I am a mad collector,” says Jeffrey Archer with an expansive gesture around his drawing room. Doing a quick stocktake, I note a tabletop display of silver miniatures, a bookcase of first editions, four walls of 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century paintings and more pieces of colourful, lustre-glazed Moorcroft pottery than I can count. “Luckily, there are other mad men around who can help me. Like Martin.”
Martin is Martin Millard, director of fine art at Cambridge-based auction house Cheffins: a man who has advised Archer on the purchase of all manner of important and beautiful objects, but whose main role for the past 15 years has been to help the novelist and former Conservative politician acquire the best examples of Moorcroft-patterned pottery by the Stoke-on-Trent manufacturer. “We first met at a viewing,” explains Millard. “I was 21, fresh from university and a lowly junior valuer, but Jeffrey and I got talking about a piece of Moorcroft that was in the sale, and it struck me that he had an immense hunger to discover a new avenue of collecting.” Archer picks up the story: “He came to see me at home a few days later and said, ‘I want to build you a collection of Moorcroft. I won’t ever be able to afford it, but you can, so let me indulge us both.’ And that is precisely what we have done.”
Both men clearly enjoy the thrill of the chase – hunting down rare pieces such as the c1900 Moorcroft-attributed, but unrecorded, blue and white floral-themed Macintyre vase they bought at Bonhams for £3,360 in 2010 – but Archer’s passion for collecting is primarily driven by aesthetics. The reason he said yes to Millard’s proposal all those years ago was not because he was told prices for Moorcroft were likely to rise (which they did: in 2001 Sotheby’s sold a rare Carp vase for £10,200; in 2009 a similar piece fetched £16,000 at Bonhams), but because he fell in love with the vase the valuer brought with him – a slender-necked vessel painted with plump pomegranates that he ended up buying for £3,600. “It’s all about beauty,” says Archer. “Otherwise, what’s the point?”
It is an attitude that explains why the 50 or so exquisite, and often rare, pieces Millard has tracked down at auctions across the UK and beyond are scattered about the house, rather than shut away in a cabinet. There’s a plant in the jardinière, bought because this particular pairing of the Claremont toadstool pattern and twin‑handled shape is unusual; flowers burst from another Pomegranate vase, a shimmeringly perfect example from c1930; while the vessel with the unusually thin neck that first caught his eye stands unprotected on a polished chest. Archer’s 17th-century rectory, once home to the poet Rupert Brooke, makes a good backdrop for Moorcroft’s rich colours and painterly botanical patterns, nestled as they are among the Elizabethan furniture and gold-framed paintings.
But Archer and Miller are doing more than decorating; they are also building a serious collection. “We set out to create something museum-worthy,” says Archer, who plans to give the collection to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, “so I can’t just buy pretty pieces. I have to listen to what Martin says and obey his rules.”
And Millard’s rules are strict. Moorcroft has been producing its signature tube-lined (a decorating method whereby the outline of a design is piped onto a vessel with soft clay), lustre-glazed art pottery without pause since 1913 – or 1897 if you include the pieces William Moorcroft made for manufacturer James Macintyre before establishing his eponymous factory. This longevity gives the brand a cachet few others can match; even those with similarly long histories such as Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode can’t claim to have stuck so determinedly to a single style. But as a quick web search reveals, 121 years of continuous production also means that there is an awful lot of Moorcroft about, so Millard’s first rule is to focus solely on work produced by the founder himself.
“William was a master of his craft,” says Millard. “He was as much an experimental potter as a commercial one, pioneering the tube-lining technique and testing out lustre glazes, and he had an extraordinary ability to combine decoration with form. His son and grandson who took over subsequently were simply not in the same league.”
Rule number two is that they will only buy perfect examples. “He won’t even show me an imperfect piece,” says Archer. “Of course not,” Millard responds. “It’s partly about value because even a blemish that’s only visible under UV light will affect the price, but it’s also about the fact that we made a decision to only buy the best.”
And rule number three is that this collection must tell the full William Moorcroft story. If the search for perfection means that Archer and Millard sometimes have to pass on a piece they’ve fallen for (on the day I visit, Millard is sharing the bad news that an extraordinarily beautiful two-handled bowl they had both set their hearts on has been repaired), Millard’s determination to show the full range of this potter’s oeuvre occasionally means acquiring something not quite to Archer’s taste. Like the shallow, aqua‑green bowl decorated with prunus blossom, also green, that we come across in his wife Mary’s study. “Good God! I didn’t realise that was a Moorcroft,” he exclaims. “Why did we buy it, Martin?” “Because it’s so unusual,” Millard replies. Archer nods: “I trust this man completely.”
Walking through the house, it’s clear the collection brings both men a great deal of pleasure – they pick pieces up, run their fingers over the shiny glazes – but it is not yet quite complete. I ask what is top of the wish list. “Something in the Waratah pattern,” says Millard. “It was created solely for export to Australia so it doesn’t come up at auction very often, but it was such an important part of what William Moorcroft did that we have to have an example.” Archer’s eyes sparkle at the prospect. “One day I’ll get a call from Martin and he’ll say something like, ‘Cheshire, 1.30, vase’ – and off we’ll go.”