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DATE: 28th October 2021

The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony

 W.A. Ismay’s remarkable post-war ceramics collection to go on display in new exhibition at York Art Gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art

Opens 30 October 2021

Explore the remarkable collection of W.A. Ismay MBE (1910 – 2001), the UK’s most prolific collector of post-war British studio pottery, in a new exhibition opening at York Art Gallery’s Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) this month.

Ismay accumulated over 3,600 pieces by more than 500 potters between 1955 and 2001. Upon his death, he left his collection and its associated archive to the city of York. It has been 20 years since the W.A. Ismay Collection moved from private to public ownership, and CoCA are celebrating that anniversary with an exciting new display.

Dr Helen Walsh, Curator of Ceramics at York Art Gallery, said: “It’s exciting to be able to display over 250 pieces from this incredible collection of post-war ceramics for the first time in the Centre of Ceramic Art. Without his generous gift, CoCA would not exist.

“Ismay led an extraordinary life, and so did his collection. As well as being able to admire the beautiful variety of pots, visitors will have the opportunity to learn about how Ismay lived with and used his collection in his ‘Yorkshire Tea Ceremony’.

“Ismay was passionate about supporting potters through their careers, and never saw himself as the owner of his collection, more as a temporary custodian. He loved the social side of collecting and was keen to share his family of pots with others. It seems fitting that, to mark the 20 years since the collection arrived in York, the key works from his collection can be displayed together for all to see and enjoy in this free-to-visit exhibition.”

Items from Ismay’s vast archive documenting his life and ceramics collection will be on public display for the first time, offering visitors the chance to learn more about his remarkable life. The eclectic collection on display will include objects created by many of the most significant potters working in the UK, such as Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew, as well as examples of work by lesser-known makers. Themes explored include competitive collecting, functional ceramics and domestic display. There is a focus on key artists in the collection, particularly those working in Yorkshire, such Barbara Cass who had a studio on The Shambles, York and Sheffield-born Jim Malone, the potter whom Ismay collected the most works by.

The exhibition coincides with the launch of the first major book on the W.A. Ismay Collection, written by Dr Walsh and published by the Centre of Ceramic Art and Paul Holberton Publishing. The book, which is based on new research, will be available to buy at York Art Gallery from 30 October 2021.

‘The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony’ opens on 30 October 2021 and is free to visit. Pre-booking is recommended at www.yorkartgallery.org.uk.

Brief Biography of William Alfred Ismay MBE (1910-2001)

 In 1955, W.A. Ismay MBE (1910 – 2001), a librarian living in Wakefield, Yorkshire, decided to form a small collection of ceramics made in Yorkshire. He had studied Classics at the University of Leeds and became interested in ceramics during the war when he served overseas in the Royal Signals. After the war and following the death of his mother, Ismay began his collecting and poured all his enthusiasm and passion into his new hobby. His modest Librarian’s wage was spent on pots and when he retired his pension was used similarly.

Sticking to his self-imposed restriction of the Yorkshire collecting policy, Ismay purchased the work of only three potters during 1955. There were nine pieces by Barbara Cass, seven pieces by Joan Hotchin and two pieces by Irwin Hoyland. His modest initial purchases in 1955 were overshadowed the following year when he collected sixty-five pots. He retained his interest in Yorkshire makers, but soon became aware of the huge range of pottery activity in the UK and beyond and abandoned his geographical boundaries.

Most of his collection focused on functional pots, however he also bought more sculptural works by some of the important makers, including Gordon Baldwin, Glenys Barton and Elizabeth Fritsch. Ismay took great pleasure in spotting new talent, particularly at college degree shows. When he discovered a maker whose work he admired, he would stay loyal to them and support them through the years.

Collecting was a way of life for Ismay; the friendships he developed with potters in his collection took the place of a family.

His collecting escalated over the years, often reaching over 100 pots per year. Towards the end of his life his collection became famous. Those lucky enough to visit it in his home came away with tales of having to shuffle sideways down the hall between piles of pots.

After reaching the decision to leave his beloved pots to the city of York, Ismay began the process of putting together a catalogue of his collection in 1996. The W.A. Ismay Collection was bequeathed to the Yorkshire Museum in 2001. Comprising of over 3600 pots by around 500 potters, it is almost certainly the largest and most important collection of its type in the UK.