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Pottery Has a Break! Willett Collection on Display at the V&A

Published by: Lucy Faithful
Napoleon as figure of derision, his ceramic half figure is within a chamber pot
Napoleon as figure of derision, da322140

The Willett Collection of Popular Pottery at Brighton Museum has shrunk temporarily as 154 of the pieces are currently on show in Henry Willett’s Collection of Popular Pottery at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (2 November 2023 – 29 September 2024).

The objects include Staffordshire figures, earthenware busts, plaques, plates, jugs, mugs and teapots, ranging from the 7th to the 19th century. Subjects include a potato, Westminster Abbey, a fuddling (drinking) cup, a bust of Princess Charlotte (daughter of George IV) and Napoleon as a small figure inside a chamber pot but also as a heroic bust.

Napoleon as figure of derision, his ceramic half figure is within a chamber pot
Napoleon as figure of derision, da322140
Potato-shaped drinking flask
Potato-shaped drinking flask, da329513
Popular pottery on display at the V&A (Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Popular pottery on display at the V&A (Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)

A rare opportunity

Over 50 of the pieces have been in storage so this is a rare opportunity for them to be seen. Curated by Simon Spier (Curator, Ceramics & Glass) at the V&A, the display celebrates one of Brighton Museum’s founding fathers, Henry Willett (1823-1905).

A local wealthy businessman, he was also an enlightened collector of pottery that reflected the political, social and cultural history of the British people – what we refer to now as material culture. Willett believed that ’The history of a country may be traced on its homely pottery’. It showed people’s political or religious views, their hobbies, popular plays and books, campaigns and causes, as well as famed or notorious figures of the day.

Popular pottery on display at the V&A (Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Popular pottery on display at the V&A (Credit: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Photograph of Henry Willett taken in 1903. Probably taken in the garden of Henry Willett's home, Arnold House, in Upper North Street, Brighton
Photograph of Henry Willett taken in 1903. Probably taken in the garden of Henry Willett's home, Arnold House, in Upper North Street, Brighton, ha903072
Condition checked and photographed, ready for packing
Condition checked and photographed, ready for packing

Greater human interest

In 1903 Willett donated over 2000 pottery pieces to Brighton Museum, alongside fine art, archaeology, local history and natural history items.

Henry Willett sorted his collection into themes, e.g. Crime; Drama, Amusements & Pastimes and Military Heroes. to bring out the ‘greater human interest which each object presents’. For the new display, Simon has introduced new categories, such as Celebrity, Revolutions & Rebellions, the Scandalous and Technology & Entertainment, highlighting new themes and perspectives that hold relevance for contemporary audiences.

Condition checked and photographed, ready for packing
Condition checked and photographed, ready for packing
Our conservator photographed all angles of this plaque for the condition report. Image of a camera on a tripod positioned to photograph a tile
Our conservator photographed all angles of this plaque for the condition report
Lines of boxes and wrapping ready for the packing
Lines of boxes and wrapping ready for the packing

Preparations for the loan to the V&A took many months, 154 objects had to be documented, condition-checked, photographed and packed. It is great to see Mr Willett’s pottery pieces celebrated, and in a different context, at the V&A, it is a wonderful display.

For details of the display, see Henry Willett’s Collection of Popular Pottery on the V&A’s website.

With acknowledgements

Stella Beddoe, former Keeper of Decorative Art, and Simon Spier.

 

Lines of boxes and wrapping ready for the packing
Lines of boxes and wrapping ready for the packing