The Victoria and Albert museum is essentially a design museum, although the pieces from its older collection are rather eclectic (though fascinating), and perhaps more tenuously linked to design.
The ceramics collection has to be one of the largest on display in the world. Although a good deal of it appears over-decorated Victorian junk, cataloging the rise of the great Stoke-on-Trent potteries such as Wedgewood, Spode, Denby and so on, there is actually a s ignificant amount of other stuff. There are also rooms given over to Near East tin-glazed work, European Majolica, modern European designed ceramics (Royal Copenhagen and so on), modern Studio ceramics, and of course the great progression of work from China.
Just to give an idea of the size here is a floor plan, followed by a picture of one of the ‘open storage’ rooms, to give an idea of the size of each of the rooms
As you can see, with such a large collection they decided to build glass storage shelving n the centre of some of the rooms, not ideal for looking at each individual pot, but gives a great look at the extent of the collection. Around the edges are exhibition cases with the best examples from each series.
Most of the rooms however are light and open with well displayed examples of important types of pottery from around the world. There is of course something of a British bias, especially with regard to 20th century studio pottery. Although they have a significant amount of European studio pottery, they are definitely missing some major modern US potters. While they have dozens of pots by individual Japanse potters (Hamada, Shimaoka for example), and European potters, they only have a single pieces from Warren Mackenzie and Peter Voulkos for example. Even within Europe there is definitely a bias towards Northern European and Scandinavian potters. Despite the central place that Bernard Leach has in the founding of modern British Studio ceramics, I have come to the conclusion that modern British studio ceramics owes a lot more to Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. This is especially true when you compare it to the plethora of Japanese mingei influenced potters in the US, influenced of course by Leach via the towering figure of Warren Mackenzie.
At once end of the gallery, they have a room for rotating exhibits from modern industrial designers. At the moment these are Queensberry Hunt, who, since they were founded in 1966 have produced ceramic designs for companies such as Crate and Barrel in the US, and Habitat in the UK.
I should note that both the Ashmolean and the V&A are free, although the V & A does have large glass cylinders encouraging you to donate $3.
Their entire collection is also available to view online. High resolution pictures may be downloaded free, for private use, upon registration.
Here are some of the pots I found most interesting.
This is one from Cyprus, dated to about 7th Century BC.
One of the great things about Chinese ceramics is the ability to precisely pinpoint when it was made due to the reign marks one the bottom of the pot (although later potters did have a tendency to add earlier reign marks as a mark of respect – not very helpful!). This is a beautiful copper red piece from 1406-1420, during the reign of the Yongle Emperor early(ish) in the Ming dynasty. These early Ming copper reds are extremely rare, but extremely beautiful, and the ability to produce them was lost by 1435. Frankly it makes me wonder if the secret of copper reds at that time, was the work of a single man, and when he died the secret was lost with him.