W.A. Ismay and the Wrens

Saltglazed stoneware vessel, Denise Wren, 1950s-1970s
Saltglazed stoneware vessel, Denise Wren, 1950s-1970s

Last night Dr. Helen Walsh of York Art Gallery gave a great presentation on ‘W.A. Ismay The Potters’ Champion’, hosted over zoom by the Decorative Arts Society. The talk covered Bill Ismay and the studio pottery collection he built up over fifty years from the 1950s, bequeathed to York Art Gallery. Over 500 potters are represented in his collection and Ismay got to know many of them. Helen Walsh showed an image of Ismay’s favourite mug, made by Denise Wren, which he used daily in conjunction with a teapot by Richard Batterham. Apparently it contained just the right amount of coffee to fill the mug. Functional domestic pottery, Helen Walsh told us, was Ismay’s main passion.

The talk featured a photograph of both the Wrens with Bill Ismay in the interior of the Berkeley Galleries. As well as buying their pots, Ismay also purchased a 1971 fox by Rosemary Wren and a 1978 elephant by Denise Wren, though generally he was less interested in figurative ceramics. Helen Walsh mentioned during the subsequent Q&A session that she likes the humour of Rosemary Wren’s work. I hope to follow up hearing the talk by visiting the exhibition The Yorkshire Tea Ceremony at York Art Gallery before it ends in April.

Handbuilt hippo by Rosemary Wren. From the W.A. Ismay Studio Ceramics Collection at York Art Gallery.
Handbuilt hippo by Rosemary Wren. From the W.A. Ismay Studio Ceramics Collection at York Art Gallery.

There is more about Ismay in a a multimedia online presentation by York Museum entitled W.A. Ismay Collector and Connoisseur of Studio Ceramics. It includes the information that Ismay reckoned if he had ten or more works by a potter, then they were good, but ‘that they only achieved greatness if the number of works in his collection exceeded thirty’. According to this measure, Rosemary and Denise Wren rank 7th and 8th, with a total of 54 and 53 ceramics respectively.

The presentation does point out that Ismay was constrained by his modest budget, but even so, he was clearly fond of the Wrens’ work. Many potters testify to the fact that Bill Ismay encouraged them by collecting their work and I believe that he initiated a postwar reassessment of Denise Wren’s status.

'Artist Potters in England' by Muriel Rose, 1970
‘Artist Potters in England’ by Muriel Rose, 1970

As mentioned in the York Museum online presentation, three books sum up the history of British studio pottery during the first half of the 20thcentury. These were ‘The Modern Potter’ (1947) by Ronald Cooper, ‘The Work of the Modern Potter in England’ (1952) by George Wingfield Digby and ‘Artist Potters in England’ (1955) by Muriel Rose. All these books disregard Denise Wren, who was not considered to be working in the same vein as either of the two main groupings of potters featured, namely Bernard Leach and his apprentices at St. Ives and William Staite-Murray and his pupils at the RCA.

An article by Ismay appearing in Ceramic Review in 1982 is revealing. He starts by stating that:
 ‘… it has been a pleasure to me that when Muriel Rose was asked by her publisher in the late nineteen-sixties to revise her book (the second edition appeared in 1970), I was one of the people whom she visited, and that pots I had chosen were then illustrated (including one by Denise K. Wren, a potter previously omitted from the survey which the volume made)…’ (1).
Thus through his influence as a knowledgeable collector, Ismay elevated Denise Wren to the position of a recognised studio potter. 

Moreover, Ismay writes that ‘The potters who, it appears, most often tempted me to acquire their work are…Denise K. Wren and Rosemary D. Wren…’ (1). He then goes on to mention the mug and teapot Helen Walsh referred to in her talk:
‘One’s favourites are not necessarily showy or spectacular but may be modest – I think of my breakfast duo consisting of a small, globular teapot with a stem handle by Richard Batterham…and a cylinder mug (ashglazed and salted) by Denise Wren.’ (1)

Saltglazed stoneware lidded pots, Denise Wren, 1950s-1970s
Saltglazed stoneware lidded pots, Denise Wren, 1950s-1970s

Denise must have felt enormously vindicated after toiling in comparative obscurity during the first phase of her career. No doubt this reappraisal also owed much to Rosemary Wren’s joining the Oxshott Pottery from 1947 and her experiments, together with Denise, in making salt-glazed stoneware. Simultaneously, Denise and Rosemary Wrens’ active participation in the founding of the Craft Potters’ Association in 1958 raised their profile among their peers.

Just two years after the Ismay article appeared in Ceramic Review, the Crafts Study Centre, then based in Bath, curated an exhibition entitled The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren. Margot Coatts wrote an accompanying book and catalogue with the same title. Ismay lent some of his Wren pots for this exhibition and Coatts stated that ‘Last year, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, was fortunate to purchase from their daughter Rosemary Wren, a group of pots that illustrate the development in design and technique of Denise Wren’s work over the course of her life.’ (2). This appears to mark the moment when Denise Wren joined the studio pottery canon.

(1) W.A. Ismay (1982) ‘Collecting Studio Pottery’, Ceramic Review Issue 76, July/ Aug pp.4-7
(2) Coatts, M. (1984a) The Oxshott Pottery: Denise and Henry Wren Bath: Crafts Study Centre, p.22


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