Collecting early Staffordshire figures is not only for the rich. Those of us of modest means can splurge no more than the price of a cheap hotel room and still find a fabulous little figure. But sometimes we should stop and go WOW. And sometimes we should reach deep into our pockets and be ready to live on water and white bread for a while. For today's figure, I would live on water with no white bread for quite a while.
When I first met my friend Nick Burton, he insisted on taking me to Newcastle-on-Lyme to see what he considered the ultimate Staffordshire menagerie. Beyond our reach, behind glass, was this exquisite diminutive menagerie, quite unlike anything I had seen before. It was a little Wombwell's menagerie and I had to remind Nick that it was pictured in Halfpenny--but a teensy picture did not begin to do this object justice. The figure group was simply mouthwatering delicious. So frustrating not to be able to touch.
Fast forward some years, and Nick was helping me photograph for my book. We had arranged an appointment at Newcastle-under-Lyme to photograph the very same menagerie, and another appointment at the Fitzwilliam Museum to photograph the only other known example of that menagerie. Of course, photographing gives opportunity to do more than click the camera, and often Nick had to prod me back into action as I stood mesmerized by a figure. Anyway, on that day, Nick and I both drooled over the little menageries and frankly it was hard to put each one down. At the end of the day, as we ate our curry dinner, we were still debating which was the better menagerie. Which should we use for the book? In the end, the choice was a coin toss. But we agreed that either little Wombwell's menagerie was THE ultimate figure.
The smallest, the rarest, and probably earliest earthenware menagerie form. A little Wombwell's menagerie. H: 8-1/2'. Circa 1810. Reads THE LARGEST COLLECTION OF WILD ANIMALS WOMBWELL'S IMMENSE MENAGERIE OF WILD BEASTS &C. Photo courtesy Newcastle-under-Lyme Museum.
Not all menageries are created equal. 1. Polito's menagerie comes in two sizes, achieved by putting the standard backplate onto varying base forms and modifying the cast of characters standing on the base. Always in the "Sherratt" style. About 13" high. 2. Wombwell's large menagerie. An adaptation of the Polito's menagerie, with a change in titling, obviously. Again always in the "Sherrat" style. Height just over 13" 3. Wombwell's tiny menagerie. Height just 81/2". Not attributable to "Sherratt." Particularly fine and probably a precursor to the "Sherratt" type menageries.
George Wombwell, by the way, was the 19th century's ultimate menagerist. As a young cobbler, he bought two boa constrictors off the London dock in 1805 and made so much money showing them that he was able to start up his own traveling menagerie. He died in 1850--by which time he had three menageries--but menageries bearing his name toured until around 1930. In the early 19th century, the opportunity to observe animal behavior appealed to people from all walks of life. Wombwell's was summoned to exhibit before royalty on several occasions. But for the average man in the street, the arrival of a menagerie in his village meant an opportunity to verify the existence of hitherto mythical beasts. This was the era before photography and most people hadn't even seen a drawing of some of the menagerie's animal stars. Can you imagine seeing a lion or camel for the very first time? Can you imagine having a giraffe or elephant on an English market square? Having a menagerie visit your village was a life changing experience. For the collector, having a menagerie enter your collection is still a life changing experience!
The first Staffordshire menagerie I ever saw was a rather life changing experience. I traveled to Toronto to look at and hopefully bid on a rather perfect Polito's menagerie. How foolishly innocent I was! I didn't even get to raise my hand during the auction--that menagerie is now in captivity at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It had been bought for GBP500 at Grosvenor House in the early 1970s. It made GBP30,000 or GBP40,000 on that day in Toronto. Toronto was miserable, and on the way back I had so many flight problems that I ended up sleeping the night on the airport floor. I may have returned home empty handed, but my head was full to overflowing. Bill Kime, Waddington's extraordinarily knowledgable, patient, and kind expert, had allowed me to examine that menagerie to my heart's delight. The miseries of the trip are long forgotten, but the sensation that seeped into my pores as I touched that sacred object will be with me always.
Read all about menageries in my book, People, Passions, Pastimes, and Pleasures: Staffordshire Figures 1810-1835. I found this subject gripping. Staffordshire figures of menageries and their captive (and sometime escaped!) animals are colorful time capsules packed with astonishing tales of a bygone era.
The annual Staffordshire Figure Association meeting is over and, as always, a grand time was had by all. Early figures were well represented in the stock of dealers who had lugged their wares across the country for lucky collectors. Where else do you find so much Staffordshire--and so many collectors--in one spot?
James and Elizabeth Dunn's stand.
From Elinor Penna's stand
From Madelena's stand
From Bill Schaeffer's stand.
Highlight of the event, as always, was renewing friendships and making new ones. Biggest disappointment was the trip to Winterthur, which has recently 'inherited' a collection of Staffordshire figures. Bear in mind that some in our group had traveled thousands of miles and across oceans, wanting to see what Winterthur offered. Our lunch was downgraded to a boxed meal, which we were compelled to eat in the dark while listening to a lecture--and everyone struggled to open those boxes! After a sprint that criss-crossed the house and showed us nothing--at least one member of our group was unable to continue after that--we were taken to the figures themselves. They were disappointingly scant. Still in storage it seems, as Winterthur readies new display space. The entire group was disappointed with the whole Winterthur experience. On the positive side, perhaps this will discourage collectors from bequeathing their collections to museums. Believe me, they all have enough!
Odd though it may seem, I was particularly pleased to see on our travels two reproductions that I had not seen before. They are definitely quite vintage--probably early 20th century--and I am pleased I know such things exist so I can share that knowledge with you when I see such figures on the market. We had two great lectures. Stuart Slavid lectured on early Toby Jugs, and I have a love of these that goes back to my teenage years--in fact, early Tobies turned me into a serious collector. Philip Zimmerman's lecture on the appropriateness of conservation/restoration and the modern techniques used to assess authenticity left me with a lot to think about. A phrase Philip used has stuck in my mind: The Myth of Perfect Survival. It encapsulates my belief that far too many collectors do not ask the right questions of themselves and dealers when buying figures. They would far rather think these fragile treasures have survived the centuries unscathed. And the delusion of Perpetual Survival compels dealers and collectors to restore damage that should best be left alone. A shame, really, but that seems to be the current trend. Wait till all that restoration turns yellow in years to come. I am betting that stripping it off will be back in vogue before I am in my dotage!
Please note a second group photo has been added to yesterday's posting on Tam O'Shanter figures. And thank you to yet another generous collector for sharing. If you want to read more about the figures, including details on the people who inspired them, read my book People. Passions, Pastimes, and Pleasures: Staffordshire Figures 1810-1835.
Inebriated characters from a Scottish poem are improbable Staffordshire figure subjects, but Robert Burns's Tam O'Shanter, telling of drunken Tam's encounter with witches and warlocks, hit home in 19th century England. Ultimately, the tale's popularity turned poetry into pottery. Two collectors have generously shared their collections of Tam figures with us.
Staffordshire figures of Tam and Johnnie mimic the life-sized stone statues created around 1828 by a self-taught Scottish stonemason, James Thom. Thom’s statues--see below-- were first exhibited in Ayr in 1828. Their exhibition in London in 1829 was well received, and critics applauded the natural genius of the journeyman mason who had hitherto earned his keep chiseling tombstones. Thom produced replicas of the Tam and Johnnie statues in England between 1828 and 1835. He sent some to Philadelphia for exhibit and in 1836 sailed to America and ultimately settled there.
Because Staffordshire figures of Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie copy Thom’s stone statues, we conclude they were potted no earlier than 1828, the year in which Thom’s statues debuted. (See how knowing a figure's design source guides in dating it?) Possibly the figures were not modeled directly from Thom’s statues. Perhaps a Scottish pot bank, inspired by Thom’s work, produced the first clay Tam and Johnnie figures. Or perhaps a print--such as the one below-- prompted the potting of the first figures.
“Tam O’Shanter” remains one of Burns’s best loved works, and figures of Tam and Johnnie abounded into the Victorian era. Such later versions are not a patch on the early figures. They are clunky and crude.
More than one early 19th century figure potter made Tam and Johnnie. The most popular figures are in the "Sherratt" style—as are the smaller pair and the table- based pair in our collectors' photos above. These figures are a lovely size—around 7”. But they are dwarfed by the rare large pair at over 15”. Whatever the size, figures of Tam and Souter are not that common, although several potters made them. In this case, I would avoid a single figure. Hold out for a pair!
I am quite disheartened at the number of reproduction Victorian figures for sale at auction and in cyberspace. A veritable flood of them. And when they are described as early 19th century--which happens very often--they can be termed fakes. My era of expertise is pre-Victorian figures, yet that doesn't stop me from knowing a lot about Victorian wares too. But it does stop me taking on the issue, case by case, because I simply don't have the time. Victorian Collectors: Where are you? Don't you care that new collectors are being bamboozled by these fakes? Don't you know that the market for genuine wares will be spoiled when collecting becomes just not be worth the risk? One day will anyone know the difference?
The problem is not nearly as bad with pre-Victorian figures. The fakes are so easily recognizable. But auction houses and inexperienced dealers still get tripped up by reproduction figures that were made earlier in the 20th century in imitation of early 19thC wares. In particular, the smaller version of the Sherratt bull baiting, The New Marriage Act, and the Tythe Pig. So three cheers for Mellors & Kirk for cataloging the late versions of the bull baiting and marriage act correctly for their upcoming auction. Grander auction houses could learn from Mellors!
Coming up at Mellors in the UK on Sept 23, these are both correctly cataloged as early 20th century. There are a million ways of knowing these figures are wrong, but if you want just one quick tip, look at the font used for script. It lacks serifs--those little pointy things at the end of letters. Early figures almost always use serifs when uppercase script is used.
And thank you to eBay seller 'madelena' for correctly describing this Tithe Pig group as Staffordshire, made by Kent in the early to mid 20th century.
Just last night, I emailed an eBay seller with a pair of Kent figures of the same vintage, described as late 18th or early 19th century. I always check my email in the same motion that switches off my alarm (this is one of the joys of an iPhone) and this morning I was thrilled to awaken to the seller's immediate and positive response. Clearly, he had made an honest mistake. He had paid good money when he bought these figures. Not wanting to dupe someone else, he changed his listing immediately. It happens to all of us--we learn the hard way.
I hate it when bad things happen to good people. Please watch out!
To harp on the point in an earlier posting, it really is possible to find good looking figures with minimal restoration. Yes, I have plenty of restored figures in my collection. But I carefully weigh the nature of the restoration and the rarity of the figure before going that route! Just look at the difference. Below is an absolutely charming putto from Andrew Dando.
From the stock of Andrew Dando, H: 4-1/8". No restoration.
The figure is described as having "a few small chips. No restoration." Again, those words "No Restoration" give me goosebumps...justifiably so. If Andrew Dando says No Restoration, you can bank on it.
Now I guess Andrew could have spent a few pounds touching up the chips on this adorable figure. But why would he have wanted to do that? Possibly it would have delighted some shallow customer. But little chips are part of the charm, part of all this figure has endured in 200 years. Start gumming it up by touching here and there and pretty soon it might have looked like the beast below.
For sale at an unnamed web site, this cherub appears to have a totally restored bocage.
The cherub above is available from a cyberspace store. It appears to have a totally restored bocage. Who knows what else is right or wrong with it. The description reads: The Cherub has a wreath of flowers on his head. He is holding a yellow basket of flowers. He is wearing a sash outlined in blue with dark red and white stripes. There is bocage behind the figure. The figure is 4" High. England,1820-1830 Actually, the description simply tells me what I can already see by looking at the figure! You can't fault it. Indeed, the basket is yellow, the sash has stripes, and there is a bocage behing the figure. But there is no mention of condition. Perhaps an enquiry is needed--but I prefer to be told up front.
Because a cherub is a fairly common figure, restored or significantly damaged ones abound and can be bought quite inexpensively. And you can buy another, and another...in the end, you will be looking at a shelf of restoration. Instead, save the pennies till a perfect one comes along. It's perfection makes it uncommon and you will enjoy it forever.
Remember, the rarer the figure, the more restoration you should tolerate. Realistically, if you want to own a Sherratt bullbaiting, expect restoration--despite the steep price. But even quite uncommon figures do occur with no restoration, so never give up hope!
Afterthought: I have only one cherub in my collection, and it is rather like Andrew's. No restoration. Just a hairline, a flake of enamel, and two teensy chips. Bought it years ago...after the dealer had just dropped it. Thought I better grab it before more damage was done. To my mind it is Perfect.
It's not all it's cracked up to be. I don't know the origin of that phrase, but it certainly applies to Staffordshire figures, even when there is not a crack to be seen. We spend a lot of time looking at gorgeous things on this site. But truth be told, lots of very ugly figures were made in the early 19th century. A few have popped onto my screen in recent days. Let's see what you think.
Coming up at Stair on Sept 12, these remind me of the crowd taking mud baths after our dip in Israel's Dead Sea.
Pearlware busts of Homer and Plato coming up at Christies, London. Very nice that they have impressed E. Wood marks...but could you live with either one of these men?
This lion was scheduled to go to a new home today, Sept 8. Hitherto caged at Bonhams, Chester. Looks like his meal is not agreeing with him!
Now I am not saying these pieces are not in fine condition and that they may or may not be had for very reasonable prices. But you do have to like what you collect. Thankfully, we do not all like the same things, so perhaps these figures will find loving homes. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!
Amazing how loaded those two little words can be. No restoration....that I can detect. No restoration...that I want to tell you about. No restoration...since last week. Amazing the twists that many in the trade put on the words "No restoration" to be able to maintain their belief in themselves.
When I saw Nick Burton's Tithe Pig on his web sight this week and read the words "No Restoration" I literally got goosebumps. No secret that Nick is a good friend of mine, but he also happens to use those words correctly. In Nick's vocabulary, no restoration means that what you see was entirely made on the same date! Yes, there may be nicks (no pun intended) and some damage...but no restorer has hacked away at the figure, stuck on missing parts to the best of his imagination, sprayed away with modern gunk, etc. I know of only two other dealers whom I trust implicitly when they say No Restoration--or describe the extent of restoration. Sad reflection on the state of humanity, is it not?
Tithe Pig from Nick Burton. No Restoration.
Earlier this year, Bonhams London sold a wonderful pair of figures with some damage but No Restoration. The figures made a good price--and I believe that savvy bidders pushed the bidding to a level it would NOT have reached had the figures been restored. They loved the fact that the figures had not been messed with restorer's gunk. Sophisticated English collectors are particularly tolerant of figures in original condition. Unfortunately, much of the public--and the American public in particular--want their figures undamaged. So the trade restores to accommodate their clients. But true connoisseurs appreciate a fine figure with No Restoration.
I am increasingly disheartened by the vast number of reproduction figures on the market. Most of them are Victorian. Reproductions of earlier figures are less prolific and less well done, fortunately. Despite this, I routinely note gross cataloging errors by respectable auction houses. So please, unless you know what you are doing don't buy at auction. Buy from a reputable dealer. Insist that the approximate date of manufacture and ALL restoration be noted on the receipt--and let the notation state that this is the full extent of the restoration. Yes, I know most dealers are charming and you feel bad asking for this in writing, but this is business! If the dealer tells you there is no restoration, make him or her write that on the receipt too. An honest dealer should have no problem with this request.
Learn to look for restoration yourself. Compare the figure to a picture of a good example to make sure that it looks as it should. Maybe that spade in the man's hand should be longer--or perhaps it shouldn't be a spade at all! Perhaps the bocage is the wrong shape for this figure--I have known a complete bocage to be taken off a broken figure and transplanted onto a good a figure. Look at the bocage to see if it appears to be the same shades of green throughout and are the leaves all formed the same--or do some look different? Was the figure once mounted onto a base that is missing? Can you detect any changes in the crazing (or lack of crazing) that tells you that there is a restoration? Learn the difference in feel between good pot and restored pot. DON'T tap away with your teeth as some do. I don't believe this works and it is just too disgusting.
Bocage transplant. This is a fine figure (as best I can remember) with a perfect bocage. Trouble is that the bocage and the figure are not original to each other. The good fit makes this restoration--which drastically impacts value--difficult to detect. Knowing that the potbank that made this particular figure group NEVER used the associated bocage was the first clue to detecting the problem. Paint stripper on the back of the tree trunk dissolved away the restorer's work.