

Letitia Roberts states in her foreword that education is a lifelong passion of the Weldons, who envisioned the original book as “not just a catalogue of the collection, but a real textbook.” Both of the Weldon catalogs have fulfilled their goal of providing teaching tools. One wishes—because of their usefulness as textbooks—that subsidies had been available to lower the price of such important and useful publications. The high price of both books puts them out of the range of many students and, as the cost of art books escalates, of museum libraries forced to choose among important publications. This said, the Weldon volumes prove more useful reference works than several lesser volumes. 

All serious collectors eventually realize that mistakes are the best teachers. Henry and Jimmy Weldon’s lessons began when they suspected that a small minority of pieces from their early collecting years were not what they purported to be. One must admire the Weldons for getting back on the collecting horse after difficulties that would have daunted most ardent collectors. They proved their abiding passion for pottery and are especially to be commended for the efforts they have made to help others learn from their hard-earned lessons. They have lectured on their collection and on the fakes and have lent both fakes and authentic pieces to major museums for study and exhibition. They actively participated in the trial of the accused forger and shared their problem pieces as a focus of a Sotheby’s seminar on fakes. By these educational efforts the Weldons have generously helped other collectors avoid the pitfalls that led to the fraud so cleverly perpetrated upon them. 

The Weldons, with Pat Halfpenny (currently chief curator at the Winterthur Museum; at press time, keeper of ceramics at the City Museum in Stoke-on-Trent and one of the world’s leading authorities on eighteenth-century English pottery), serve as admirable examples to museums, which sometimes are reluctant to take a public stand in this sort of controversy. A fascinating and distinguishing aspect of this catalog is Halfpenny’s essay on the curatorial process of sorting period pieces from extremely clever fakes. In “Collector Beware” she describes the process she used during the trial of the accused pottery faker by “translat[ing] connoisseurship into quantifiable observations” for the British Crown Prosecution Service. Her clearly detailed detective story—as fascinating as any best-selling thriller—even delights with an amazing surprise ending. 

Roberts notes several valuable principles of collecting ceramics that have guided the Weldons. She cites the significance of keeping abreast of the latest archaeological excavations, which have been rapidly rewriting ceramic history and attributions in the past two decades. Roberts also emphasizes the importance of seeking provenanced pieces when building a collection. 

The Weldons seem to have a genuine appreciation for generations of collectors passing the torch by studying and cherishing special objects. Object history became increasingly important to the Weldons after the problematic pieces from the first catalog were all realized to be without provenance older than about a decade. Ironically, provenance in this Weldon catalog is noted only selectively. While many significant former owners are cited, dealers who sold pieces to the Weldons are mentioned only when a piece was featured in dealers’ publications. 

One conspicuous lapse in citing object history involves an important tea party group (no. 212). When this piece was sold at Sotheby’s in the mid-1990s it fetched a landmark price that generated considerable publicity; it was purchased by another prominent collector of British pottery. The authors note that this remarkable social history tableau was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1980, but their list of its provenance neglects to include the 1990s New York auction or the most recent pre-Weldon owner. Sound scholarship dictates noting all known previous owners, both dealers and collectors. 

The entries are uniformly well written, and the authors avoid jargon. There is only occasional need for clarification. One such entry is number 85, a toy sugar bowl and saucer that appear to be solid agate-swirled colored clays blended throughout the entire body, rather than just on the surface. These pieces are grouped with creamware, rather than agate, however, and are described as “rouletted and inlaid with fine spiraling striations of blue and brown clay,” a representation that does not fully explain the process. The authors note that this decoration possibly matches contemporary descriptions of “dip’t and turn’d” wares, but do not footnote the source of the period quote. It seems possible that the toy pieces represent creamware with surface agate decoration, what Rickard and Carpentier term “inlaid patterns on dipped wares,” which were then turned on a lathe to smooth the inlaid clay and, finally, rouletted.[1]

Several vocabulary choices might have been improved. The term “Chinaman” (p. 12), although used for years in decorative arts scholarship, is now considered offensive. The designation of “associated” lids seems awkward. This terminology avoids the straightforward acknowledgment that a top and bottom did not start life together. When this term is used, as with the designations of later color, it raises questions in the reader’s mind: What was the lid’s shape, fit, lack of rim overhang? 

Condition and conservation reports would have been useful components of each entry. Such reports are the accepted scholarly standard in furniture catalogs. This landmark catalog could have pushed ceramic scholarship in that direction. Ceramics collectors too often have unrealistic expectations of near-perfect condition in a medium of inherent fragility. Analysis of the condition of objects in such a superlative collection would have been a progressive addition to this important contribution to ceramic scholarship.

As an aspect of condition, one wants to know more of the authors’ thinking when they state that color might be later decoration. How could a collector make the same determination? Regarding teapot number 30 they say that the decoration was “possibly added later,” cite it as “almost identical” to a pot in the Metropolitan Museum, but then fail to clarify whether the Metropolitan’s example is decorated in the period or later. Numbers 21, 24, and 46 are also cited as having suspicious decoration. As a teaching tool, these slightly suspect examples might have been advantageously grouped as case studies. Their interspersion with pristine examples in the collection confers a misleading credence, particularly with salt-glazed stoneware fruit dish number 46; the added color is such a major change to an otherwise run-of-the-mill object, one questions whether it merits a whole-page photograph. 

Two organizational issues would have made the book an easier reference source. The categorization of objects within typological groupings is random. For instance, within the section on “lead glazed cream coloured earthenwares—tea and coffee wares,” why not group together the “green and gold” (as Josiah Wedgwood called such underglazed oxide pieces) and other like wares? It is frustrating to try to survey all tea wares of like body and decoration because wares are interspersed rather than grouped. Also confusing is the use of Weldon accession numbers as reference numbers in the essays, which makes cross-referencing difficult. It would have been straightforward to use book entry numbers, designating whether the object is in catalog one or two.

The gilding on the blackware teapot number 139 is cited as an exceptional example of japanned decoration. Given its rarity, one yearns to see its other side, which is not illustrated. The photographic approach in the book proves the success of the Weldons’ goal of educating via publication of their collection. The large photograph enables one to see that the japanned design is similar to that on a cast-iron stoveplate made about 1770 at Isaac Zane’s Marlboro Furnace near Winchester, Virginia. The common design source was undoubtedly Lock and Copeland’s New Book of Ornaments, published in London in 1752.[2] Leslie Grigsby explored many such pattern book relationships on British pottery in the first catalog of the Weldon collection and later in a series of articles in Antiques.

A Passion for Pottery must be in the library of any serious collector or student of British ceramics. Its photographs alone provide an invaluable resource. Combined with superbly educational text, the book sets a new high bar towards which other scholars will aim in ceramic publishing.

Elizabeth Gusler
Vice President, George Washington’s Fredericksburg Foundation 

Ceramics in America 2001

  • [1]

    Jonathan Rickard and Donald Carpentier, “Methods of Slip Decoration on Fine Utilitarian Earthenware,” American Ceramic Circle Journal 10 (1997): 38, 46.

  • [2]

    Morrison H. Heckscher and Leslie Greene Bowman, American Rococo, 1750–1775: Elegance in Ornament (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1992), pp. 5, 225.