Wow! A book person obsessed with functional studio pottery! We are talking about W.A. Ismay (1910-2001) the noted Yorkshire collector of post-war British studio pottery. Eccentric perhaps. Deeply knowledgeable. Passionate, passionate, passionate about pots.
Helen Walsh brings Ismay to life in her vivid biography, The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony: W.A. Ismay and his Collection of British Studio Pottery. Though the book began as her doctoral dissertation, it succeeds as a lively read as well as scholarship. I like that Walsh actually tells us what was going on in Ismay’s life as well has the story of his extraordinary collection.
Ismay brought his librarian’s training and sensibilities to his collections and thus kept careful records of his acquisitions. Alas, his handwriting is notoriously difficult to read and Walsh tells us it was a challenge. He typed some records but he could only type with one finger as he had poor eyesight and needed to hold a magnifying glass in his other hand. In addition to written records, he learned photography and photographed the pots and sometimes the potters.
Over a collecting life of 46 years, Ismay gathered 3,600 pots from more than 500 potters. He filled his house with these pieces. More importantly, he used them every day.
He often visited potters in their workshops. Michael Cardew became a friend and correspondent. He visited Lucie Rie. Potters and other collectors angled to visit him and see his collection. Notoriously, he covered with pottery except for a band at the end which he kept clear for eating and writing. Here he served visitors tea, which friends affectionately called The Yorkshire Tea, hence the title of the book.
There are photos of the collection and historic photos of Ismay and various potters throughout the book. My one complaint is that there are several two-page spreads with pots split in half between two pages. What was the designer thinking? But if you are interested in British studio pottery, this book is a must, and lots of fun.
Today, Ismay’s collection – all of it intact – is held by the Yorkshire Museum. There is an exhibit at the York Art Gallery through April 30, 2023
The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony, 978-1-913645-15-1York Museum Trust, Paul Holberton Publishing