Obituary: Dr Bernard Watney

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The Independent Culture
FOR NEARLY 50 years Dr Bernard Watney was a familiar figure in the Portobello Road market in London, carefully examining the artefacts being offered for sale. Dealers who knew him would retain items for his inspection and, even if he did not make a purchase, might pass on to the next customer the information he gave. He was a collector and writer not just in the field of ceramics but of silver wine labels and corkscrews; these, being small, could be carried in the pocket of his jacket, which was cut on the lines of a Norfolk jacket - of the sort said to be worn by poachers.

Watney's name was first brought to general notice with the publication in 1957 by Faber and Faber of his book Longton Hall Porcelain. (Liverpool Porcelain of the Eighteenth Century followed from Richard Dennis last year.) But to a smaller group of collectors he was already well known. Frequently he was called in by London auction houses to help them when cataloguing a problem piece of porce- lain by suggesting where it had been made.

As with many people who later make a name for themselves as a recognised authority, his interest in ceramics had begun as a hobby. He was born near Cape Town in 1922, the son of medical missionaries in Northern Rhodesia; they returned to England when he was eight. He read Medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, and trained and later qualified as a doctor at St George's Hospital, London. It was while he was Resident Medical Officer at the Grove, Tooting, that his Medical Superintendent pointed him at 18th-century porcelain.

In 1953 he was taken on by British Railways at Paddington as a medical inspector. Although he was based in London, his work was mainly involved with the Western Region. If a report was needed, say, concerning a possible outbreak of 'flu amongst the staff, Watney would be sent to investigate; then, having completed his investigation and having time to spare before the next train back to London, he would visit the local antique shops in the vicinity. It was said that he knew and had visited every important antique shop in the Western Region.

One can only imagine that his medical duties first for British Rail, and later for Guinness at Park Royal, where he went as Medical Adviser in 1970, must have allowed him adequate spare time: one reviewer, in praising Longton Hall Porcelain, said, "By brilliant detective work, he tracked down important original documents . . . and discovered through excavation, the actual site of the factory." Anyone who has ever been involved in either researching documents, or sifting through excavated material, knows how much time it takes up.

Before the Second World War little interest had been taken in the study of English porcelain decorated with a blue design and in many of the antique shops and "junk" shops these pieces were mixed with Oriental examples. Perhaps because there was so much available on the market, little attempt had been made to distinguish the difference between Oriental hard-paste and the early English soft-paste porcelains.

Stanley Fisher had attempted to explain this problem in his 1947 book English Blue and White Porcelain of the 18th Century, with its dedication to Queen Mary. But it was not until Watney published his research in 1963, using the same title, that collectors knew that this was a work which could be trusted. A revised and expanded edition was published 10 years later and this is still the main reference work used by collectors wishing to study the subject.

I first met Bernard Watney in 1956, through a friend of mine who was manager of an antique shop in Jermyn Street situated on the ground floor of what had been part of the Cavendish Hotel, and had been converted to a shop following the death of Rosa Lewis. I had begun to be interested in "Blue & White" and many of the pieces which formed the nucleus of my collection had been acquired through this friend.

Watney, who was a member of the Committee of the English Ceramic Circle (and, from 1974, its President), suggested that I should join and supported my application. But my knowledge was very limited and at the first meeting I attended there was a question of trying to date a slipware dish which had been signed by the potter. On different pieces the signature seemed to vary and, instead of getting firmer with age as expected, for some unknown reason did the opposite. Finally, using his medical knowledge, Watney suggested that the potter might have been suffering from the effects of lead poisoning and this brought the meeting to a close.

Watney had a wonderful photographic memory and, even when viewing other collectors' display collections, he was able to remember both the item that may have interested him and where it had been placed in the collection. Then if it had been moved at a later date he would comment on the fact and wish to know its present whereabouts.

He built up a very important collection himself, but because he was a shy person very few of his friends were invited to see it - and the discussion about ceramics would be changed and the meeting would develop into a wine- tasting session: another subject in which he was a connoisseur. He was a member of the Committee of Management of the Wine Society and sometime chairman of its dining club.

He was also, in 1974, founder of the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts, a society for corkscrew collectors. He was the co-author, with Homer Babbidge, of Corkscrews for Collectors (1981), now the standard work on the subject and much translated. His own collection was sold recently, on the grounds that corkscrews had become too expensive.

His other collections included wine labels and 19th-century stoneware stout bottles. He was a sometime President of the Wine Label Circle.

After Watney retired in the 1980s from Guinness (for whom he had done early work on alcoholism in industry) he dedicated himself to the Mercers' Company, the premier livery company of the City of London. He served as its Master in 1988/89.

Gilbert Bradley

Bernard Martyn Watney, collector, writer and medical practitioner: born Cape Town 6 September 1922; married (one son, three daughters); died London 28 September 1998.