WIS - Wedgwood International Seminar

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Home Obituaries Obits Robin Reilly
Earl Buckman compoesd this eulogy for his friend Robin Rielly:

Robin Reilly - A Very Fond Remembrance

A few days ago I lost someone very close....mentor, confidant and friend for some 36 years:  historian, researcher, author and without question the world’s greatest authority on the life and works of Josiah Wedgwood I, F.R.S. and the great ceramics manufactory that he established in 1759.  I speak of my friend, Robin Reilly.

The news came not as a great shock.  At age 88, these things are never completely unexpected, but it makes for emptiness in one’s life that can never be filled, and a lingering depression over a joyous part of one’s life that will not be experienced again.  In recent years, Robin’s angina had become much worse and his hearing had become quite bad (in spite of deaf aids), and the legs were prone to cease their intended function at the most unexpected times.  (“I’m always falling into the laps of strangers!”)  

Last Christmas Eve found him in hospital due to a very nasty fall.  So, in spite of being situated in lovely, comfortable surroundings with good food and dear companions, life had become a burden.  He was tired of it all, not the least of which was the mess mankind is making of itself and this planet.  When you can’t hear the beautiful music you have always enjoyed, and can’t motivate around the museums to visit the great art you so loved and appreciated, travel to your favourite places has become impossible, the newspapers are full of gloom and doom, life becomes more of a burden than a joy - and one grows weary of that burden.  I had seen this coming for some time, but I’m afraid that I had no cure for the ennui and disabilities that had become part of his daily life.  And so he finally let go - and now I must do the same.  But ah, do I have memories!

Robin and I were friends from the very instant that he walked into my china shop in Dallas in 1980.  He had come with my Wedgwood representative as part of a whirlwind tour of the States to promote his latest book, The Collector’s Wedgwood, a lovely picture book, unlike the several very scholarly historical books that had come before, including the highly praised work on the battle of New Orleans, The British at the Gates, written while he was part owner of an art gallery in that city, acting as the buyer in England, then bringing or shipping over the art. (Watercolours and scenes of India were among his favourites.)

There was the biography of Wolfe, Wolfe of Quebec, researched one very long summer in Quebec, eating sandwiches, sleeping on a park bench and spending every hour possible in the library.  But this new book for collectors, although not his first, did catch on rather well and fueled the Wedgwood fire that would lead to his years of research on the subject - and consequently to the several other books on the subject to follow.

David Robin Reilly was born on 3 January, 1928 with an inherent collector’s spirit, always interested in antiques.  Hoping to curb some of this acquisitive spirit (and spending!), his father once suggested that as Robin enjoyed history, why not limit his collecting to one area, such as his latest fascination - wax portraits.  Well, he was off!!  Unfortunately for his father, he found quite a few more waxes than anticipated.  This even led to a small publication on the subject (author listed as David R. Reilly) - culminating in 1973 with WEDGWOOD - The Portrait Medallions, written with his friend George Savage.

As Robin’s father was an officer in the army, it followed that he should study at Wellington College, The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.  Incidentally, he was a star tennis player and excellent water skier while there.  A seven year stint in the army followed his Sandhurst days.  He was to be hired in 1952 by the Wedgwood Company.  While with Wedgwood, he became director of the London showroom operations.  It was Robin’s idea to create Wedgwood Rooms in major stores, a business ploy that was very successful and is still in use today, as anyone knows who has ever visited Harrod’s, Selfridge’s, etc.

In 1964 the writing career was rather forced upon him due to severe back problems.  He was no longer on the tennis court daily, etc., but sitting behind a desk.  After 12 years, what were once muscles supporting a missing vertebra, as it turned out, had given way to this sedentary office job.  He was told by his doctor that he would probably never walk again.  Well, he did not know Robin!  “No” was not in his vocabulary.  Years later he told me that one of the greatest pleasures of his life was sending said doctor a picture of himself water skiing on the Mediterranean!

The Wedgwood International Seminar of the 1980’s and 1990’s was a shark tank of some of the greatest collectors of the 20th century - and one-upmanship was the name of the game (although not everyone chose to play the game.)  It was especially rife in the northeast and many stories were told as Robin and I, often with Mickey Hightower, would “do the Portobello” on a Saturday morning. He would come up to London from Somerset and we would spend the day strolling the market and telling tales of Wedgwood collectors we had known - and Robin knew them all.  Perhaps the ultimate twist to the game was that on several occasions, in order to see objects and take photographs, he would have to remain secretive, for if one collector found that he had visited the “other” collector first, he would have lost the connections with both!  He once spent a week with one collector, then was delivered to the airport.  He had to while away a couple of hours at the  airport, then ring the other collector and announce that he had just  arrived!! (I’m not making this up - it could get vicious.)  I turned down an invitation to run for Board membership during this time as Robin and a friend on the Board said,  “Don’t do it!”  After sitting outside a meeting once and listening to the literal screaming, yelling and beating on tabletops until after 1.00am, I knew that friend was not stretching the truth.  Robin gave them the pet name of the WISigoths!

As plans for the “Bible” began to jell, Robin began adding to his collection, or as he put it, his “accumulation” of Wedgwood objects, gathered solely for the purpose of research or photography for the enormous project.  I saw the acquisition of several things that I would never, at the time, have imagined were by Wedgwood:  an 18th century unmarked basalte figure (basalte with an “e”, “because Josiah I preferred it that way!”), and an Eric Owen pew group purchased from young John Shepherd during his very early days in the Portobello marketplace.

It was not long after the publication of The Portrait Medallions that the three of us were on the prowl one Saturday and Robin spotted an incorrectly labeled medallion and asked the owner if he might see it.  The owner gushingly explained that it was “in that book...the one by Savage and, uh, oh what’s his name.”  This was just too good to ignore!  Robin explained the he believed the book actually described it as a such-and-so, “and by the way” Robin said, extending his hand, “I’m ‘what’s his name!’”  All four of us fell out in laughter.

It was during this “Bible” period that Robin moved from Oxford to his idyllic “Little Baronsdown” in beautiful Somerset.  The home, parts dating back several centuries was located smack-dab in the center of a private game preserve!  (If you have never been awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of a huge nearby herd of elk during the rutting season, well, you may choose to pass the experience by!  Such bellowing can be quite a surprise.)  There he could write undisturbed, surrounded by his choice personal collection of art and modern day (NON-Wedgwood!) studio pottery.  Jessica, his absolutely perfectly behaved Golden Lab would be there, as well as the farm-cat Hannibal, who was petrified of coming into the house.  Hannibal was on full-time duty to keep rabbits from Robin’s beloved rose garden, often presenting Robin with the present of a rabbit’s tail on the doorstep in the mornings!  Jess & Hannibal were the best of friends, and would often accompany Robin on morning “walkies” over the breathtaking countryside.

And there was one other inhabitant at Little Baronsdown.  While studying at Hertford College, Oxford, Robin had bought a house there.  He let a room to a young graduate student from California, and, well, this was the surprise start of a relationship that was to last the rest of his life.  As his partner’s work often took him away for some time, I would choose those times for a visit...but NOT during writing-time!  There were strict rules as to when time-offs were available.  (If he had time to spare and the house was otherwise empty, he would invite me down, reporting that his partner “will be in Torquay” during that time.  A private joke amongst the three of us - I’m not sure there was ever actually a trip to Torquay involved!)

The idea came to us that, after the Bible was published, I might possibly purchase “that accumulation of old pots” and plan a little “do” for collectors.  It was always agreed that the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston could have 1st dibs and I would have the rest, if the price was right.  As luck would have it, we came to an agreement and thus began MY work!  They had all been packed and stored in a detached garage in damp Somerset, and were due for, not only a bath, but a scrub!  And there was the work of writing certificates for each pot, with brief and accurate descriptions.  Then we agreed that he would sign each certificate.  It was his idea to imprint each the Reilly family crest.  This was all much more work than we had originally planned, but we managed to pull it off with lots of good times thrown in.  I think I made five trips across the pond that year, staying about two weeks each time.  For a break, I would often go to Barlaston and spend the afternoon washing up old pots in the archives, or sorting books in the library.  (It is a strange feeling to be reading the handwriting of old Josiah himself.)

All came to fruition in 1995, as the W.I.S. met in Stoke-on-Trent.  The accumulation (now upgraded to “Collection”) was all priced (Robin was appalled!) and laid out in appealing order, approved by both Robin and Gaye Blake-Roberts over drinks in my suite at The Moat House.  My right-hand helper, hotel porter Jose took the night off and set up ready-poured G & T’s at the entrance.  My other helper, Peter-Max Medney, was poised with sales receipt book in hand.  When the bus of W.I.S. members arrived from London, chaos ensued!  I sold lots of pots, and Robin was kept busy autographing many copies of his hot-off-the-presses The New Illustrated Dictionary of Wedgwood, as well as Wedgwood (that two-volume “Bible”)  Everyone was elated.  (Especially Jose, who could not believe we would tip him £100.)

Robin was later to write the definitive biography of Josiah I.  I remarked that it could never be bested (unless the letters of JW’s business partner, Thomas Bentley, were to come to light one day).  Robin smiled and said “I know...I planned it that way.”

My stack of correspondence across The Pond reaches back to the beginning of our friendship and is very private and revered by me.  Never has there been another who could see into corners of my oft-confused mind and unravel the puzzles therein,  offering so-called “sage” advice, tempered with kind words.  The realm of ceramics brought other kinds of advice, embroidered with little known facts that only my gifted friend would know.  He had discovered long-forgotten knowledge about Wedgwood that had remained a mystery for years through his remarkable ability to put himself in the time period involved, speaking their language, tracing their habits, etc. as a survivor of the era, not putting the 20th century twist or interpretation on, which often made an impenetrable screen against the truth.  By so doing, he was able to uncover formulas and techniques that might otherwise have never come to light.  Most can only sit back and admire his fantastic work.  I can sit back and admire my friend.

I suppose it is a bit melancholy to point out that, as I end these words, the radio is playing the final strains of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (“A Hero’s Life”).  And please pardon a few tears when I note that the very last letter in that aforementioned pile of typing and scribbling was signed “Love, Robin” - a sentiment you had never shared before.  I took it as an omen, and it was.  Good-bye, my friend.