The Remarkable Collection of Bill Ismay


Last Autumn, the York Museum opened the Yorkshire Tea Ceremony exhibition, showcasing the collection of the late Bill Ismay. An avid studio pottery enthusiast, Ismay built a staggering collection of over three thousand pieces over the course of three decades, all carefully curated in his small terraced house. Due to limited access protocols, I was unable to view the archive but was still keen to see the curated exhibition.

Despite not being a potter himself, Ismay’s eye for ceramics was extremely well-respected. It was considered a great honour to be featured in the collection, that boasted works from the likes of Bernard Leech, Jim Malone and Lucy Rie. He spent many years considering where the collection should be housed in the event of his death, finally deciding on the York Museum, with the desire that his life’s work be enjoyed by the region in which he spent the majority of his life.

Jim Malone Teapot and Cups

Jim Malone, Teapot & Six Yunomi; Malone was the most represented potter in Ismay’s vast collection.

The current exhibition is a small fraction of the collection, featuring around three hundred pots. It is housed upstairs in the museum, the main part of the work residing in the well-lit main hall. Cabinets are dedicated to individual artists and specific forms as well as Ismay’s articles and personal correspondence. The adjoining room is darker than the first. A cabinet spanning the entire back wall is spotlit from within, leaving many of the pots in shadow. The pieces are crowded on the shelves with no identifying details attached. I viewed the collection with a growing sense of discomfort and disconnection which I could not place at first. After making my way around the displays several times, I realised my unease was with the glass barriers encasing the pieces. I am used to considering pots with my hands, almost disconnected from my eyes. For a potter, the hands are as important, if not more so, than the eye. We turn a piece over, we consider its surface and the interplay between form and texture. The finish of a piece goes further than the surface and it was disorientating having to consider the pots on display only by looking at them. Whilst it is understandable that museums feel the need to keep fragile pottery behind glass, other (potentially more valuable) art forms are displayed with less protection. The tactile, three dimensional nature of sculptures is acknowledged in their display.

Screenshot 2022 10 12 at 16.25 scaled The Remarkable Collection of Bill Ismay

In his seminal The Story of Art, E. H. Gombrich writes “If…. we mean by art some kind of beautiful luxury, something to enjoy in museums and exhibitions… we must realise that this use of the word is a very recent development. In the past the attitude to paintings and statues was [that]… they were not thought of as mere works of art but as objects which had a definite function. (W)e are not likely to understand the art of the past if we are quite ignorant of the aims it had to serve.” He goes on to talk not only about the forms utilised in art, but also the function which lay behind such forms. All art, whether that be painting, architecture or sculpture, has a purpose even if that purpose is conceptual. Even more than these art forms, usefulness is a defining characteristic of ceramics, and studio pottery in particular. Irrespective of whether it will ever ultimately be put to purpose, we formulate our response to a pot using the language of function, and I would argue that to view the work of those who have devoted their lives to elevating base materials into domestic pots, largely in settings of honest rural labour, in such a setting as glass fronted museum cabinets is to strip them of some of that purpose of functionality of which Gombrich speaks, and to disconnect the audience from the aims and ideals which that object was made to serve.

As Potters we have great passion for our craft and for making pots which inform and enhance, which show respect to that which has come before whilst also forging ahead the path. The main purpose of my visit to the York Museum was to gain insight and inspiration into the work of the potters who came before me, many of whom are no longer with us to learn from in person. With the deaths recently of such greats as Phil Rogers, Richard Batterham and Geoffrey Fuller, the links to the previous generations are fading. Their pots and their words are all we have left. Anne Mette Hjortshoj and Mike Dodd, among others, have repeatedly written about the value of the inspiration and knowledge they were given by those who taught them their craft. Potters such as these, at the top of their game, would not be where they are today without these vital teachers. It is not only the individual who benefits from the tutelage of skilled craftspeople but also their audience and the craft as a whole. Without the passing on of defining ideals and practical skill, not only is knowledge lost but great artistic talent remains untapped and the craft itself stagnates.

A selection of yunomi by Phil Rogers

A selection of yunomi by Phil Rogers

A Potter’s life can, at times, be frightening and isolated, with escalating costs and heightened insecurity for all, but especially the young. In my own case I have found the development and sustaining of a life dedicated to pottery has relied fundamentally on an ever increasing passion for the pots themselves, as well as the burning desire to continue making and learning until the pots I make are good enough in and of themselves. Whilst my aim is always to design and make pots which are pleasing to use, and which serve their purpose well, I believe in the intrinsic value of the best pottery; that a piece stands complete whether in use or not. It is this journey towards the skill and lifestyle needed to produce the best pots which is my determination, and my passion for pottery at its highest level which drives me forward. It is also that passion which forces me to clearly see the obstacles which currently stand in the way of the emerging potter, especially those working within a traditional setting, and to worry that if something isn’t done then pottery as an art form will suffer, and the continual development which has happened since the early days of the studio pottery movement will falter.

Do visit the collection when you get the chance. The work Ismay put into building the collection is astonishing and the display within the setting of the Museum is to be lauded. As time goes on, and collections such as this become more significant within the setting of craft, it is vital we continually discuss how these collections best suit the needs of both the audience and the makers striving to carry on the legacy of those who are represented. Perhaps more could be done to provide such makers with the opportunity and tools to fully access the work left to us by those who came before, and to fulfil Ismay’s desire that others learn from the pots he held with such regard and affection.

Joshua Williams, potter