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A Potted History: Henry Willett's Ceramic Chronicle of Britain

  • 20 November 2015

In the Autumn of 2013 a Publication Grant (Publisher) was awarded to Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton, towards the cost of publishing A Piece of the Action - Henry Willett's Ceramic History of Britain by Stella Beddoe. The author, who is Keeper Emeritus of Decorative Art at the Royal Pavilion & Museums, has been working on the subject for thirty years and was instrumental in creating the gallery containing Willett’s collection at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The book has just been published by the Antique Collectors Club with a revised title: A Potted History: Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain.  Members of staff at the Paul Mellon Centre were recently invited to attend a lecture by Stella about her book, which was given at the Museum on 16th November.  Emma Floyd and Frankie Drummond Charig from the Research Collections made the journey to Brighton and heard Stella give an engaging and beautifully illustrated introduction to Henry Willetts and his collections.

Book cover

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

Willetts (1823-1905). the youngest son of a Sussex farmer and miller, moved to Brighton in 1841 and made a fortune buying property and investing in various local and international businesses. Stella discussed how he was influenced by various men of letters and other collectors including Gideon Mantell, Lady Charlotte Schreiber, Sir Augustus W Franks, Thomas Carlyle and Horace Walpole. His collecting interests were very wide and included fossils, Sussex folk life, instruments of correction, natural history, and old master paintings. Some pictures from the latter collection were very fine and were eventually sold to major museums. He also became interested in collecting pottery that illustrated aspects of British life and history and this collection forms the subject of the book. The subject matter illustrated on the pottery is very diverse: depictions of trades, professions, pastimes, childhood, drinking and teetotalism are all in the collection. Stella highlighted certain objects and explained the background to their imagery: these included a work that illustrated the abduction of Elizabeth Canning in 1753 and a model depicting the killing of Hugh Munro by a tiger in India in 1792. Willett acquired some rare items; many others were pieces he bought cheaply from junk shops. The collection was donated to Brighton in 1903 and is now in display in a dedicated gallery in the Museum. For more information on this collection see here.

The Centre was thanked for its generous grant after the talk and there followed a reception in the Willett collection gallery where there was an opportunity to see the works themselves and to talk to Museum staff and the author herself. A copy of the book was presented to the Centre’s library. It was marvellous to see how much impact our funding has had on projects such as this and the book itself is a fantastic testament to the hard work of Stella Beddoe over many years.

A woman holding a book in front of shelves of artefacts

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