WHY CERAMICS? ‘They are tactile, diverse, plentiful and varied,’ suggests Jonathan Gray, President of the English Ceramic Circle. ‘They are also familiar.’ Being familiar is perhaps the key entry-point: from time immemorial ceramics have had an elemental association. Cups, plates, bowls, oil lamps, amphorae for storing wine, deities for daily worship… they have been the most basic of functional objects.
Today, we collect ceramics of inf inite variety and artistic expression. Andrew Renton, Head of Design Collections, Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales, suggests that: ‘For me it is the ability of ceramics to be personal, direct, expressive and intriguing that is so attractive. Ceramics can embody great subtlety, wield power, and bring deep cultural resonance.’
Collectors are often more interested in the ceramicist themselves. Terry Bacon, who, along with his partner John Oldham, gif ted their entire collection to The Hepworth Wakefield, ref lects on what moves him most about collecting ceramics: ‘You are taking an interest in what the artist feels he/she must make… you can discuss their inspiration and the artists they admire. They want to know where you are coming from and the artists you collect. It can lead to great friendships.’ WHAT IS ‘COLLECTABLE’? ‘For emerging makers to become collectable on the secondary market, there is often the need for good exposure and representation from a well-known gallery or studio,’ suggests Senior Specialist of Maak auctions, Frances Robinson. ‘It is here where the work is put into context and will be assessed by the public in parallel to other makers. Innovation and how an artist is pushing boundaries within their medium and conveying that within their practice will be the deciding factor of whether or not a collector believes a piece to be successful and if they see merit to add it to their collection.’
Collector and author Ashley Thorpe believes it is part quality, part strateg y. ‘I think galleries and inf luential collectors do play a part in this, and some of these relationships can be quite close, which can generate some deserved – and some undeserved – excitement about particular work.’ He believes being original, consistent, and producing objects that have quality is important. ‘These things can get you into collections and museums and suggests that you have something to say that goes beyond your own time.’
The desire to collect is not always driven by aesthetics, artist process or investment. There is also a thriving subculture where those dedicated to the study of ceramics and ceramic history can come together to share their passion. Many are also avid collectors. The English Ceramic Circle is one such organisation and Jonathan Gray has collections that include both early Swansea pottery and modern studio pottery.
According to Gray, prices for antique ceramics in the UK have generally fallen, possibly due to supply and demand, with several collectors passing away and fewer people coming into the market. ‘People talk about weekly London auctions in the 1960s and 1970s,’ he states. ‘Whereas Bonhams now has two sales a year that are combined with glass. Contemporary ceramics have, however, broken though as a modern art form, which is encouraging for the future.’ FROM PRIVATE TO PUBLIC Many private collectors have felt they are not owners of the pieces, but merely custodians. Several UK museum ceramic departments have expanded greatly by the generous gif ting from private collectors who have amassed large ceramic troves. Some collectors have made detailed stipulations as to how these collections must be exhibited and loaned out; others have allowed the museum to fold the collection into their current exhibition and development policies, as the museum sees f it.
Anthony Shaw, whose collection is loaned to the Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA), York Art Gallery, had particular requirements when entrusting his collection to the York Museums Trust. He had always felt that his collection is most at home in a domestic environment, and he worked with the ceramicist Martin Smith to develop a domesticstyle space in which to show his collection. ‘It has worked very well. I said I would never donate my collection to a museum, because you have no control how the work is used and most disappears into stores,’ he explains. ‘But Janet Barnes, CEO at York Museums Trust, supported us from the beginning.’
52 May/June 2023