An example of armorial ware made for the De Wit family. The Englishman John White came to the Cape in 1755 and identified himself so closely with his new country that he chose to be known as Jan de Wit. Armorial ware is decorated with heraldic arms and crests. Porcelain decorated in this way was madde to European order in China, espescially during the 18th century.


The ceramics in our collection originate from many parts of the world, mainly Asia, Europe, Africa, and in particular South Africa. Contemporary works by South African ceramic artists form an important and developing part of the collection.

Asian ceramics

Chinese ceramics form the largest section, dating from as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC–AD 220). These early ceramics mostly belong to the Judge RPB Davis collection, which was received as a bequest in 1948. Besides Han ceramics, the collection also includes wares from the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. Articles on the Davis collection had been published in the Bulletin of the South African Cultural History Museum (no. 9 of 1988; no. 14 of 1993), and Apollo, The International Magazine of the Arts, in March 1999.There are about one hundred and thirty items in the Davis collection. The collection is representative of most of the classic ceramic types that epitomises early Chinese ceramics. 

Asian export ceramics are well represented in Iziko’s collection and include a variety of wares made for export during the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries. Blue and white ceramics as well as polychrome ceramics, including famille rose wares form part of the collection. The William Fehr collection at the Castle of Good Hope is particularly rich in this field. 

Japanese ceramic plates bearing the monogram of the VOC within a central medallion is representative of the type of official ware that was used at the VOC’s various colonial offices, including Batavia and the Cape.

Eighteenth century armorial porcelain decorated with coats of arms is also represented. The coats of arms are those of mainly Dutch colonial families who resided at the Cape during the eighteenth century.

In 1994 the former South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM) participated in an international exhibition of Chinese export ceramics held at the National Museum of History in Taipei, Taiwan. The exhibition was followed by an international symposium at which delegates discussed various aspects of trade ceramics. A number of works from our collection was taken to the National Museum of History in Taiwan for exhibition and Esther Esmyol delivered a paper at the symposium. A Catalogue of the International Invitational Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Trade Ceramics was published at the time.

Recent trends show a renewed interest in Chinese ceramics held in South African museum collections, as we have increasingly been receiving requests from students who wish to further their studies in this field. Esther Esmyol has also been approached by ceramist Nina Shand to participate in writing a new book on South African ceramics, focussing in particular on historical ceramics of the Cape and the trade routes of Asian ceramics to Africa, including references to contemporary ceramic artists who have been inspired by these kinds of wares.

We have also in recent years been participating in the Franschhoek Art in Clay Festival by way of temporary exhibitions held at the La Motte Museum. On these occasions ceramics had been selected from our holding rooms for exhibition at this prestigious venue.

European ceramics

English ceramics are present in the collection, dating from the eighteenth through to the twentieth centuries, including some fine examples of tea and coffee ware, as well as dinner and fruit services. Some German and French porcelain are also represented. Eighteenth century Delft ware is present in the form of tiles, as well as garniture and tableware sets. Collections such as the Pentz and Lidderdale hold good examples of European ceramic wares.

African ceramics

The former African Studies department of the South African Museum built a strong collection of African, and in particular southern African, pottery vessels. The collecting work was mostly done by anthropologists during field trips to rural areas. The methods of making and firing vessels were documented in field notes and photographs at the time, today forming part of our archives and being an important resource in the study of local ceramics. With the formation of Iziko, this collection became part of the Social History Collections department where it physically joined the rest of the South African ceramics collections, as part of the integration process of previously separated collections.

Not to be forgotten is the fact that the oldest African pottery in our collection originated in Egypt. The bulk of the Ancient Egyptian collection of ceramics dates from the Early Dynastic Period (3050-2686 BCE). These artefacts were excavated during Sir Flinders Petrie’s 1911-1912 and 1912-1913 expeditions to the Kafr-Tarkhan region.

South African ceramics

The South African ceramics collection includes the work of early twentieth century pioneering South African production pottery studios such as the Ceramic Studio and Linn Ware, Globe Pottery, Dykor Ceramic Studio, Grahamstown Pottery, and the Kalahari Studio, to name a few. Community based pottery projects such as Rorke’s Drift Pottery, Kolonyama, and Thaba Bosigo Ceramics are also represented.

Ceramic artists who have played an important role in the development of the South African studio pottery movement in South Africa during the mid-twentieth century are well represented in the collection, such as Esias Bosch (1923-2010), Hyme Rabinowitz (1920-2009), Tim Morris (1941-1990), and Maarten Zaalberg (1924-1989), amongst others. The William Fehr Collection, now part of Iziko Social History, was one of the first public collections to include work by Esias Bosch. In the early 1960s Fehr collected seminal works created by Bosch at a time when this ceramic artist focussed exclusively on working with reduction-fired stoneware in the Anglo-Oriental tradition. These works are included in the collection at Rust en Vreugd.

The former SACHM started collecting South African studio ceramics in around 1984. This mission gained impetus with the formation of Iziko and the Social History Collections department. Incorporating the work of up-and-coming ceramic artists from all over the country has always been an important goal. To this end Iziko hosted a series of exhibitions in the foyer of the former National Mutual Building (now the Iziko Social History Centre). These exhibitions formed part of the Bumba udongwe – Working with clay project held between 1998 and 2002 when we annually embarked on field trips to townships in and around Cape Town to engage with emerging ceramic artists. The artists were interviewed at their work places and a series of documentary photographs recording working methods and styles were done by the late photographer and curator, Pam Warne. During this process we discovered artists who were relatively unknown at the time, but through the exposure which the museum gave to their work, some of these artists definitely became better known, one being Andile Dyalvane, today one of South Africa’s foremost young ceramic artists.

Today we hold in the region of 600 works that have been made in South Africa by production potteries (of which many are no longer in existence) and studio ceramicists (late and contemporary). We are one of the few museums in South Africa who have this kind of collection, in particular regarding the work of production potteries. The collection is frequently studied, especially by students of fine art departments such as that of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. Many of the pieces in our collection will also feature in a new book which is about to be published by scholar and long-time researcher of South African ceramics, Wendy Gers.

Fired exhibition

To celebrate the integration of our South African ceramic collections, Iziko Social History Collections opened an exhibition titled Fired in the Granary at the Castle of Good Hope in February 2012. The exhibition is of a permanent nature and proudly shows a selection of ceramics that were brought together over more than a hundred years. The exhibition celebrates the artistry of South African potters and ceramic artists from the archaeological past to the present. It embraces the diversity of locally made ceramics and brings together the work of rural and urban potters. 

Fired has proven to be very popular. We have offered many guided tours and some educational workshops to share the stories and skills behind the works on show. Fired has also formed the perfect milieu for book launches, such as Elizabeth Perrill’s Zulu Pottery, and lectures by visiting scholars such as Wendy Gers. The exhibition has also been reviewed extensively in the printed press, one review appearing in the prestigious international magazine African Arts (vol. 46, no. 1, Spring 2013).

In 2012/2013 Fired was acknowledged as Best New Museum Project at an award ceremony hosted by the Western Cape Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. The award we received on this occasion is currently on display in Fired.

Esther Esmyol has recently been invited to do a presentation at ACASA’s (Arts Council of the African Studies Association) 16th Triennial Symposium on African Art hosted by the Brooklyn Museum in New York from 19 to 22 March 2014. The conference was attended by some 400 African art specialists from all over the world. Esmyol was also a recipient of a travel grant from ACASA. Her presentation focused on Fired as part of a session dicussing African Ceramics on Display: Beyond Didactics and Demonstrations.

Continued engagement with the ceramics community

To mark the opening of Fired in 2012, we arranged a special temporary installation of contemporary ceramic place settings in the prestigious Lady Anne Banqueting Hall at the Castle of Good Hope. The Banqueting Hall has an impressive set of long tables at which 101 people can be seated. The space is normally used on special occasions for private and official banquets and functions. For the special installation, popularly known as 101, contemporary makers of table ware were invited to each participate with a single place setting. The installation turned out to become an exciting event on the local arts calendar. Thus far we hosted three of these kinds of installations with the aim to enliven the historic spaces of the Castle and to continue engaging with trends in the creation of new ceramic works.

We have a long-standing working relationship with Ceramics Southern Africa (CSA), in particular with the Western Cape region. In 2014, which is the year in which Cape Town celebrates being World Design Capital, we partnered with CSA on a new temporary exhibition at the Slave Lodge called From African Earth: celebrating our African Vessel Heritage. The exhibition focusses on the genre of hand-built, smoke-fired vessels. Historical African vessels were selected from the Iziko holdings, and contemporary vessels specially created for the exhibition were sourced by CSA from all over South Africa. Internationally renowned ceramist Professor Magdalene Odundo (OBE) of the Farnham University in the UK was the guest speaker at the opening event on 13 November 2014. 

Stamp series

To coincide with the opening of From African Earth, the South African Post Office launched a new stamp series on South African Ceramic Vessels. Iziko Social History worked closely with the Post Office to develop a set comprising ten stamps with a booklet cover, as well as two commemorative envelopes. Works from Iziko’s Social History and Art Collections were specially selected for this series.


Esther Esmyol
Email: eesmyol@iziko.org.za
Telephone: +27 (0) 21 467 7205