Review by Pat Halfpenny
A Potted History: Henry Willett's Ceramic Chronicle of Britain

Stella Beddoe. A Potted History: Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain. Woodbridge, Suffolk, Eng.: ACC [Antique Collectors’ Club] Art Books, 2015. 352 pp.; 812 color, 6 b/w illus. $89.50.

Henry Willett was a born collector. He assembled significant and extensive collections of natural history, Sussex folk life, old master paintings, and what Arthur Lee, a visiting American collector and author, called “the most interesting ceramic collection in England” (p. 11). Reading A Potted History: Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain, we learn about the man and his ceramic collection, and it is obvious the two are inextricably woven together. An enterprising and successful businessman with strong liberal sympathies, Willett practiced religious tolerance, advocated the abolition of the death penalty, opposed enclosure of common land, and campaigned for education for the poor. While this kind of background sometimes does little to help us understand a collector’s fascination with ceramics, in Willett’s case his interests informed his choices. He believed that his collection had two purposes: first, to document the history of his country on “homely pottery”; and second, to reflect on what might be “found on the mantelpieces of English cottage homes,” representations of what their inmates or forefathers “admired, reverenced, trusted in.”[1] In short, it is material culture depicting the material culture of everyday life.

Wanting to share his collections with his local community, Willett played a leading role in establishing Brighton Museum. The plan was conceived in 1872, and by September 1873 Brighton Free Library, Museum and Picture Gallery opened with exhibits including Willett’s collections. The loan of his ceramic collection seems especially altruistic, as Willett had just lost more than sixty pieces of pottery and porcelain lent to an exhibition at the newly completed Alexandra Palace, London, which was destroyed by fire in June 1873, only sixteen days after it opened. In 1879 a text-only Introductory Catalogue was published to accompany the Brighton ceramic display, but as it grew in size and importance, a much larger catalog illustrated with line drawings was produced in 1899 in time to accompany a London showing of the collection.[2]

Written by Willett, the 1899 catalog featured more than 1,700 ceramics of every type spanning three centuries of use in English homes. Organizing such a large and wide-ranging collection would be daunting had it not had such a dominating focus. Dividing the catalog into manageable topics, he wrote, “The classification, while confessedly arbitrary, has been made not so much in reference to the maker, the time and place of manufacture, but with regard to the greater human interest which each object presents.”[3] The 2015 publication authored by Stella Beddoe also covers over 1,700 objects and honors the spirit of Willett’s original organization. Some of the categories have been renamed, others have been merged or separated, but essentially the nineteen sections of the new book credibly represent Willett’s twenty-three topics. As in the original, the first subject is “Royalty and Loyalty” and the last is “Domestic Incidents,” but in between Beddoe has sensibly combined some topics, creating such practical headings as “Scripture History & Religion” and “Combat Sports & Field Sports.”

The book is not fully a catalog nor is it a history textbook, but, appealing to the widest possible market, it combines a contextual discussion with extensively captioned illustrations. Inevitably there are compromises, perhaps the most irksome of these being the lack of information on marks. Admittedly Willett chose not to focus on this aspect of his objects, but as scholarship has evolved it has become standard to state whether attribution to a factory or artist is based on something tangible. That being said, the extended captions deliver all other necessary information, including estimated date, pottery type, dimensions, and description. Accompanying text is designed to expand our understanding of the historical or social importance of an object or group of objects, and here the author has admirably achieved her aim. But this is not just a collection of British history souvenirs, it is also a major ceramic collection, and anyone interested in pottery and porcelain can find a wealth of fascinating pieces, including rare and perhaps unique examples. The ceramics span three centuries—the earliest dating from the mid-seventeenth century, the latest from 1899—and while the collection comprises mainly English wares, pottery and porcelain from Europe and Asia are also present. Every kind of ceramic used in English homes is represented, from the relatively few pieces of slipware to large numbers of delftware, salt-glazed stoneware, creamware, and pearlware. Porcelain examples include soft and hard paste, and bone china and parian also occur. Wares typical of the Victorian period are represented by white earthenware, stone china, and smear-glazed stoneware, large numbers of which are illustrated and discussed. Whether you like printed or painted decoration, figures or vases, tableware or ornamental pieces, you can find examples in the Willett collection.

Two pieces caught my eye in the “England & America” section. The first is a circa 1781 William Greatbatch creamware teapot printed and enameled with a scene of British troops firing on retreating American militia; the other is a 1791 creamware plate with a black overglaze printed profile portrait of William Penn. In almost fifty years of looking at pots, I have never seen these prints before, and although it is likely they were made in some quantity, these are rare survivors.

Having a soft spot for figures, I found plenty to enjoy, especially in the wide range of examples depicting courtship in the “Domestic Incidents” chapter. I particularly liked the romance of embracing lovers in Derby porcelain, courting couples in salt-glaze stoneware and creamware, and the Victorian portraits of romantic bliss; the whole section is a brief encounter that is designed to amuse and inform.

Every time you open the book there is a new surprise: sometimes there are unexpected relationships between objects, occasionally we see reminders of historical events long since forgotten, and there is something to delight everyone. Stella Beddoe knows and loves this collection better than anyone since Willett. Her dedication to the collection shows in the strength of this volume, which should be on the shelf of anyone professing to love ceramics.

Pat Halfpenny

Ceramics in America 2016

  • [1]

    Victoria and Albert Museum, Catalogue of a Collection of Pottery and Porcelain Illustrating Popular British History (London: Wyman and Sons for H. M. Stationery Office, 1899), n.p., quotations from introduction.

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