One question frequently asked when I lecture is "How much do these figures cost?" Of course, the answer is: it depends. Admittedly a fine figure can cost a significant sum---but some of my personal favorites can be found for less than the cost of a night's accommodation in a mediocre NY (or London) hotel. There are thousands of such smaller figures, oozing charm and personality, but collectors stampeding for the next TeeTotal or Performing Dog group overlook them. I tell my audiences that I find greater satisfaction in a simple figure that is perfect than in a "highly desirable" figure gummed up by restoration. Give me a perfect or unusual figure, over that Performing Dog group with restored dogs--especially incorrectly restored dogs!
Now isn't that a great ram? And a very unusual model too. Don't you love the rich enamels. They are every bit as saturated with color as they appear in the picture, and the bluey glaze is sumptuous too. Look how it has puddled deliciously in the dimples of the ram's coat. The ram is terrific, but the little sheep, surrounded by flowers, is the cherry on the top! This figure is just 4 1/2" high, and the distinctive base and bocage attribute it to the Sherratt-style. For me, this figure has it all and it will give endless pleasure.
Another one bought for less than the cost of that blah hotel room is this little reading boy.
I bought this little reading boy at a venue where there were many larger, costlier figures--and lots of collectors. I probably bought the smallest and least expensive item in the room, overlooked by those in search of bigger trophies. But this little treasure just screams "Look at me" from whatever table corner I pop him on. Visitors to my home who know nothing about figures are always drawn to him. They smile as they look at him--as do I--and comment on his charm. I love holding this figure. Just 3 1/2" tall, it fits perfectly into my hand. As my fingers curl around it, the silky glaze warms quickly to my touch---and I think of a proud mother who, almost two centuries ago, perhaps displayed this figure and rejoiced in her child's new-found reading skills.
Here is one I had not seen before--and I am always looking for the unusual. The subject, Winter, is well represented in Staffordshire. But I have never seen this figure form, nor the other three figures that would complete this set of the Four Seasons.
Charming figure, isn't he? Look at those hands, ruddy from the cold and the thick fur on his hat and coat. He wears skates, as do many other Winters. But I have never seen Spring, Autumn, or Summer from this set. Have you?
How many enamel painted versions of the Seasons did the Potteries produce in the early 1800s? More than 20--I don't know exactly how many more, but I am working on it! Many of the sets are known from only one or two figures, but it seems reasonable to conclude that full sets were made. Some of the figures are quite small--notably the exquisitely delicate 51/2" figures first made by Neale & Co. in the 1780s and continued by the Wilson family until 1820. Others can be large and elaborate, such as the Walton figure, almost 9", with bocage. Some are male, others female. The variety is astounding!
In the 18thC the Four Seasons were especially symbolic because of James Thom's four poems, one named for each season. They first appeared as a complete edition titiled Seasons in 1730 and became perennial favorites. In the early 19thC the poems' focus on landscape made them particularly pertinent because the cult of the picturesque had fashionable folk scouring the countryside for artistic vistas. The Romantic Period of 1800-1830 renewed appreciation of the sentimental component of the poems and a range of decorative objects--including Staffordshire figures--reflected their significance.
Of course, I have no way of knowing who made this figure, but I have a theory. The over-emphasized modelling of the hands and bulging, heavily lidded eyes are typical of Ralph Wood toby jugs and figures. Could this be a Ralph Wood figure? He is almost 7" tall.
Hardly a cheerful topic for a first posting, but I am SO hot on this issue: the growing number of still-warm-out-the-kiln figures masquerading as genuine antiques. I am shocked, horrified, dismayed, and disgusted. At first, the trickle of figures seemed confined to online auctions (yes, eBay), but now they are slithering into listings at traditional auction houses.
Let's look at a figure that is faked too frequently. Below is a VERY CORRECT figure, referred to as Doctor Syntax Playing at Cards. A Sherratt-style pearlware figure, it was made in Staffordshire circa 1825 and is about 8" high. Doesn't the glaze flow across its surfaces deliciously? Aren't the enamels vivid yet subtle? Note that the bocage is assembled from numerous crisply molded pieces that look as if they have been cut out of dough with a cookie cutter. Altogether quite yummy.
Who was Doctor Syntax? Doctor Syntax was a fictional clergyman who starred in William Combe's trilogy of books, published between 1812 and 1821. The Doctor Syntax books were the Harry Potter books of their day, popular with adults and children alike. Doctor Syntax has a series of escapades, many of which were illustrated by Thomas Rowlandson. He does indeed play cards (in the book published in 1821), but that illustration differs markedly from this figure group. It seems that the story alone inspired the creation of the figure group.
This particular figure group has an interesting recent history. It came to auction after being discovered in a garden shed in England! It was in filthy but superb condition, probably because it had been saved from zealous domestic dusting. Why was it in a garden shed? I like to think that some man hid it there because his wife refused to have it in the house....but we shall never know.
How come the recent copies? A figure very like this is in Brighton Museum and was illustrated in the early 1990s in "Circus & Sport." Seems that this book fell into the hands of aspiring potters in Asia and, one by one, crude reproductions of most of the figures illustrated in it appeared on the market. Below are two such reproductions of Doctor Syntax Playing at Cards.
Nasty, aren't they? You can tell that these are reproductions with almost both eyes closed. No resemblance to any pearlware or creamware I have seen. Aside from the color palette and glazing being very wrong, just look at those bocages. On the original figure, the bocage has been carefully assembled from dozens of individual clay parts, each meticulously molded in its own press mold. But in the copies, the bocage is made from a single lump of clay. I suspect that the copies are much smaller in size than original figures, for this is the usual case. Note that on the copies the lettering on the titles lacks serifs, but early figures always have serifs on impressed lettering.
Copies or Fakes? What do we call these figures? They are routinely advertised as Staffordshire, which, I believe should only be said of figures made in Staffordshire. Anything else is misleading. Also, these figures are NOT at all old, but they are routinely presented as antiques. Unfortunately, when I see a fake figure on eBay, I just must write to the seller. My email usually starts with "I know you listed with the best intentions, so I am writing to explain to you that the figure you have listed is not antique but is of recent manufacture." In many cases, I get an apologetic response, which restores my faith in human nature for a few hours.....only to have my heart broken when the seller doesn't correct the listing! BTW, the very turquoise "beast" above finally sold, listed as "Art Nouveau!" Caveat Emptor.