The Willett Collection of Popular Pottery collection is one of the key collections of the Brighton Museum donated by the founder of the museum in 1903. It can be found in the first room to the right of the Brighton Museum as you go in.
Why? Because I couldn’t stand the look of the pottery with the figurines with beaky faces and bulging eyes. The room looks busy and all the items seem to clash and collide in front of me.
It seemed wrong to feel this way about a room which clearly has a lot of importance to the museum, so I thought I’d fight my natural revulsion and find out why it is so important.
I met Cecilia Kendall, the curator in charge of the pottery and she talked me through the collection to see if I could be cured of my antipathy.
The pieces were collected by Willett over many years who would buy them from auctions and individuals. Sounds like the people who inhabit day-time telly on shows such as Bargain Hunter or Cash in the Attic.
The pieces he collected were not the most expensive porcelain which, in those days was made in China. Willett collected earthenware pottery usually made in Britain which was bought by the middle-classes to decorate their homes. It was the start of ‘conspicous consumption’ and the pieces represent a showing off of their homes.
What makes the items so interesting is that they reflect the fascinations, obsessions and socio-political history of those people in a way which is very revealing.
It’s a little like we wear t-shirts with slogans or buy souvenir mugs or key-rings to commemorate events, celebrities we like or political issues we care about. Imagine someone has collected all the Keep Calm and Carry On/drink tea/love Justin Bieber/have a cupcake merchandise which is everywhere at the moment. While you may cringe, they would give a snapshot of life in the 20th century in our country. The Willett’s collection viewed in this way does actually give lots of insight into our ancestor’s lives.
Willetts insisted on the collection being displayed in certain themes and so it comes under headings such as Military Heroes, England and France and Crime.
The religion section shows this funny item of a vicar fast asleep while his clerk reads the sermon, which shows a surprising disregard for the religious profession who took much of the nation’s money in taxes called tithes and were notorious for over-indulging in food and drink.
Another which captured me was this mug with a frog and a newt inside to catch out unsuspecting guests.
Cecilia and I had a good chat about why I find it so unappealing and we wondered if it is our culture’s current obsession with minimalism and clear lines. It was significant that the only thing I could imagine displaying in my house was a simple sculpture of a horse – all in white.
Many people these days wouldn’t dream of having ‘ornaments’ in their home preferring to have white walls and little on display. But we do bare our allegiances with the books, magazines and CDs we may display. Now that these are becoming obsolete as everything becomes digital, our passions, interests and tribal bonding become public as Likes on Facebook and our views on Twitter.
This collection highlights how people need to show to their friends and family what they care about or feel about in a visual way. A little like the old TV show Through the Keyhole, these items provide a clue to the personality and interests of the owner and for us, looking back through history, an understanding of what ordinary people really valued.
My trip to the Willetts Pottery collection was fascinating as my horror at the jumble of old-fashioned trinkets has reached a deeper understanding. Once again, my investigations into the world of museum collections has taught me that they are not places to race through on the way to the cafe. Instead, stopping, reading and simply looking at one thing will probably bring more pleasure and insight than trying to see everything in one go.