Bill Ismay

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Bill Ismay, was the most important collector of studio pottery in the UK during the second half of the 20th century. His collection of over 3600 pots and the supporting archive of around 10,000 items is the cornerstone of the Centre of Ceramic Art in York. The recently published book, The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony by Helen Walsh, was a fascinating read and it was this that prompted me to write this short piece about my dealings with Bill. Much of which happened after the period covered by the book.

William Alfred Ismay MBE, but Bill to everyone that knew him, had been a regular attender at Harlequin Gallery Private View from the gallery’s beginning. He would make the long journey from Wakefield to South London in time to be first in the queue for opening of the doors at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon. Back then I was just a customer too but Bill Ismay was always first in line. I do recall on one occasion another potential customer trying to “jump the queue” and buy something Bill wanted. This resulted in me setting out a rigid queuing system when I took over the gallery in early 1999.

On page 69 of The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony book is a colour image taken by Tony Hill, who always accompanied Bill on his trips during the later years. This is titled, W. A. Ismay photographing a large pot in the 1990s. This photograph was taken to the rear of the Harlequin Gallery at the Private View of the Nic Collins exhibition on 21st March 1999. The pot was included in Nic’s exhibition but was just too large for Bill to take back to Yorkshire on the train and so a photograph had to do. He did, of course, not go home empty handed, as the photograph below testifies.

Nic’s large jar was instead bought by Trevor Coldrey, who had started the Harlequin Gallery and run it before I took over. It now resides at the bottom of my garden! Later that year Bill visited the Gallery on two others occasions. Firstly, to buy a lidded salt-glazed pot by Tony Dasent, who I noticed wasn’t included on the list of potters represented in the Ismay collection in the book above, and then naturally to the Jim Malone exhibition in November 1999.

The finale

Recently, I came across the letter below from Bill Ismay dated 8th June 2000. This was when he first became unable to travel during my tenure and had missed the Private View of my Phil Rogers exhibition that opened a couple of weeks before. However, this didn’t stop him adding to his collection.

He had sent Tony Hill down on his behalf to take photographs at the Private View and, as a result of those and this letter he did buy. My records show that this was a squared incised stoneware bottle with ash glaze. In fact he came and collected this at the Harlequin Gallery’s next exhibition of work by Ursula Mommens that opened on 18th June. Besides the Phil Rogers, Bill took home four of Ursula’s pots on what was to be his last visit to the Harlequin Gallery.

Ursula “holding court” at the last Harlequin Gallery exhibition that Bill Ismay attended in June 2000

I am not sure when Bill Ismay was hospitalised for the last time but it was most likely only a few weeks after this. However, I did hold a Nigerian Pottery exhibition in October 2000 and, as a result of photographs that I sent him, my records show that he bought a Danlami Aliyu white lidded storage jar and a tenmoku jug by Michael OBrien. His final purchase was on 2nd November from my Mike Dodd exhibition that had just opened, when he bought a fluted white ash vase.

Bill Ismay died on 13th January 2001. I imagine that he was buying pots elsewhere during the period cover here. However, the work above would have been some of the last pots added to his collection. I remember Tony Hill telling me that once Bill realised that he would not be able to attend a Private View again he really didn’t wish his life to continue and so he passed away peacefully. His work done.

Nic Collins large jar that Bill was photographing in the image on page 69 of The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony book. In its usual place at the bottom of my garden with a Charles Bound plate in the foreground