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~Not a Typical Tourist~
I should have been suspicious when my husband announced that he wanted to go to York but I just thought "It's a nice city. He's never been. There's nothing odd in that". I should have spotted that there was an ulterior motive. Most people go to York for one or more of the three Rs - Railways, Romans or Religion (or Vikings but I couldn't think of a word that started with R for them). My husband is not 'most people' though - he was a man on a mission and it wasn't to see the usual tourist attractions. He'd been online doing his research and York meant just one thing to him - the Bill Ismay Collection at the York City Gallery.
I know, I know, I can hear you thinking "Bill Ismay? Who the hell is/was he?" and that would be a fair question since I doubt that many people outside the slightly rarefied world of studio pottery and 20th century ceramics would know the name. Bill Ismay MBE was one of the UK's most accomplished collectors of studio pottery - mostly but not exclusively made in the UK and always by craftsman potters who eschewed the industrialised mass production of the rest of the UK's pottery industry.
~Not a Typical Collector~
Unlike many renowned art collectors Bill wasn't a rich man. He was a librarian with a passion for collecting and he built relationships with the great and the good of the pottery world, researching and investing in carefully chosen pieces until his two bedroom terrace in Wakefield was home to one of the best collections in the UK. At the time of his death he had 3500 pots including work by the best UK-based potters of the 20th Century including Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, William Staite Murray and Bernard Leach. He left his collection to the city of York to display in their art gallery forming the core of a collection which today exceeds 4000 pieces.My husband had been doing his research and was very excited to be going to see Bill's collection. The website showed lots of information about Bill and his pots and we felt sure it must form a major part of the gallery. Sadly this wasn't the case.
The York Art Gallery stands on a small square just outside the gates of the walled city. It's a grand old building with its coffee shop tables spilling out onto the square in front, with views towards the Minster. Stepping inside the building we found the coffee shop taking up most of the lobby with a shop to one side and a reception desk between us and the galleries. The receptionist welcomed us and told us a bit about the special exhibition from China which was using the main ground floor gallery. She explained the rules on use of cameras - basically photography is allowed in the galleries that hold only pieces that are part of the city's collection but not in the galleries with the visiting exhibitions. Also, as you might expect, no flash can be used.
We started with the touring exhibition which was a Chinese themed collection on loan from the British Museum. It was an eclectic mix of photos, pottery, and general assorted bits and bobs. Whilst they claim it covered more than 3000 years of Chinese culture, it was hard for a casual observer to see what they were really trying to show. I particularly enjoyed a collection of photos taken by a local photographer which were of Chinese-born immigrants living in Yorkshire and there were some old pots from the 15th or 16th century that were quite fun but on the whole I just couldn't 'get' the point of the collection of items - if there was one. The other ground floor gallery was a large room with a big collection of religious paintings on one half of the room and still life paintings in the other half. These are permanent exhibitions and the 'Sacrifice and Courage' exhibition was particularly fine.
~The Only Way is Up!~
There are three galleries upstairs including the 'pot gallery' which had a fabulous exhibition on the theme of the English country garden. Each case held a collection of assorted animal and plant-inspired pieces of ceramic art, many of them undoubtedly from Bill Ismay's collection. With the glass cases lined with mock-grass, the curators had grouped together a rather funky set of animal and plant themes. We particularly enjoyed the Rosemary Wren animals (mostly because we have several of her pieces at home) but were really inspired by some of the works by Hans Coper (a 'spade' vase) and Bernard Leach (in particular a large leaping fish vase). I doubt very much that most of the visitors to the exhibition would have realised how astonishingly valuable some of this stuff was. Next door there was a dimly-lit room with historical drawings on the theme of York Mystery Plays which we skipped. The largest of all the galleries contains paintings from York City's permanent collection and these were split into three parts each with a different theme - people, stories and places. Again, there wasn't a lot of clarity about why these had been chosen but I suspect it's just a case of an under-financed provincial gallery mixing a bit of everything together. The work was pleasant but not very memorable.
Throughout the museum there are lots of things for children to do and they really seem to make an effort to get kids involved. Obviously we didn't have kids with us and since it was the last week of school before the summer holidays, there weren't any school parties in so we had a nice peaceful visit. However for those who do want to visit with children, there were lots of hands on fun things for them to do. For example in the room with the still life paintings, they provided a bunch of assorted items and encouraged the kids to group them together to make their own still life compositions.
After all the fuss on the website about Bill Ismay we felt sure there must be MORE of his collection tucked away somewhere. Maybe we'd missed a room or not spotted a door. We headed back to reception to ask where the collection was. The receptionist was really helpful. She told us that we were the second people in just a few days who had come a really long way to see the collection and been disappointed. She explained that most of the collection is housed outside the town and that there had been a really big exhibition of the collections of Bill and two other collectors that had been running in the main gallery until just before the Chinese exhibition had displaced it. She asked us to fill out a complaint form and suggested the key points we should make, including criticising the website for being misleading. Apparently the curator of the pottery collection has no input to the website and needed support to get it updated. We took the form and my husband went outside to fill it in whilst I went to get lunch for us from the cafe.
I had a piece of poached salmon with a selection of three salads and my husband had a sandwich which was served with a generous garnish. To this we added a coffee for me and a tea for him and the bill came to £13. The quality and presentation of both dishes were good and I thought lunch was pretty good value considering it was in an art gallery. We ate outside looking towards the Minster- it was a very pleasant lunch.
My husband went back to hand in the form and was given the email address and phone number of the pottery curator and the receptionist encouraged him to contact her with his feedback. A few days after we got home he received a very nice letter explaining the situation with regards to the collection and saying that if we were ever returning to York and let her know in advance, we could go and visit the storage and see whatever we wanted to. She also gave him information on where we could buy a downloadable book about the Ismay collection.We were a bit disappointed not to see more of the collection but the special exhibition on the English Garden was lovely and we went back again the next day to have a second look and take more photos. Whilst the paintings on display were nothing to get too excited about, the staff at the gallery were absolutely exceptional and made a visit to see a less than spectacular set of paintings and a second rate touring museum from the British Museum (which we got the impression the gallery didn't really want but couldn't say 'no') into something a bit more special.
China - Journey to the East - on show until 5th September
English Country Garden - on show until 1st September
York Mystery Plays - on show until 8th September
York Art Gallery
York YO1 7EW
The gallery is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm and is open every day except Christmas, Boxing day and New Years Day. Admission is free and the gallery is wheelchair accessible.