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Book review: 'English Pottery 1620-1840' is the harvest of a long and fruitful career:

Robin Hildyard’s book on English pottery is a fitting culmination of his distinguished V&A curatorship

The publication of this book coincides with its author’s retirement from a long and fruitful career at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Most of the illustrations are of pieces in the museum’s collections, and the author describes the book as “the long-ripening fruit of an intimate relationship between curator and...collection”. Robin Hildyard’s book demonstrates more eloquently than any amount of official reports that such information has to be hard won over many years from the study of the particular, unique collection concerned.

It is no easy task to write a general book on this subject, the traditional “classic period” of English ceramics. An outsider might find this strange, when there are general books on English pottery and porcelain on the library shelves. Many of these are superficial, parroting unquestioningly the cliches which pass as identification with auctioneers in a hurry. Among more scholarly works, however, porcelain has been better served than pottery, and attribution in pottery is generally more problematic. Much of what until recently passed as scholarship on pottery has now been shown to be unreliable, as more production sites have been excavated throughout the country, from Glasgow to Devon. A number of studies of individual potteries have cast shafts of brilliant light on isolated areas, but within a field which is otherwise often murky and where some main features are still indistinct. As Dr Hildyard puts it, there is a problem with these monographs “excluding much of the context of the subject”. This is an extraordinary position given the historical importance of the subject; English pottery was once, as the author puts it, “a craft industry that in the 18th and 19th centuries took European and New World markets by storm”. It deserves the same sort of attention from historians as is given to the textile or iron and steel industries of the same period.

Given the current state of knowledge, the decision to arrange the book by technical types of ware is a sound one. The first four chapters are on slipware, saltglazed stoneware, unglazed red stoneware, and creamware. His system is, however, subtler than first appears, for the influence of Chinese blue and white porcelain is treated in a single chapter which moves from delftware in the 1630s through to the blue-printed earthenware of the 19th century. The neo-classical dry-bodied stonewares are sensibly given a chapter to themselves, which explains why the mostly unclassical red stonewares were given their own chapter earlier in the book. After this, the arrangement wisely diversifies. There is a chapter on figures, either human or animal. Most importantly, there is one on the development of decorated pottery for a mass market, extending the medium downmarket to people who could not previously afford it. The last two chapters are on the trading of pots when they were new, and once they became antique.

The starting-point was chosen because, as Dr Hildyard says, “By about 1620 the situation had altered dramatically with the discovery by northern Europe of blue and white Chinese porcelain...from this time onwards, the pressure for constant change...produced successive phases that may be charted, and which provide the backbone and narrative for the book”. And if one has to stop somewhere, 1840 is as good a place as any, before the full impact of Victorian technology. Dr Hildyard is admirably familiar with recent scholarship and knows just when a dose of economics is needed. By 1750 you could buy a Chinese blue and white porcelain plate for a shilling, a delftware pottery one for 6d, a Staffordshire creamware one with “tortoiseshell” decoration for 6d, and a white saltglazed stoneware one for a mere 1 1/2d.

As with any book covering such a broad field, there are a few idiosyncrasies. The introduction of transfer-printing by Sadler and Green is described as “a rather typically British triumph of technology over artistry”, a judgement based on post-William-Morris aesthetics which the 18th century certainly did not share. Perhaps this area is a bit of a blind spot: Dr Hildyard illustrates two of the rare early printed saltglazed plates, but out of the V&A’s quantities of printed creamware he illustrates only one late jug of about 1800. There is also no example of the “china glaze” earthenware painted with “Chinese” scenes in underglaze blue, which was one of the industry’s most important products between about 1775 and 1795. If this is to be a “first book” for collectors of old pottery, it should really illustrate such basic common types of ware.

Dr Hildyard continues to use the terms “Whieldon” and “Castleford ware”, making it clear that these are just shorthand and that they do not imply the pots concerned were made by Whieldon or at Castleford. They are so misleading that it might have been better to confine them to the glossary with a public health warning.

I spotted the odd slip for correction in the next edition. The beginnings of the French Revolution in 1789 did not bring a sudden end to trade with France, which continued until the outbreak of war in 1793. Nor did the death of Wedgwood in 1795 end 45 years of domination by his Etruria factory, because it only began production in 1769. And the illustration of teapots with so-called “Rockingham” glazes includes one described as made by the Rockingham factory, which I strongly suspect is really Wedgwood of about 1840-45. (Pots of this type have the impressed mark “Rockingham” because of the glaze!). These, however, are mere quibbles about a book which steers its way expertly through imperfectly charted waters, complex shoals and dangerous reefs.

All those interested in early English pottery will be grateful to Dr Hildyard for this survey which will surely become a standard work.

o Robin Hildyard, English Pottery 1620-1840 (V&A Publications, London, 2005), 240 pp, 10 b/w ills, 130 col. ills, £50 (hb) ISBN 1851774424

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'The harvest of a long career'