A collection of “ordinary china” is currently filling a distant corner of the V&A museum, and its ordinariness is why it’s an exhibition worth finding.

The pottery on display was all collected by one man, a Brighton based businessman, Henry Willett, who was born in 1823 and with a decent inheritance, was able to expand the family business and later his own investments.

As was correct for a Victorian gentleman, he took up collecting, and amongst his passions was one for ordinary pottery. It wasn’t so much the pottery, but that it was the sort of pottery designs that would appear in the average home, and as such, was the sort of pottery that posh collectors and museums wouldn’t care for.

In doing so, he preserved, in all their often garish decorative beauty, the sort of tastes that filled Victorian terraced homes, and would often be later thrown away as chintz and unfashionable.

Willett presented his collection of ceramics to Brighton Museum in 1903 — and now some of that collection is on show in the V&A Museum, although you will need to hunt to find it. The display is on the top floor, at the far end of the long ceramics gallery, which is more an accident of design than a snub, as that just happens to be where someone, some time ago, decided the temporary exhibition space should be.

So here, in a room in the furthest corner of the museum, the space is now filled with cases of the sort of ordinary pottery and porcelain that was popular in its time. And other than being collected by one man, there’s no link between anything here, so it’s a buffet selection of delights and laughs.

There’s the chamber pot with a bust of Napoleon inside it – so you can take a piss on the Emperor.

There’s the small-scale model of the Thames Tunnel when it opened as the world’s first tunnel under a river, with the design impressed onto a thin bottle.

Some rather peculiar unpainted characters from the trial of the Tichnorne Claimant look almost unfinished, but the trial is, or was at the time, legendary. Some may recall some odd pots once shown on QI where it proved very difficult to drink from – and there are two examples here.

A lot of commemorative pottery abounds at a time when it was more commonplace to collect royal or naval memorabilia. A bust and plaque of Princess Charlotte might seem a strange thing to own, but her untimely death in 1817 caused the sort of public response not to be seen again until Princess Diana died in 1997.

A wonderfully wonky Westminster Abbey looks like it’s collapsing under its own weight.

A pair of spill vases called Ale Bench and Tee Total seek to teach people the evils of drink and the virtues of abstinence — a pottery version of Hogarth’s Gin Lane if you like, although he was promoting drinking beer rather than gin.

It’s a very eclectic collection, but that makes the exhibition fun to visit as it’s not pretentious or scarily rare — it is quite literally popular pottery. The exhibition deserves to be equally popular.

The exhibition, Henry Willett’s Collection of Popular Pottery is at the V&A Museum until the end of September 2024 and is free to visit.


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  1. Dncn says:

    There’s a typo, it should be Tichborne not Tichborne.

  2. Dncn says:

    There’s a typo, it should be Tichborne not Tichnorne.

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