Ask anyone who knew Murray Pollinger, and you get the same answer: “a true gentleman”. After getting to know his family, I understand that this is not just a superficial description: Murray was a gentleman in the full sense of the word. A tall, dark haired and good-looking man, he dressed impeccably in a suit even when on holiday, and until his last days changed before dinner. He was a man of his time, but the formality that perhaps made some a little wary, only disguised a dry and playful sense of humour to others. Murray was scrupulously honest, which made him successful at his work, as he was a trusted man to do business with.
That business is one that we are all familiar with; as a literary agent he represented great writers such as Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliff and JM Coetzee, among many others. He formed a formidable team with his beloved wife Gina, who we are forever indebted to for matching
up Quentin Blake with Roald Dahl, as well as representing many more brilliant illustrators. It is said that Murray never pressured his writers; he drew out the best by trusting them and politely encouraging what he knew they were best at, which often resulted in works of great art.
Apart from being a gentleman, Murray was a true romantic. He loved Italy, good food and wine, and he adored Gina. Together they enjoyed going around the antique shops, finding rare furniture and paintings. On these trips, Murray fell in love with British porcelain. Its artistry, the multitude of wonderful shapes, the endless array of flowers, colours and styles of gilding fascinated him. He would pick up a piece and show it to his children: “Look at the way the handle is made, the design, the painting!” - never daunted by the fact that no-one at home shared quite the same enthusiasm.
The porcelain project was entirely Murray’s. Porcelain was stuck into every spare space in his large London flat. He would spend hours cataloguing it, and it was Samuel Alcock porcelain that he settled on, probably as much for its multitude of styles as for the fact that nothing written could be found about this important factory. For a man who had loved cataloguing and collecting since he was a boy, this was a retirement project begging to be taken on. So once he retired in the 1990s, the great work began, and collecting turned into researching.
In retirement, Murray said he never wanted to think about work again. While being completely dedicated to the publishing business all his working life, he never spoke about it at home, and once left behind, he never seemed to give it a thought again. Life was complete that way, with nothing left unfinished and no time wasted on dwelling on what wasn’t there.
Murray Pollinger (1932-2022)
For years, Murray travelled up and down the country to buy and research Samuel Alcock porcelain. He attended every fair and knew every little shop in every little village. I asked many dealers, and many remember him - yet nobody knew he was such a serious collector. Murray was a modest man who didn’t believe in talking about himself. He would buy a piece of “Minton”, smile politely, leave, and add it to his Alcock collection, carefully researched and catalogued.
In his final years he moved to a beautiful Georgian house with formal grounds in Norfolk. His daughter with her family and cats brought to life the main house, and Murray tucked himself into the dreamy rose-covered 17th Century cottage next to it. It was a place he loved, bringing back an appreciation of nature that he had discovered as an 8-year-old war evacuee in Devon, and later forgotten. “I can’t believe I missed so many years of nature!” he once exclaimed.
While he now had his own porcelain room in the outhouse his son-in-law converted for him, he didn’t spend much time there anymore; he could be found outdoors most days, roaming the beautiful Norfolk countryside and coast, or working in the garden. Still changing his suit for dinner every day, he lived out his last days as the true gentleman he was: dignified, honest, and a romantic at heart, loving nature, his family and things of beauty.
About the Collection
About the Collection
To my regret, I never got to meet Murray in person. Yet I feel lucky to say that he has become part of my life.
As a porcelain dealer, for many years I tried to find out more about Samuel Alcock porcelain. No book had been written about this important yet mysterious factory, and I was aware that many pieces were mis-identified as made by other makers. The pattern numbers seemed to make no sense at all, and virtually nothing was marked. Where to start?
I asked around, and I heard on the grapevine about an elderly gentleman in Norfolk who had a large, meticulously researched collection. The word was that he wouldn’t publish his work. Frustratingly, I could never find out his name, so I never found this gentleman. Finally, I gave up.
Then, only months later, I received a message from someone looking for help to deal with the large porcelain collection of her father, who had recently passed away. I asked some questions, and it became clear to me that the elusive gentleman in Norfolk not only had been right under my nose as the famous literary agent representing authors I had grown up reading, but he had come to find me posthumously.
And so, many trips to Norfolk began, where I stayed with Murray’s daughter Claudia and her family and cats. They didn’t only become the conduit to this important collection, but also became close friends. Spending long weekends photographing the porcelain and going through the research notes, the collection and the painstaking research behind it came to life.
Murray had left his collection meticulously organised on the shelves of his porcelain room, the research notes neatly packed away in boxes, but with no instructions whatsoever. It was as if he trusted that someone would come and pick it up - or perhaps he died the way he lived: never dwelling on what he didn’t have, always fully giving himself to what he did in the moment.
The importance of this collection can’t be overstated; apart from one tentative chapter in one of G.A. Godden’s books that contains mistakes and unsolved riddles, nothing of note has been widely published to help the collector or dealer. Samuel Alcock porcelain is
everywhere, but the majority of it is mis-identified as made by other factories, due to the lack of knowledge. The byzantine pattern numbers are of no help.
All this was cleared up by Murray, together with his good friend Stephen Bressey, with whom he wrote an excellent article. This, however, is not widely available. I found stacks of scrap paper from Murray’s business with long lists of numbers on them, written in pencil. When going through them, I realised that with his trademark painstaking patience and precision, this is how Murray cracked the secret code and found the logic behind the pattern numbers, finally making it possible to correctly identify Samuel Alcock porcelain.
This opened up a collection that is as rich as it is diverse. Samuel Alcock was not bothered by an overly fussy sense of style; he made what sold. And that included a dizzying array of designs that sometimes seem contradictory in style. The pattern numbers are, of course, central to identifying that uniquely diverse style of porcelain.
Why Murray never published his research may seem a mystery. But getting to know his family, I started to understand that it might have been exactly because he was a famous literary agent; to Murray and Gina, books were about the art of writing, about perfection, the same level of artistry that Murray admired in the porcelain. For Murray, who did not excel at school but turned into an extraordinary literary agent representing authors of great talent, publishing a book himself was clearly unthinkable.
Now, many years later and after my unsuccessful odyssey to help him publish that book, I am thrilled to present the first batch from his collection for sale, and a website with his research work will follow in the coming year. About selling off the collection, his daughter Claudia told me that she is pleased to know that these beautiful pieces will soon be in the hands of those who will appreciate them; this is how Murray would have liked it.
And Murray himself? To use his favourite expression, he would no doubt be 'tickled pink' to see countless people take joy in the beautiful pieces he so painstakingly assembled.
Samuel Alcock & Co
The Samuel Alcock factory was operative in Staffordshire between 1822 and 1856, after which it was bought by Sir James Duke and Nephews. The factory started as a partnership between the young Samuel Alcock and the older Ralph Stevenson, who provided the factory and capital. Alcock quickly took the business, then called Samuel Alcock & Co, to great heights, building one of the biggest factories of its time. Alcock jumped on the new Rococo Revival fashion and served a huge new middle-class market.
The reason we now don't hear much about Samuel Alcock porcelain is that much of it has been mis-identified over the years and attributed to Coalport, Ridgway, Rockingham or others; Alcock did not mark any of his porcelain save a few rare pieces, and the numbering system is difficult to understand. However, the wares are still widespread and many are of great quality.