5 min read

A social history of Britain via popular pottery: Brighton’s Willett Collection

a close up of a series of pots and ceramics showing eighteenth century sailors

The Willett Collection of Popular Pottery. © Photo Dan Robertson

Gemma Joyce discovers an eclectic collection of popular pottery amassed by Brighton Museum founding father, Henry Willett

If you are asked to describe your favourite mug your mind might conjure images of a broad, steaming coffee cup adorned with a familiar pattern reminding you of home, or perhaps a slimmer, daintier teacup – the kind that makes it easy to carry a biscuit in the same hand.

Whatever it looks like, it’s very personal.

The humble mug is often more than just something to drink from.

That was certainly the feeling of Henry Willett (1823-1905), a founding father of Brighton Museum and the devoted collector of an eclectic mix of pottery.

a photo of ceramics and figurines in a display case

@ Photo Gemma Joyce

Willett Jug cover modelled as a bear surface covered with shredded clay detachable head forms a cup

@ Photo Gemma Joyce

a photo of a window blind with a drawing of a teapot on it

Even the blinds feature the designs in Mr Willett’s collection. @ Photo Gemma Joyce

a photo of a display featuring a photo of a sit-down protest

A modern addition: Brighton’s Green MP Caroline Lucas is arrested for protesting against fracking. @ Photo Gemma Joyce

He was sure his curious figures and vessels could tell stories from political, social and cultural history.

Browsing Mr Willett’s Popular Pottery gallery at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery 115 years on from when the exhibits were gifted to the city, it’s easy to understand why he thought his pottery had the power to tell these stories.

His collection touches on British architecture, sports, frivolity and famous figures dating back hundreds of years.

A closer look at the unassuming collection reveals some truly scandalous items among the clumsily painted, often comical pieces.

A figurine of the murderer James Rush appears in the crime section, alongside mugs enamelled with the portraits of other murderers, including John Bellingham who assassinated Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in 1812.

a photo of a display of two ceramic mugs and a bust

Satirical ceramics from the Napoleonic era feature in the collection. © Photo Dan Robertson

a photo of a display case with bird like ceramics in it

© Photo Dan Robertson

a photo of a ceramic hand with a heart motif in a display case

© Photo Dan Robertson

a photo of a series of small musical figurines in a display case

© Photo Dan Robertson

There are more modern pieces in the exhibition too, namely tableware decorated with scenes from an anti-fracking protest in August 2013 at which MP Caroline Lucas was arrested. One mug even carries a poem about the incident.

Surrounded by fragile history on glass shelves, the eyes of royals and convicts of old watching you, the creaking floor can set you on edge as if the pressure of your feet might send the whole silent collection crashing down.

But putting uneasy feelings aside, this section of the museum definitely deserves more than a cursory glance while passing through.

a photo of a museum drawer full of ceramics

© Photo Dan Robertson

a long view of a gallery with display cases full of ceramics

© Photo Dan Robertson

Mr Willet’s Popular Pottery exhibition left me reflecting on my own cup collections spilling out of the cupboards at home.

What might Willett think of my collection of Sports Direct flagons for hangover days?

Would my favourite coffee mug, which is decorated with a foul-mouthed cartoon owl, make it into Willett’s showcase were he still collecting?

If anyone were to begin a time capsule of common drinkware in 2018 I expect the vast mountains of dusty old junk mugs might be emblematic of hoarding and excess rather than meticulously categorised, rare and symbolic cultural artefacts.

Read more about the Willett Collection on the Brighton Museum website.


Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

Brighton & Hove, East Sussex

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, with its rich and diverse collections, creates a vibrant cultural centre in and around the Royal Pavilion estate in the heart of the city of Brighton & Hove. Dynamic and innovative galleries provide greatly improved access to the Museum's nationally and locally important collections. Objects…

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