Apr 10, 1910 - Jan 13, 2001

W. A. Ismay - Collector & Connoisseur of Studio Ceramics

York Museums Trust

“Pottery has become almost as much a part of my life as it is for dedicated potters.”
W. A. Ismay
W. A. Ismay (1910-2001)

‘Pots enter into our daily lives much more constantly and intimately than any other form of art, they are constantly fascinating to look at and handle and anyone who fails to eat and drink from personalised vessels of better quality and to have these always around, is depriving himself or herself of one of the great pleasures of life.

One’s social life can also pleasantly expand if one has known or knows personally most or all of the makers of the pots one collects, and also contrives to make the acquaintance of others who share one’s interests.’

As a youngster I started a widely based but fragmentary private natural history “museum”

Librarian and collector William Alfred Ismay MBE (1910-2001) lived in Wakefield, England his whole life. In 1955 he began to collect studio ceramics and by the time of his death he had amassed 3,600 pots, which covered all the available surfaces of his small terraced house. His collection includes works by some of the most important potters of the 20th century.

Bill (as he was known to his friends) shunned all modern creature comforts, preferring to spend every spare penny travelling across the United Kingdom to attend exhibitions and search out new pots for his collection. His collection and its supporting archive are now looked after by York Art Gallery.

Wellbeck Street

W.A. Ismay was born in Wakefield. His father, Alfred Ismay, a cloth presser and mother, Sarah Pilkington, an Elementary School teacher, married in 1907 at the West Parade Chapel in Wakefield. Ismay was an only child and when he was two years old, he and his family moved into a newly-built, small terraced house on Welbeck Street. 

Ismay always hated his forenames, having disliked all the shortened variations applied to him at school (Willie, Alfie etc). He tried to get people to call him Will but it was the name Bill that stuck.

Professionally, when writing or in anything relating to his collection, he signed himself as W.A. Ismay using his initials ‘like some of my favourite authors’, HG Wells for example (Ismay was a fan of science fiction novels).

Though Ismay’s ambition had been to be a university librarian, he went on to have a long and very successful career in public libraries.  He was part time librarian at Stanley, near Wakefield until the beginning of the Second World War.

During the war he served as a Signalman in the Royal Signal Corps, spending time in India and the Far East. Whilst he was stationed in India in 1943 Ismay’s father died aged 65, though it was six months before the news reached him as he was on a troop ship at the time.

After demobilization he returned to Welbeck Street to live with his mother.

Ismay struggled to find work at first but eventually he gained employment at the West Riding County Library Service headquarters in Wakefield.

In 1951 he was promoted to Branch Librarian at Featherstone and in 1955 he moved to Hemsworth Library, remaining there until his retirement in 1975 following the major reorganisation of Local Government in 1974.

Retirement brought with it a lump sum pay-off and the free time to spend it. Ismay devoted both to his collection. In the year following retirement, Ismay bought more pots than any previous year and his total of 177 new pots in 1975 would not be equalled or surpassed during the following 25 years.

Ismay expressed his own amazement at his collecting activity in 1975 to fellow collector’s Alan and Pat Firth.

'I found I’d bought around 170 pots last year, which is a record and quite ridiculous! Having scrutinised my bank balance and the future modest rate of replenishment I realise I must retrench - but I seem automatically to acquire around the basic ‘pot a week’ and have notched up nine for 1976 so far’.

Ismay's 177 new pots bought in 1975 include the work of 73 potters. 

They included potters that he had been unable to acquire previously, for example Elizabeth Fritsch, John Ward and Mary White.

There was no tradition in Ismay’s family of collecting or even of using anything other than mass-produced factory wares which he described as ‘uniformly dreadful’. 

On the surface, his decision to collect handmade pottery appears to be a pragmatic one as he discovered that ‘relatively low prices made it possible for a person of modest means to make a varied collection’. However, there was also a more personal reason for being drawn to handmade pots, as he remembered buying flower vases as gifts for his mother when he was a child. 

Also, as a young soldier, he admired the inexpensive handmade wares used by Chinese people in their everyday lives and was fascinated by the skills of village potters in India, poetically describing their simply made water coolers as ‘beautifully thrown, majestically shaped objects’.

‘I discovered that present-day ceramics was a field in which relatively low prices made it possible for a person of modest means to make a varied collection.’

An erudite librarian, Ismay was also well placed to develop his knowledge of pottery through reading and at a time when publications on contemporary pottery were scarce, he cited three books as particularly influential:

Ronald Cooper’s The Modern Potter (1947), George Wingfield Digby’s The work of the Modern Potter in England (1952) and Artist Potters in England by Muriel Rose (1955).

Ismay’s love affair with pots began in Yorkshire. His intention was to form a small collection of handmade pottery by living potters from the county. 

The first pots he bought were made by Barbara Cass (1921-1992). Cass was originally from Germany and worked from her studio on The Shambles at the heart of historic York during the 1950s. Ismay first came across her work when she exhibited at Wakefield City Art Gallery and this may have been the catalyst that started his interest in British studio ceramics.

Certainly Cass’s name is first in his numerical list of his collection.

Ismay only stuck to his Yorkshire collecting policy for his first year of acquiring pots. He purchased the work of three Yorkshire potters during 1955. The Cass’s were joined by 7 pieces by Joan Hotchin (a pupil of David Leach), who had her studio in Pudsey, and 2 pieces by Irwin Hoyland who taught ceramics in Sheffield.

Ismay also took a series of photographs of Cass’s and Hotchin’s studios, showing them at work. Photography was another passion which helped him to record potters, their work, environments and ultimately, the experience of collecting.

Ismay's total of 18 pots bought in his first year collecting, was dwarfed during the following year when he abandoned any geographical restrictions and acquired 65 pots by 16 makers from across the UK. 

From 1956 onwards, he bought the work of British potters and, in smaller quantities, work by international potters exhibiting in the UK. 

However, he retained his core interest in those from the North of England.

‘As a collector I am not (even in a small way) a “patron of the arts” (potters are not people to be patronised) but primarily a man who is pleasing himself and enriching his own life.’

Curator Barley Roscoe remembers Bill

When Ismay found a potter whose work interested him, he would continue to buy from them, building up significant holdings that allow an overview of a potters development in style and skill. 

Ismay’s loyalty was just one aspect of his support that many potters valued. He would go to tremendous lengths to be the first to arrive at an exhibition, cycling for hours or putting his encyclopaedic knowledge of the train timetables to good use to ensure he had the first choice of pots to buy.

‘Working to a limited budget without ever having been affluent, and achieving any minor extravagance simply by going without other things, is not without its rewards as well as its limitations: collecting should not be too easy.’

From the start, Ismay bought significant pots by pioneer potters, referring to these early pieces as the ‘foundation stones’ of his collection.

By 1959 Ismay’s reputation as a collector was growing as rapidly as his collection and he was invited to open an exhibition titled ‘The Art of the Potter’ at Wakefield City Art Gallery. In his 9-page long speech, his views echo those of socialist thinkers like William Morris. Ismay spoke passionately about the importance of the hands of one person making a pot from start to finish.

Ismay also urged his audience to visit York Art Gallery which had recently opened a display of Eric Milner-White’s collection of early studio ceramics. Milner-White was Dean of York Minster and one of the first collectors to be interested in studio ceramics. Ismay had great respect for Milner-White and his collection saying:

‘I would strongly urge anyone who has any special feeling for pottery not to let the short distance between here and York stand between him or her and a great aesthetic experience’.

Ismay’s collection continued to grow, engulfing all the spare surfaces in his little terraced house. He carefully squeezed them into his displays, updated his catalogue and added to the archive of ephemera relating to the collection. He was curator of his own personal museum, yet was very happy to share it with visitors who could demonstrate a serious interest in pots. His pots became his family and he showed them off like a proud parent.

Potter Jane Hamlyn discusses Bill's legacy

‘I have several times expressed the feeling that there would be something wrong with a new acquisition if, fairly soon, everything else did not as it were move round a little to make room for the newcomer.’

Visiting Ismay’s pot-packed home remains an unforgettable memory for many. Curators working with important collections were amazed by the scale and breadth of Ismay’s holdings. Experienced potters and students who had only seen examples of their heroes’ work in books were thrilled to have the opportunity to not only handle the real things, but to use them.

Maureen Bampton (Director of the Bluecoat Display Centre, Liverpool, from 1986) describes this as Ismay’s Yorkshire Tea Ceremony. It was the highlight of many a visit and was the opportunity to choose a pot from Ismay's collection to drink from. 

Some people would find a favourite piece and choose it each time, as potter Alex McErlain did with a breakfast cup and saucer by Harry Davis of Crowan Pottery. Others relished trying out a different pot each time like potter Jim Malone who worked his way through tea bowls by Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach.

Potter Alex McErlain mulls over Bill's influence on the movement

The nerve-wracking aspect of a visit, apart from the fear of breaking something, was Ismay testing your knowledge of pottery. 

Curator and writer David Whiting said: ‘Ismay’s great hospitality, usually punctuated by a visit to his local pub for lunch, was slightly offset by terror once you realized that he was going to test you. “Who do you think made this?” he would say handing you an obscure piece whose provenance would quite escape you. As your brain searched feverishly and hopelessly, his gaze got keener.

'But if you were attentive, you could almost see the name being formed on his lips. However it was far more likely that you would nervously splutter the wrong answer and he would correct you a bright glint in his eye and that low purring chuckle.’

‘My attempt to keep to “one a week” didn’t succeed, and in fact I’ve been tempted to the point of being presently in the red’

When Ismay began to acquire pots in 1955, he concealed the rate at which he was collecting from his mother, putting his pots on display in the library or keeping them out of sight in his bedroom at home. It was not until after his mother died in 1956 that he gradually began to lay claim to the whole of what was now legally his house, by creating displays with his collection. In a draft letter to potter Barbara Cass in 1957, Ismay describes the moment following his mother’s death, when he is finally able to display his collection properly in his home for the first time.

‘A “short list” of favourite pots is impossible- it would be rather a long one. One’s favourites are not necessarily showy or spectacular but may be modest.’

Ismay had a secret method of classifying his collection according to the quantity of items purchased. He felt a potter proved to be good if he had collected their work into double figures and that they only achieved true greatness if the number of works in his collection exceeded thirty.

The resulting list of top potters is, of course, not a true reflection of choice by Ismay, as he was restricted by cost and access to work. The following nineteen pots are by the potters who had 30 or more pots in Ismay’s collection.

1st. Jim Malone (80 pots in the collection)
2nd. Eric James Mellon (68 pots in the collection)
3rd. Richard Batterham (64 pots)
4th. Harry & May Davis (63 pots)
5th. Michael Casson (62 pots)
6th. Michael Cardew (57 pots)
7th. Rosemary Wren (54 pots)
8th. Denise Wren (53 pots)
9th. Barbara Cass (52 pots)
10th. Jane Hamlyn (41 pots)
11th. Seth Cardew (40 pots)
11th. Geoffrey Whiting (40 pots)
12th. David Llyoyd Jones (39 pots)

‘The more I find out about pottery the more I see there is still to learn!’

W.A. Ismay

13th. David Leach (36 pots)
14th. Bernard Leach (34 pots)
15th. Mal Magson (32 pots)
16th. Ray Finch (31 pots)
16th. Walter Keeler (31 pots)
17th. Hans Coper (30 pots)

There are more than 500 potters represented in the W.A. Ismay Collection. 

Their pots include a wide range of styles and production methods, demonstrating the variety of work being produced in the UK during the second half of the 20th century.

The W.A. Ismay Collection offers a fabulous guide to British studio ceramics. It contains substantial holdings of work by many important makers over a number of years, showing development of style and skill. It also gives context to the development of the studio ceramics movement in the UK, by including the work of students and lesser-known potters alongside the greats. 

What makes the collection extraordinary is the supporting archive that Ismay built up alongside it. Containing in excess of 10,000 items, the archives tell the stories of the pots, from details about their creation, to how they entered Ismay’s collection.

‘If the work pleases me, I am prepared to be interested in pots made and fired by any means.’

The archives reveal insights on how Ismay's collection developed and how important friendships with potters were to him.

Ismay first met potter Michael Cardew in 1958 at the Berkeley Galleries, London, where Cardew was having an exhibition. From 1959 Ismay began visiting Cardew at his Wenford Bridge pottery in Cornwall, often by train but also occasionally making the long journey from Yorkshire by bicycle. They struck up a correspondence and a friendship that would last until Cardew’s death in 1983.

Ismay and Cardew exchanged many letters over the years which provide details of some of the objects in the collection, for example descriptions and opinions, occasionally drawings.

Cardew would sometimes send Ismay extra items as gifts. 

In one crate in 1961, Ismay was surprised by two gifts from Cardew; ‘The little tiny pepper pot was a left over “Runt” from 1959 which I found and put in as I thought it might amuse you. The grey sugar caster by Tanko Ashada was put in to fill up the box.’

Ismay became friends with potter Lucie Rie and purchased 27 of her pots altogether. 

These two pots reveal how much Ismay knew about the practicalities of making pots, especially the glazing and firing of them. He purchased the blue jar first and Lucie Rie lowered the price as she felt it was overfired and bloated.

Rie then made the pink pot which she felt was much more successful. She offered to exchange it for the blue one. Ismay refused saying he realised when he bought it that something had gone wrong in the kiln, but found the pot beautiful anyway. He liked the idea of having two pots from the ‘same family’ that illustrate the vagaries of firing, and purchased the pink one too.

Bernard Leach made this coffee set for Lucie Rie as a gift, but she turned it down, feeling it was far too fine and generous a gift. Letters and notes in the archive reveal that Ismay purchased this coffee set when he was on the way to meet Lucie Rie at her studio for the first time. When Rie discovered Ismay had bought it, she was reassured that he was a serious collector and a man of good taste.

On discovering the background to the coffee set, Ismay valued it even more highly and viewed it as one of his most important purchases.

The recollections of people who knew Ismay are also important and revelatory. This small bowl by Bernard Leach is a good example. It is not the most skilfully made bowl- it is a bit lopsided, the footring is not turned very well and the glaze is poorly applied. However potter Jim Malone reveals that Ismay told him it is that last pot that Bernard Leach made when he had almost completely lost his sight. Insights like this can completely alter the way you perceive a pot.

Potter Jim Malone talks about the life-long support artists received from Bill

Having a piece of work in Ismay’s collection was something many potters aspired to and were proud of. 

A letter from gallery owner and collector Henry Rothschild to Ismay sums this up. It regards an exhibition of pottery by Dan Arbeid at Rothschild’s Primavera gallery in 1963, ‘I am sorry you are unable to come to the exhibition. I know how very disappointed Dan Arbeid will be, as he specially hoped you would come, and we talked about you only yesterday. I believe he values being in your Collection more than any other’.

Since WA Ismay died in 2001, his collection has been carefully cleaned and catalogued. Pieces from it have been put on display in a variety of exhibition in York and there have also been loans to other museums and galleries in the UK and as far a field as Japan. 

A number of external experts, guest curators, artists and other creative practitioners have worked with the collection, exploring new ways of interpreting, displaying and responding to Ismay and his pots.

In 2008, author Tracy Chevalier was York Art Gallery’s Writer in Residence. During the project she chose this pot by Magdalene Odundo (pictured right) to write a short story about-

The Jar

by Tracy Chevalier

I did not feel the water until a drop trickled down my neck. When I reached up and touched the jar it was slick and wet, the cloth on my head sodden.

It could not be me. I had the smoothest gait in the village, and never spilled. I didn’t even need to stopper the jar’s mouth, which was shaped like an antelope’s ear. It was my favourite jar, round as a gourd and glazed charcoal and terracotta, like a thunderstorm in the desert. I used it to carry water from the well every day.

I ran my fingers over the smooth surface until they snagged on a crack. They followed the fault line as it circled the jar all the way round to rejoin itself. Along the way they found other cracks, tributaries branching out from the main break. Water seeped from every line and formed rivers that ran down the jar and onto me, down my brow, my ears, my neck. They joined the rivers I had made myself down my cheeks, fresh water mingling with salty tears. The jar and I were woven together by water, a leaking woman walking home with a leaking jar on her head.

By the time I reached the village the jar was almost empty. I was afraid to take it down from my head, for it might shatter and I would never again see the gourd, the desert storm, the antelope’s ear. But I could not live my life with a cracked pot on my head. Holding my breath, I put my hands on either side and swung it down in one fluid motion.

The jar did not break. It could not hold water, but it was still whole.

I filled the jar with grain.

In 2013, York Art Gallery collaborated with The Hepworth Wakefield (situated less than half a mile from where Ismay lived), developing an exhibition of the WA Ismay Collection.  

The Hepworth Wakefield invited the contemporary artist Matthew Darbyshire, to reinterpret the collection for a new audience.

Darbyshire used the footprint of Ismay's house, placing in within a very modern gallery space, removing walls and populating it with 700 pots and pieces of furniture. The resulting exhibition, titled 'Matthew Darbyshire & the WA Ismay Collection' celebrated Ismay and his collection.

Matthew Darbyshire arranging the W. A. Ismay collection at the Hepworth Wakefield.

Ismay was awarded the MBE in 1981 for services to studio pottery, showing how influential he was as a collector and how importance of his collection. 

His determination to keep his collection together and in Yorkshire, he has helped reposition York Art Gallery as home to an internationally important collection of British studio ceramics. More collectors have followed in his footsteps, donating pieces to York Art Gallery and so the collection continues to grow.

This rapid growth has enabled York Art Gallery to begin a major £8 million capital redevelopment. One of the key outcomes of the project is the creation of a Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) within the gallery to promote the ceramics collections, with new gallery spaces and a new online digital resource. York Art Gallery is currently closed and will reopen, transformed, in Spring 2015.

Credits: Story

Curator — Helen Walsh
Collections photography  — Mike Linstead, Graham Thorne
Collections data — Martin Fell
Film — Jonny Walton

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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