Review by Geoffrey Godden
If These Pots Could Talk: Collecting 2,000 Years of British Household Pottery

Ivor Noël Hume. If These Pots Could Talk: Collecting 2,000 Years of British Household Pottery. Photographs by Gavin Ashworth. Milwaukee: Chipstone Foundation, 2001. 472 pp., 655 illus., 590 in color. $75 (clothbound).

My review copy of this large and weighty book never made it—modern transportation obviously defeated by the Atlantic. The copy I had the good fortune to purchase arrived with a batch of other, more handy works, and so this American giant was put aside to glance at when time permitted. It looked like a so-called coffee-table book—full of good illustrations but with little real meat—and the three ceramic faces that leered out from the dust jacket did not dispel this initial impression. Perhaps, too, the book’s main title suggested that it was not a serious study.

How wrong I was, how very wrong! Once prompted to pick up this work, I could hardly put it down; garden, wife, and family took second place. In the week or so that I took to read this magnificent work I learned more about pots and how and why they were made and used—and not only pots, but about British (indeed world) history—than I had learned in all my seventy years.

This is very much a happy Anglo-American book. The author was born in London, and after the war he joined the staff of London’s Guildhall Museum as an archaeologist, progressing to Colonial Williamsburg in 1957. American readers will not need reminding of his standing and experience, or of his fourteen previous books and many learned articles. His international honors are well known and richly deserved—few, if any, other American-based researchers have received the Order of the British Empire. Gavin Ashworth, another English-born master craftsman, who photographed so tellingly the hundreds of illustrations, deserves like praise and recognition. With the help of the Chipstone Foundation, this splendid partnership has produced a monumental work.

I have referred to the production partnership, but the partnership between Noël and his wife Audrey (1927–1993) was truly outstanding. The book tells of their great enjoyment as they hunted (pots) together, dug together, shared ideas as they traced the life of each pot, and generally worked as a mutually encouraging team. 

Noël and Audrey indeed made their pots talk, made them tell of their times and their history, ancient and modern. The talk is certainly not one-sided, but rather a pleasing, often humorous, conversation. We are privileged to eavesdrop, to gain an impression of times gone by, of the delights of collecting and researching, of the joy of discovery.

The time scale is vast, commencing with b.c. pots and progressing (in time, not necessarily in quality or charm) to a trinket box commemorating the Queen Mother’s hundredth birthday in August 2002. Obviously the coverage is biased, for this is a very personal book, not only in the selection of pots but in the story and the pleasing manner of the telling. I am a “porcelain man,” Noël is a “pottery man” (very little porcelain is included in this work). He has very nearly won me over to the more ancient craft. It is a good read and a very well-produced, modestly priced book. It gives the reader pleasure as well as insight into pots and collecting, and it obviously gave the author much pleasure in the writing.

There are very few niggles, and none that detract from the importance and value of this fine work. I regret that the sizes of the objects are not included in the captions; one has to turn to page 375 to find such basic information.

On more material points, the F. & R. Pratt 1857 pot lid (fig. i.10) should not be described as lithographed because it was printed from a set of copperplates engraved by Jesse Austin. The bat-printed porcelain saucer (fig. xiii.28) is described both as bone china and as the collection’s only example of New Hall hard-paste porcelain. It is almost certainly not New Hall, and at the stated period of circa 1815–1825 would not be of the hard-paste body. A pleasing and quite early Toby jug shown in figure xiv.13 is described incorrectly as classic polychrome decorated circa 1825–1835. It appears to have semitranslucent inglaze colors and to predate 1800 by several years.

The statement on page 294 that William Duesbury of Derby took over the Bow porcelain factory in 1763 surely needs more thought or research; I am not aware of any evidence to support this statement. At the head of the next page, the partner Weatherby in the Bow concern did have a recorded Christian name, John. On pages 322–23, the Doulton & Watt’s Lambeth partnership of circa 1815–1858 is associated with the 1870s. 

The lengthy glossary is helpful, but most British works would define clobbering as later decoration over an originally complete pattern, not as “often . . . part of the original design intent” (p. 363). To describe creamware as yellow (p. 364) is, to my mind, a bit strong. My dislike of the terms tea poy (p. 372) and tea caddy (pieces of furniture) rather than ceramic tea cannister is personal—but correct! There are several references to Llewellynn Jewitt’s nineteenth-century work, but the main title should not include the word history.*

These are but small points, outside the author’s main interest and period of study, and in no way diminish this truly amazing book that should be in every ceramic library, even if one has to invest in larger and stronger bookcases. Well done and thank you, Ivor Noël Hume, and your team.

Geoffrey Godden
Findon, West Sussex

*Editor’s Note: The title of the American edition, The History of Ceramic Art in Great Britain from Pre-historic Times down through Each Successive Period to the Present Day (New York: Scribner, Welford, and Armstrong, 1878), undoubtedly is less well known in the reviewer’s Great Britain than in the United States.

Ceramics in America 2004