research and learning

A Potted History, Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain

A Potted History, Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain
Beddoe, Stella

Assembled between 1860 and 1900, the Willett Collection of Pottery and Porcelain is unique in being the only collection in public ownership (Brighton & Hove Museums, UK) to illustrate what Henry Willett called ‘popular British history’, through the medium of ceramics. It is of enormous importance for its innovative approach to collecting, for the outstanding quality of many of its individual pieces and for the fact that it is intact over 100 years after it was formed.

Willett was a renowned collector in his own lifetime. He was a close collaborator with Sir Augustus Franks of the British Museum and is also mentioned in the diaries of Lady Charlotte Schreiber, whose collections form the basis of the English ceramic holdings at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Willett’s collection is comparable with either of these, with the Glaisher Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge or the Burnap Collection in Kansas, USA.

Some 2000 items include vessels, dishes, tiles, ornamental busts and figures, dating from the late16th to the late 19th century. They represent a complete range of English ceramic bodies and manufacturing technology as well as a wide variety of decorative techniques. The collection includes one of the largest groups of printed wares in the UK, including hollow-ware, plates and tiles.  Despite the fact that he was not primarily concerned with documentary pieces, the collection includes many important, rare and unique examples from named factories and well-known decorators and engravers.

The book respects Willett’s original intentions, grouping his pieces under historical themes representing aspects of British history. Some, such as ‘Royalty and Loyalty’, ‘Naval Heroes’, ‘England & America’ and ‘Statesmen’ (Politicians) are traditionally commemorative, celebrating historic events and personalities. Others have strong social and cultural history interest, such as ‘Music’, ‘Drama’ and ‘Pastimes and Amusements’ as well as ‘Trades and Professions’ and ‘Clubs and Societies’. ‘Crime’ documents some salacious court cases, while ‘Domestic Incidents’ accounts for rites of passage in family life.

The book, containing over 700 illustrations, includes comprehensive footnotes and bibliography. I have endeavoured, however, to give more than a thumbnail sketch of the events and personalities featured, especially where they are commemorated by more than one object. I have also tried to account for why these particular events and celebrities caught the public imagination, to the extent that the potters considered it worth producing a sizeable souvenir edition, reflecting Willett’s original intentions. I have drawn extensively on contemporary press comment and diaries for evidence of interest among ordinary people.

Available for purchase on Amazon US, or Amazon UK