I want to show you this sweet pair of show people. To me, they are what Staffordshire figures are all about.
Figures such as these give us rare glimpses of the musicians who entertained people of all classes in the early 19th century. The fair ground was their performance venue, and they sang ballads and played music that had been familiar to English folk for generations.
Small, sweet bocage figures in good condition are very difficult to find--more so if you want a pair. The centuries have taken their toll. When this pair first came my way, I thought the enamels had misfired because they looked terrible. The bocage leaves were brown, a good tobacco shade of brown, and the spaces between the bocage leaves were filled with black fuzzy stuff. A life time of exposure to dirt, including a coal burning fire and tobacco smoke, had left their mark. These figures are made by the potbank that my friend Malcolm Hodkinson has dubbed "Big Flower" and Big Flower enamels are usually good, so I rolled up my sleeves and got going. I shan't confess how many hours it took to get these clean. I am sure the pros have a quick way, but for this amateur it was slow and methodical cleaning, aided by Q-tips, a soft toothbrush and a dental pick. Eventually, the figures glowed.
Restoration on these figures is minimal: one leaf tip and half a bocage flower on her; a few leaf tips and the end of the raised horn on him. Interestingly, I have lots of showmen in my archive, but not one holds two original trumpets. At best, the end of the raised trumpet is invariably restored.
I have repeatedly observed the two-tone yellowy green painting on the backs of these figures and on the backs of other figures attributed to this 'Big Flower' pot bank. The work of the same hands or a style taught in-house? We shall never know.
I think this pair is as good as I will find. The colors are so bright and pretty, redolent of the show ground in days gone by. Looking at them makes me happy!
My friend Melanie complains there are no early Staffordshire fish. She is right...almost, or at least half right. Look at this lovely mermaid, about 9" tall.
Daft, isn't she? But that's the quirkiness I love in figures. My friend Malcolm asks why this fish has wings. I ask if you have ever seen a mermaid? If you haven't....well, maybe they do really have wings. Seems our potter saw one with wings, at least in his imagination. Or perhaps those wings are fins that have evolved.
Of course, mermen or Tritons are more common than mermaids when it comes to Staffordshire, at least. Such fish-tailed sea gods generally appear to have been made by the Wood and Cadlwell partnership...but give me the mermaid instead, please.
Courtesy Elinor Penna
The argument could be made that mermaids and mermen are mammals rather than fish...but please find another blog to debate this. When I think "fish," I always think of Staffordshire figures depicting the element Water. As you know, our potters made figural representations of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. Water is usually depicted as a fisherwoman holding fish in her skirt.
Pearlware figure titled WATER. The lady holds fish in her raised apron,
OK, I admit Water holds really tiny fish. But what about these charming children each holding a large fish. Formed as candlesticks, these figures are unlike anything I have recorded hitherto. Yummy colors.
I haven't forgot the dolphin alongside Venus, because we all know that dolphins are mammals rather than fish. But if you know how I can save the fish in our pond from a very predatory heron, please email me. Staffordshire heron? Definitely not...or should I say not yet. You just never know what will turn up next.
1/23 Update: Note that some of the photos below are slide shows. Click on the arrow top right of the photo to see more. And I have added a picture of John Howard, found on my phone!
Going to NY this January was, to put it mildly, an ordeal. The weather caused havoc with my flights. Manhattan was as gloomy, gray and wet as you could imagine. My sun-drenched South African soul was wretched! Walking consisted of choosing between dipping into a puddle, sinking in snow, or skating on ice. Are human beings meant to live thus? As the third week in January is the coldest in the year in NY, why would anyone in their right senses designate it as Antiques Week for the city?
The Ceramics Fair had a new location this year. Its former grand home on 5th Avenue is being renovated--although I thought it quite charming and perfect as it was. The bland, cramped new location leaves a lot to be desired, but once I got through the doors all that was forgotten. The buzz of the crowd coupled with the display of ceramics was dizzying. Sadly, there was less pottery this year. Some of the smaller dealers had not reappeared--it seems space was tight for the fair this year, and the economy is not booming. Their wares were missed because there wasn't that general sprinkling of figures that I have enjoyed in prior years. On the other hand, there were new faces at the fair. Martyn Edgell was over from the UK for the first time with a lovely array of early ceramics, including figures. Too much fun poking through his stock. Philip Carrol was back for the second year in a row with an impressive selection of important, carefully chosen items that really took my breath away. Nice surprise. Philip has just gotten his web site up and running and he tells me that he will be adding figures to it when he returns from NY. Yay, Philip and Martin! Way to go. We love seeing the trade expand.
Simon Westman's stand looked great. Beautiful bits but nothing figural this time. Simon has a great eye and I know he will be adding figures to his stock in time. Alan Kaplan's wares were magnificent. Nothing enamel-painted this time though because space was tight--but visit the Kaplan's NY gallery for enamel-painted wares. Last but certainly not least: John Howard hauled over the usual huge array of wares of all sorts to pack his cases. Browsing and buying could not have been more fun.
I didn't linger in NY for any of the other shows. I had seen what I wanted to see. I got out despite a fresh five inches of snow. Temperatures this weekend are going to plummet to the singe digits (in Fahrenheit!) so I am pleased to be home. I hope the 2012 Ceramics Fair is at another venue. And can anyone explain to me why a security man had to search my handbag as I ENTERED the fair?
The year kicks off in a big way with the 2011 New York Ceramics Fair this week. I always look forward to seeing ALL the stock that UK dealers haul over to New York for the Ceramics Fair each year, and this January I intend having an up-close look at this pair of lions, in the stock of John Howard.
John has a very good eye for pottery that has that quirky quality I love, so I don't expect these lions to disappoint. The molds appear to be very sharp, the colors are hardly run-of-the-mill, and I love the bases.... and when last have you seen lions with tails tipped in red?
Although lions of this sort turn up every few years, I don't own a pair. My heart belongs to a pair that lives in another collection. You can see them in my book (page 109). Next to them, all other lions have, hitherto, paled in significance. But something about John's lions presses a button. They just might be IT.
On the other hand, dealers Simon Westman, Martyn Edgell, and Philip Carrol might well have something that surprises me. That's it about the Ceramics Fair: you just never know what you might find. Even though I will pounce on Martyn, John, Simon, and Philip's stands first, there just may be a must-have item for sale elsewhere. I am not a dealer's dream customer because I don't scoop up masses of items. Even if I had the funds, I wouldn't shop that way. I far prefer savoring the pleasure of one special purchase. But my camera will be active and I hope to start posting pictures of the fair this weekend.
Collecting is a very personal thing and, much as I love early Staffordshire figures, there are some I just don't want to own. Of course, these may be the very figures you covet--but the world would be a boring place if we all liked the same objects. I will confess that pearlware musicians of this form are not to my liking.
As you can see, there are four musicians in this ensemble. They display beautifully as a pair, trio, or quartet. The quality is usually very good. So why don't I love them? To my mind, the figures look very continental. Nothing seems English about them. They are formed after Derby figures which were in turn inspired by Meissen figure forms. Below are Derby figures.
Derby porcelain figures ca 1825.
Continental porcelain figures.
From the stock of Castle Antiques.
On the other hand, similarly styled figures--perhaps even from the same figure molds-- were used to create composite groupings of musicians that appear very English. In this context, I find these figure forms charming. The whole grouping is redolent of the English countryside on a beautiful summer's day. Nothing at all prissy about these. Nothing evocative of Derby porcelain.
And below we have the same figure types yet again. This time they have a naive charm that makes them very Staffordshire. Not a hint of possible porcelain prototypes--and indeed I believe these were formed without any thought to the porcelain forms that begat them.
Each to his own. I know of several people who like and own the musician quartet that set off this train of thought. That we all like different things makes collecting fun.
This 2nd century sculpture of a dog (sans tail) is a Roman copy of a long-lost Hellenistic bronze from the 2nd century BCE. The sculpture seems to have floated around Rome until the 1750s when an Englishman, Henry Constantine Jennings. saw it in a pile of rubble. The perfect souvenir of The Grand Tour! Jennings promptly bought it for £80. Noting the dog’s broken tail, he dubbed the sculpture the Dog of Alcibiades. I can't get my tongue around that word!
The Dog of Alcibiades in the British Museum. Photo courtesy Mike Peel
Why the Dog of Alcibiades? The Greek writer Plutarch’s biography of the Alcibiades (a 5th century BCE general) tells that Alcibiades cut off the tail of his large dog. The reason? Read for yourself:
Possessing a dog of wonderful size and beauty, which had cost him seventy minas, he had its tail cut off, and a beautiful tail it was, too. His comrades chid him for this, and declared that everybody was furious about the dog and abusive of its owner. But Alcibiades burst out laughing and said: "That's just what I want; I want Athens to talk about this, that it may say nothing worse about me.
Hmm…politicians! Alcibiades wanted people to talk about his dog, and Jennings probably felt the same way. He shipped his Dog back to England, where it became famous and was dubbed Jennings Dog. Jennings himself was called Dog-Jennings! Many replicas were made—sometimes in pairs and always with intact tails-- because, as Dr Johnson said, the Dog made “ a most noble appearance in a gentleman's hall". By 1778, Jennings had to sell the Dog to settle gambling debts. Charles Duncombe bought it for 1,000 guineas (£1050) and for the next 150 years the Dog guarded the entrance to the family home, Duncombe Park. In 1925, inheritance taxes forced the conversion of Duncombe Park to a girls’ school. In 2001, it was sold. At that point, the Dog of Alcibiades went up for sale too. Frantic fund raising secured the sculpture for the nation. As a result, you can now see the Dog of Alcibiades, or Jennings Dog, in the British Museum.
The popularity of the Dog resulted in copies popping up in various parks and public places throughout Britain in ensuing decades. You can still see a pair in the grounds of Basildon Park in the UK. And a 19thC pair formed part of the estate of the NY billionairess Leona Helmsly who bequeathed $12 million to her Maltese poodle.
Of course, Staffordshire potters had a go at making earthenware replicas too. This large pearlware model is over 17" tall and probably was made by Wood and Caldwell circa 1800. I admit to not liking this Staffordshire Dog of Alcibiades--too wolf-like for my taste. (Hear my husband’s sigh of relief: one figure Myrna does NOT want!)
I think the smaller, and much nicer, dog John Howard sold a while back is also a Dog of Alcibiades--or a very close relative.
Photo courtesy John Howard.
And thanks to Andrew Dando for pointing out that the little dog in my last blog posting is clearly derived from Jennings Dog. The pose is less aggressive and less ferocious--no raised ruff of fur, no bared fangs,--so I live with him/her very happily.
My friend Bob says that my little dog reminds him of Toby, the Punch and Judy dog. This connection I like, even if it stretches the facts. So while the dog lives in my collection, Toby he shall be.
Nothing gives me as much pleasure each day as my beloved English Cocker Spaniel, Johnny Be Goode. Admittedly, his adolescence has its challenges, but it is so worthwhile. And because I love dogs so much, I am always on the lookout for Staffordshire dogs. Victorian dogs abound, but I want good pre-Victorian examples. I bought this one quite recently.
Nice, isn't he? Very doggy. No restorations. Even his ears are original. As for his breed....pound pup?
About two years ago, I bought this little spaniel. I already have this model, one of the very first figures I bought. But the colors here are so pretty, I couldn't resist adding it to the kennel.
At the other end of the quality spectrum, I have a great fondness for these tiny "Sherratt" dogs. I have three now, I believe. They live scattered among bigger figures and they add immense naive charm.
These dogs are no-maintenance...and, unlike Johnny, they won't chew my sunglasses.
A popular magazine recently trumpeted the "return" of a movie star's face. Apparently, she had abandoned her plastic surgery/filler routine and her face was looking normal. That same week, I ran into an acquaintance who is a plastic surgery addict. I admit to staring at her face intently as she talked. Nothing quite worked right. A mask of horrors. And too much restoration on a piece of pottery is like too much facial restoration: it detracts rather than enhances.
In prior centuries, broken ceramic articles were not routinely tossed aside. What to do in an age before superglue? Well, metal was routinely used for ceramic repair. A lost handle, the tip of a spout...whatever it was, the tinker took care of it when he did his rounds. Plates were rejoined using metal rivets. You can see many examples of truly innovative repairs on Andrew Baseman's site, Past Imperfect, by clicking here
Unique pearlware equestrian figure from the stock of John Howard.
Similar creativity was applied to repairing figures. This enormous 19" equestrian is available from John Howard. Click here
to see and read more. It is a WOW figure. Truly impressive. But notice the old repairs to the hind legs, which have been repaired with metal rivets....and, best of all, John has left them this way. The rivets are part of the figure's history and add to its charm. Yay, John! Thank you for leaving it alone.
One of my many resolutions for 2011 is to be more tolerant of damage to my figures. I am working on it already and own a growing number of figures that I have chosen not to restore. Don't get me wrong: there are times when restoration is a must, and I am very appreciative of the extraordinary expertise of professional restorers. But when it comes to poor restoration I will never be tolerant. In fact, I have become quite adept at stripping it off. A while ago, I got a little figure in a lot at auction. The top of the bocage had been overpainted and looked lumpy. To strip off the old restoration, I applied a coat of stripper. Surprise! The green came away to reveal a perfect little squirrel sitting atop a perfect bocage. No damage at all.
About 20 years ago I knew dealers who owned an impressive Toby jug. It was a highly desirable Rodney jug but at some point it had lost its head. Almost certainly in the 1800s, somebody thought enough of that jug to have an outstanding replica of the head made in bell metal. Fast forward to the 1980s, and the dealers thought better. They had a replacement head made by casting off a similar jug in the Brighton Museum. "Metal Micky", as they called their jug, had a new ceramic head. It was a very perfect head but each time I looked at it, it looked a little less in keeping with the body. Too much plastic surgery, if you get my drift. After about a decade, I thought the head had yellowed. Perhaps they did too. Anyway, the jug was sold to a US dealer. I was talking to him about it last year, and he had no idea that the jug had once had a metal head. "Metal Micky"--an object that was uniquely beautiful and touching in that it manifested the thoughtful care that had been bestowed upon a beloved object--had just become a second-rate jug with a restored head!
In 2011, think before you demand perfection from your pots. Their scrapes and bruises are integral to the stories they tell.