Henry Willett, a founding father of Brighton Museum, was a man of great energy, enthusiasm and wide-ranging interests. He was born in Newhaven, the youngest of eleven children and moved to Brighton in 1841. He ran the West Street Brewery (a family business) and bought property throughout Sussex. He was an astute businessman and in his will left an estate worth £230,000.
Willett’s first collecting passion was for chalk fossils, which he excavated from the Sussex Downs. He also collected natural history specimens, archaeology, local products such as iron fire-backs and Sussex pottery as well as artefacts from other cultures. Most of the important paintings he collected were later sold to international collections.
His most innovative collection was that of pottery and porcelain illustrating British popular history. Henry Willett collected ceramics in order to tell the history of the British people. There are some 2000 pieces in his collection, most of them dating from 1600-1900. He catalogued them under 23 themes which cover all aspects of British history; royal and political, military and economic, social and cultural.
An early version of the collection was lent to Brighton’s new Museum in 1873. The collection was then enlarged and developed until Henry Willett presented it as a gift to Brighton in 1903. Willett was convinced that ceramic figures and vessels could tell stories from political, social and cultural history through the images with which they were decorated. The present display respects his intention that the pieces be grouped under the twenty-three subject headings listed in his catalogue of 1899.
Willett’s thesis was that “the history of a country may be traced on its homely pottery” and he proceeded to assemble what could be found “..on the mantelpieces of English cottage homes, representations of what its inmates or their forefathers admired, reverenced, trusted in a kind of unconscious survival of the Lares and Penates [household gods] of the ancients.”
Willett Collection Themes
This is a large, blue-dash charger with a portrait of Charles I in heroic mode, dressed in full armour, c1660. One of earliest pieces in collection, it shows a key moment in British constitutional history as royalists regrouped after the Civil War and the shock of losing their King. It is made out of Delftware, probably in London.
Bonnie Prince Charlie teapot, c1750. Decorated with a portrait of Charles Edward Stuart in Highland dress. The finest example of white saltglaze in collection. Made in Staffordshire.
Press Gang, Army Recruitment mug, c1795. This satirical print shows the unscrupulous way the army sent out scouts to coerce people to join up. This would have appealed to cynics suspicious of the Establishment. Creamware, possibly made in Staffordshire.
Napoleon’s Proposed Invasion of England mug, c1805. Colourful cartoon of Napoleon, identifying him as a pirate, with moulded frog inside as joke for unsuspecting pub drinkers! The mug demonstrates the very real threat posed by Napoleon towards Britain and reinforces his image as a force for evil. Creamware, made in Staffordshire.
George Washington Bust, c1820. Portrait commemorating him as a hero of Ancient Rome. Black basalt ware, made by Wedgwood.
Clubs and Societies
James Morris jug, ‘Masons and Mayday’, c1796. Decorated with coloured prints inscribed “To James Morris Master Builder, Lewes, Sussex” with scenes of Mayday merrymaking and Masonic mottoes. Quite badly damaged, with broken spout, it shows how Willett chose pieces for their design and story, rather than aesthetic qualities. Creamware, made by Wedgwood.
Rare Abolition of Slavery figure c1835. Represents a kneeling black man with broken chains and book impressed “Bless God/Thank Britton/Me No Slave”. Commemorative souvenir of an important, successful campaign for social reform and liberation. Earthenware, made in Staffordshire.
Dick Turpin and Tom King – Highway Robbery figures, c1840. Pair of moulded, Staffordshire figures on horseback brandishing guns, for display on mantelpieces, made nearly a century after their deaths when they assumed almost legendary status. Enamelled earthenware.
Professions and Trades
Potters (trio), c1880. Unusual three-dimensional sculpture, the elements separately modelled, showing the three-stage process of potting with a ‘wheelboy’, a ‘benchboy’ and a ‘thrower’. Stoneware, made by Martin Brothers, Southall.
Proposed London Bridge/Engineering mug, c1815. Showing coloured print of view of proposed single-span, cast-iron bridge over the River Thames. Made for sale in London. Creamware, made in Sunderland.
Pope/Devil stirrup cup, c1790. Moulded as a reversible head inscribed “While Pope absolves/the devil smiles” demonstrating anti-Catholic feelings. Enamelled pearlware, made in Staffordshire.
Figure of a Street Musician, c1825. Well-known London street performer Billy Waters, a black fiddler with wooden leg. Coloured earthenware, made in Staffordshire.
Poetry, Science and Literature
Shakespeare mug, c1820. Frieze of heads representing the Seven Ages of Man with figure of playwright derived from his monument in Westminster Abbey. Crudely printed in black, it is stained and damaged through use. Earthenware, made in Staffordshire or Wales.
Lieutenant Munro killed by a Tiger Sculpture Group, c1810. Blood-curdling sculpted group of true, dramatic incident of a young English man mauled by a tiger in 1792. Enamelled pearlware, made in Staffordshire.
Pastimes and Amusements
Menagerie, c1830. Very large and complex table-based mock-up of a fairground booth housing animal show, representing Stephani Polito’s menagerie which travelled the country in caravans. Possibly used as advertising. Enamelled and lustred pearlware.
Toby Fillpot Jug. Large, neo-classical style jug and cover, moulded with ornamental figures in white on blue ground, including Toby Fill-pot – a fictional character who symbolised the jovial drinker. Possibly used for ceremonial purposes. Felspathic stoneware, possibly made in Liverpool or Staffordshire.
Spill holder, c1820. Shows a husband and wife wrestling over “Who is to wear the breeches” – a subject of many humorous prints which observed changes in behaviour before and after marriage. Enamelled pearlware, made in Staffordshire.