I have updated my three volumes of my eBook, Obsession, to reflect changes in our collection and advances in my knowledge. The book is available for free download on my Books menu on this site.
As 2021 fades with a whimper, I look back on the extraordinary figures that have crossed my path. The variety that emanated from Staffordshire kilns is seemingly endless. I confine my collection to enamel-painted figures. If not, I would have had to bid on this remarkable underglaze-decorated figure of Roger Giles.
Roger Giles was a Devonshire schoolteacher and jack-of-all-trades. His claim to fame rests is that he advertised for sale fresh eggs “new laid by him every day”. Staffordshire figure potters fashioned crudely comical figures of a squatting gentleman that are said to represent Giles laying those eggs. They were made well into the Victorian era, and nasty fake-similes persist today, but a pre-1840 Roger Giles can prove elusive. Add to that, some can be a tad too vulgar for my taste.
Below is my Roger Giles, made by the "Sherratt" pot bank. Like others of his ilk, he has holes in his hat, so perhaps he was intended as a pepper pot or hat pin holder. Like most, he is about 4.5 inches tall--significantly smaller than the gentleman at the top of this post. At a good 8 inches, that Roger Giles is by far the biggest I have seen, and the top of his head is removable (is he a jar?). He oozes personality, and I am pleased he has found a home in a remarkably interesting and fine collection.
Another unrecorded figure that quietly changed hands recently was this gem that went through auction in a lot with another. Described as a "figure playing a lyre," he is Apollo, but given the girly hairstyle (not to mention our "Woke" world), the description was probably intentionally gender-neutral. What is interesting about Apollo is that he can be attributed to John Dale. The distinctive bocage flowers nail the attribution, and the decoration of the base is rather like that on other Dale figures.
These same Dale features (and others) are apparent on the spill vase below. (See Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, vol.1 for Dale attributes.)
John Dale was active as a potter from 1818, and Apollo looks like a circa 1820s figure. Dale made other classical figures in the same style (with various but typical Dale bocages and bases), as recorded in Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, vol.4. From top left they Aesculapius, Bacchus, Venus, Juno, and Mercury. Today, all are particularly rare and are known from one or two examples at most. Click each image to enlarge.
Clearly there was a significant market for classical figures in the 1820s, yet collectors tend to relegate those figures to earlier decades. How wrong that would be, and a message from the grave hammers home that lesson. Let me explain.
The enamels on this figure group of Peace below suggest it was made in the 1790s. On the base are a helmet and other implements of war as well as a broken chain, all of which symbolize the fight for freedom. The male figure holds a shield decorated with the fleur-de-lys of the French monarchy, and he is laying down his arms at the feet of the the female, who is Peace. She is offering him a Liberty bonnet. Clasped hands of fraternity are on the obelisk, so the group has been interpreted as suggesting or commemorating a peaceful resolution of the French Revolution. Given that, a date in the 1790s seems appropriate for this group.
As the French revolution was finite, one would have expected this model to have outlived its usefulness by 1800. Would you even consider dating an example to the 1820s? No? Think again! Fast forward to 1974, and this unpainted group, from the same molds, was unearthed in Staffordshire. (The helmet probably went the way of the lady's arm!)
The potter Enoch Wood was a great recorder of the events of his day. For that purpose, he buried caches of his pottery for future historians to find. When the foundation of St. Paul's Church, Burslem, was laid in 1828, Wood left a cache beneath it. Included was this group of Peace. A demolition contractor unearthed it in 1974, and it came to auction last year. No saying for certain when it was made, but I strongly suspect it was made in the 1820s rather than the 1790s.
Also in the cache was a shard corresponding to a figure of Medea, as seen below. Again, it seems reasonable to conclude that as the shard was made in the 1820s, the figure may have been made then too. While there is no hard line in the sand, classical figures on square bases with a line are assumed to predate 1815.
Enoch Wood's legacy does not end there. In 1938, a cache of his wares was unearthed beneath the Burslem Old Town Hall. From their subject matter, they date to the 1820s. Among them were shards of classical figures of Bacchus and Ariadne that, like Medea, we might have relegated to an earlier period based on their bases, their designs, and their subject matter. The shards are below. Alongside the shard of Ariadne is a figure corresponding to it.
Does that mean that all examples of Bacchus and Ariadne from these molds date to the 1820s? Not at all. Rather, it means that we have to broaden our time horizon. We must look beyond square bases to determine a date.
The mode of decoration and the colors of the enamels can be very helpful. The soft turquoise enamel on Ariadne was in great favor in the 1790s, but that is not enough to assign a date with confidence. Turquoise had no sell-by date, and it certainly may have been used for a lot longer.
I only know of three examples of the large group of Peace: the two shown above, and the one below. I apologize for the partial photo, but the full image is lost somewhere in my archive.
Because it is uncolored, the details of the modeling are particularly crisp. But, as there are no enamels to guide dating (however unreliable or reliable that might be) we are up the creek without a paddle. This group could have been made at any time from the 1790s into the late 1820s.
We rely on multiple features to support an attribution, but we tend to be rather gung-ho about dating. I intend being very much more circumspect henceforth. It bothers me that collectors and dealers alike consistently pull the dates of their pieces forward in the belief that an earlier dates equates with greater worth. That is simply ridiculous. Let us all practice greater caution in the new year.
PS. Andrew Dando has a lovely little "Sherratt" Roger Giles in stock currently. Like mine, shown above but in a red coat.
This rather clunky bust hardly seems remarkable enough to head even this month’s humble blog post, but it proves to be noteworthy in several ways, not all of which are favorable. I think most of you would agree that a thing of beauty it is not, but what makes it unusual is that it is titled GENL JACKSON PRESIDENT, US. No other Staffordshire bust of Andrew Jackson (who served as America’s seventh president from 1829-1837) had been recorded when this example came up for auction late this summer.
This bust had a hard life. Apparent to the naked eye were the deteriorated enamels—grungy at best and “chewed” or flaked off at worst, but the damage was more than skin deep. The condition report revealed that there were “restorations to head…to nose, chin, large crack around head.”
I searched for a design source for the bust but quickly learned that Jackson looked rather different. In particular, he is typically shown with puffy rather than slicked down hair, usually brushed back rather than forward. Add to this, the features did not seem to resemble Jackson’s either.
Jackson was in his sixties when he served as President (and the two images above date from that period). As the gentleman in the bust seems significantly younger, I thought a print of a more youthful Jackson served as the design source, but again, I failed to see any resemblance to this print of circa 1812.
Last of all, I could find scant association between the oak leaves liberally adorning the tunic of the gentleman in the bust and Jackson. Samuel Lovett Waldo’s portrait of Jackson, done in 1819, was the closest I could come, and here you can just see an oak leaf on the collar.
On the other hand, a tunic decorated with oak leaves screams Napoleon Bonaparte. From 1795, Napoleon's rank entitled him to wear a coat with red collar and cuffs embroidered with gold oak-leaves. Could the bust perhaps have originally been modeled to portray Napoleon? It certainly resembles Staffordshire busts of Napoleon, like the one shown below (and titled on the reverse). But who am I to argue with a name? The bust is clearly titled Jackson, so Jackson it must be.
I know there is a distinct market for Americana, but I was still surprised to see the battered bust fetch just over $4,000 with charges at Neal Auction Company. But for the title, it would not have fetched $400. I will admit that the price bothered me. Such silly money for a vastly inferior object just because of the name. But this was only the beginning of the story.
Fast forward a month or two, and an identical bust came up for sale at Bonhams, London. I say identical, but there were several differences. The Bonhams bust was in much better condition, but it lacked a title. Bonhams’ experts—no doubt aware of the Jackson bust—had nonetheless identified their bust as Napoleon modeled as First Consul.
In the same sale was this French porcelain bust of Bonaparte as First Consul. Notice the resemblance to the Staffordshire bust.
In my humble opinion, Bonhams was correct. I believe that the bust was intended to be Napoleon, but somewhere along the line Jackson’s name was impressed into one (as best we know) example to make it suitable for the American market.
There is no telling what crazy money will pursue, and someone apparently thought that Bonhams’ untitled bust too portrayed Jackson. And what did the buyer pay? Are you sitting down: GBP 7,650 ($10,511). This price bothers me less than the $4,000 paid for the beaten-up, titled bust. At least Bonham's bust is a fine example….but it is unremarkable and only made the price it did because somebody thought it was Jackson!
So what is the value of a name? I have a beautiful bust of George Washington. It is titled AND it closely resembles him. Any one care to make me an insanely high offer? And I have a number of untitled busts. Buy one, and you can call it whatever tickles your fancy.
My thanks to that great collector, my friend Bob Carde, for making me think through this issue and for his invaluable input.
This month marks the fourteenth anniversary of this site. It started on a whim, and its longevity shocks me. As I look back at my earlier scribblings, I am amazed at how much I have learned since writing them, but I don't have the time (or patience) for updates, so I just keep plodding ahead. I am even more amazed at the endless array of figures that keep whetting my interest. The range that the potters fashioned over a relatively short time period is truly mind boggling.
A favorite image in my virtual collection depicts this gorgeous pair of figures of a harvester and his lady, made by the Leeds Pottery circa 1790. Leeds figures are readily recognizable--I have recently written on that topic--and usually no mark is needed for an attribution.
Leeds made the stylistically similar pair of a falconer and his lady shown below. While the lady is from the same molds as the harvester lady, the man differs markedly from the male harvester.
I happen to own an example of the falconer's lady, shown below. Notice that, unlike the havester's lady, she does not hold a scythe, the object in her right hand is something other than wheat, and there is no wheat at her feet.
Recently, a great collector with an eagle eye, sent me the image below. The figures depict Ceres and Apollo, and those names are clearly impressed beneath each. They are instantly identifiable as having been made by James Neale or his one-time partner David Wilson, circa 1790. The figures probably will not, at first glance, strike you as unusual, but they are.
Below are the more usual rendition of these lovely figures. Can you spot the differences?
On the first version, Apollo's garb is draped differently, and Ceres has acquired an additional cornucopia at her feet. I have to ask myself WHY two versions of these figures? The first version is also recorded in black basalt, but I have not otherwise noticed a pearlware pair.
Why there were so many design modifications I do not know. Notice this pair of companion groups from the pot bank that operated in Tunstall.
Very nice, and, you may think, more than enough for a relatively small pot bank that operated over a short period of time. Why then did that same pot bank produce the modification below? And surely that too has a companion figure group, or were these three groups intended as a trio? With luck, time will tell.
The prize for variations may go to Ralph Wood, the founding father of English pottery figure making. When he set up as an independent potter in 1782, he started making shepherds and shepherdesses, as his early invoices testify. We have yet to record marked examples, and, unlike figures Wood made slightly later, none of them is impressed with a model number. You might think that one shepherd-shepherdess pair would suffice, but several pairs decorated in colored glazes are ALL said to be his.
While I question all the attributions, I concede that Ralph Wood probably made more than one pair. I think the first pair below is almost certainly his handiwork, and the second is very likely to be his.
However, the two pairs below leave me unconvinced. I really doubt Ralph Wood made either, but collector and dealers will probably always continue to attribute them (and just about anything else decorated in colored glazes) to Ralph Wood simply because it cannot be disproved--and the Ralph Wood cachet adds value!
The shepherds and shepherdess above are all in the nine-inch size range, but there is one smaller shepherdess that I confidently can attribute to Ralph Wood. The lady below is about six inches tall, and it is generally accepted that she is a shepherdess and a metal crook would have been in her raised hand. I am quite certain Ralph Wood made her because the modeling is so very typical of that found on other figures with Ralph Wood's mark and/or mold number.
As extra confirmation of the attribution, Ralph Wood made the same figure decorated in enamel colors, as below. Features of the enamel decoration are helpful in confirming the attribution--in particular the script used for titling and the line that bands three lines of the base only. Yes, I know the figure is titled Hay Maker, but I suspect that is a mistake. But, until another titled example turns up, we can't be certain.
By nature, I want to "drill to the bottom" on anything I explore, leaving no stone unturned. But with Staffordshire figures, there is no bottom! And that's why learning about them is an endlessly stimulating occupation.
This beautiful figure portrays Urania, the goddess of astronomy. My husband and I were smitten by her serene beauty, and we just had to have her. I hope our children, who own the figures we accumulate on their behalf, will love her as much.
This figure was made by the short-lived Lakin & Poole pot bank, that operated from 1791 to 1795. Lakin & Poole figures are readily recognizable. They are exceptionally well modeled and share common facial features--puffy cheeks (an undiagnosed case of mumps?) and protruding eyes (thyroid disease?) among them.
Below is a figure of Ariadne, with the Lakin & Poole mark impressed into it. Ariadne and Urania (both about 11 inches tall) could be twin sisters.
The figure shown above from John Hall's book is incorrectly described therein as Hygeia, the goddess of health. However, she is Ariadne, as seen on the titled example below, attributed to Lakin & Poole.
I have recorded nine Lakin & Poole models, and the paucity is not surprising given the partnership's brevity. Consistently, the bases are decorated in much the same way, titles (when present) are in the same hand, and the faces are recognizably Lakin & Poole.
To my mind, the Lakin & Poole figures are the most well-modelled and loveliest of all early Staffordshire figures, yet they, like most of the earliest figures are not particularly popular with collectors, which is a great shame.
My next find is vastly different. Fast-forward thirty or so years to around 1820, when this petite treasure was potted. The lady stands alongside her bee hive. The figure is just 4 inches tall and is unrecorded--indeed, I have yet to see bee-keeping portrayed in figural form. The object in her hand is probably a smoker, not a watering can. Smoke calms bees, so a smoker was a must-have item when invading their territory.
There is no basis for attributing this little figure, but I would bet Walton made it. I am the first to wince at the manner in which anything and everything is glibly attributed to Walton, but the combination of decorative elements on the base may well be specific to Walton. I shall have to think about it some more, but I am thrilled to have found the figure, whoever made her.
On the subject of bees, before the Victorian times, bees were housed in upturned straw baskets called skeps, such as you see here. The shape was conducive to the formation of the honey comb. The downside was that turning the skep over to collect the honey killed the bees or made them homeless, and so the beekeeper had to hunt down a new wild swarm and start from scratch.
It would have driven me crazy to not see what was going on in the skep. How did you know when the combs were full? Over time, gardeners resolved that problem by adding a peep hole. And they also worked out how to tap the honey without upending the skep and destroying the hive.
So where did I find these figures? Urania came up at auction in the Staffordshire Potteries, and I like to think she has been there since her "birth" in around 1793. I was familiar with the figure form, having seen a Lakin & Poole Urania a long while ago. Until now, I had known of no others. The condition report seemed thorough, and I detected nothing untoward on the high-resolution images. So I dragged myself out of bed in the middle of the night to bid on the auction--that and the whole process of payment and arranging shipping can be a huge hassle. When the figure arrived I was thrilled. More usually, auction purchases come with an unanticipated problem.
The beekeeper also came up at auction, but this time, I was not confident that the condition report was complete. The longer I looked at the images, the less certain I was that the head had not been restored. A friend scrutinized the images too, and we both had doubts. Had I been confident, I would have bid generously--but I could not face the prospect of buying a figure and finding it had a restored head. What would I be able to do with it in those circumstances? The trade has ways of moving mistakes on, but I would have been stuck with my mistake----so I did not bid.
As luck would have it, the figure landed up in the hands of a dealer whom I trust implicitly. The head was perfect, and I was over the moon at being able to add this little figure to our shelves, and at a price that was lower than I had been prepared to bid. I share this with you so you understand the perils of bidding at auction, and to remind you that the peace of mind that comes with buying from a trusted source adds immeasurably to the pleasure of collecting.
These stunning busts pay eternal tribute to a couple who put duty above all else--but circa 1830, there was, fortunately, no Oprah!
"She is doomed, poor, dear, innocent young creature to be my wife, ”So said Prince William, Duke of Clarence, ahead of his marriage to his German bride, Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen, some twenty-seven years his junior. The year was 1818, and William had settled into a comfortable domestic arrangement with the actress Dorothea Jordan, by whom he had fathered ten children. But the monarchy was in crisis. King George III was insane, and his aging sons lacked legitimate offspring. Lured by promises of parliamentary allowances, the princes rushed to negotiate suitable marriages. Deeply in debt, William, third in line to the throne, did his duty. He reluctantly settled on the homely but amiable Princess Adelaide, who proved to be accepting of his large illegitimate brood.
These stunning busts are attributed to "Sherratt". They are almost ten inches tall. Their footed bases, each with a wreath motif along the front edge, are exclusive to "Sherratt," but I have not hitherto seen "Sherratt" bases painted in these rainbow colors. Note the rather confused spelling of Adelaide's name: "Addaerlene."
I have long admired single examples of these busts on traditional "Sherratt" brown bases that reside in two private collections, an ocean apart. This time, the titles are on the bases rather than on the socles, and note yet another spelling of Adelaide's name: Adderlene.
I have also recorded one example of William on an unusual base that "Sherratt" sometimes used.
I must admit that I have been stalking William and Adelaide busts for some years, hoping a pair might exist somewhere on this planet. The pair at the start of this post finally appeared on the market late last year because, I am told, a cash-strapped museum cleaned out its cupboards. Collectors who give objects to museums: take note!
In my archive, I have the pair below, clearly from the same molds. They may have lost their foooted bases, but quite possibly they were made without them. I suspect that they too are "Sherratt," but I would not bet my life on that.
And then there is this lone bust of Addelaide, which was made without a footed base. Note that it is not of the same caliber as the previous examples. Adelaide's beaded necklace had been reduced to painted black lines. And her earrings, each a hoop of nine little beads on the previous busts, are now yellow dangling chunks.
I would like to think that someone other than "Sherratt" made the bust of Adelaide, above. Maybe I am right, for it seems that the molds for both busts were copied or they passed into other hands. I have seen a few pairs like the pair below. They are sometimes described as porcelain, sometimes pottery. I haven't handled a pair, so I don't know, but the bodies may well be of a hybrid porcelaneous nature. They are very beautiful and well made, but they lack the charm that draws most pottery lovers.
As for the busts' design sources, I suspect Adelaide is after a drawing of the Queen published in Bell’s Weekly Messenger of 1830 (below). William could be after any one of a number of prints.
How did William and Adelaide's story end? On July 13, 1818, they wed in a double ceremony with William’s brother, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, the father of the future Queen Victoria. Marriage mellowed William, and he and Adelaide settled into a staid, parsimonious lifestyle. Despite multiple pregnancies, she produced no surviving children, and by the time William ascended the throne in 1830, Princess Victoria was his acknowledged heir. King William died on June 20, 1837, nursed to the end by the devoted Adelaide. She died on December 2, 1849.
The pandemic has allowed me to spend even more time digging through catalogs, online resources, and the like, and I never cease to be amazed at what turns up. I have long been intrigued by the pottery group on the right, impressed WEDGWOOD and probably made by Ralph Wedgwood, circa 1795. Ralph was a plagiarist extraordinaire, and most of his figures are copies of his contemporaries' work. This is the only Wedgwood figure with a bocage, and for a long time a source has eluded me. Recently, I found the porcelain figure on the left, which sold at Bonhams in 2013.
The catalog attributes it to Ralph Wood, but I see no basis for the attribution....but at least I am one step closer to solving the puzzle. (I suspect restoration to the outstretched hand on the pottery figure, which perhaps too once held a bird's nest.)
Old auction catalogs reveal figures ranging from the mundane to the magnificent, and they serve as reminders of the vast array of figures that the potters manufactured....and as reminders of the potential for really interesting collection additions. Some, despite their rarity, would fall within most collecting budgets. This sweet little figure impressed FRUIT GIRL was part of the esteemed Fitt Reed Collection that sold about eighteen years ago. Many like her were surely made, but I have yet to see another.
I wish I had a color picture of this lady in a top hat that was part of Green Valley's auction of the Kritzer estate. Again, I have yet to see another.
More recently, this little reading man went through auction at Bishop & Miller. At the risk of being repetitive, I have yet to see another, and surely he had a female counterpart?
Of course, if you have a bigger budget and more room on your shelves, larger treasures await.....if you can live long enough for them to come to market. In 1992, Sotheby's sold this large pearlware setter measuring 17 inches across. Yes, it has a companion model, colored differently, which last sold at Sotheby's in 1989.
If you have a little less space and want unusual pooches, you may want to wait for this pair, which sold at Sotheby's in 2002.
These gorgeous deer with stunning flowers on their bocages have my vote. I don't know where they sold, but it was a long, long time ago.
Because I warned you recently of the pitfalls of buying from the trade, you may think that you have little to lose by shopping at auction instead. Think again. Remember, auctions are where dealers dump their mistakes. Also, auction houses are generalists, and most lack the expertise to give you a reliable condition report--in my experience, only one major auction house consistently gets full marks. Whereas a dishonest/stupid dealer can usually be shamed --or enticed by the prospect of further business with you--into give you a refund, when the hammer comes down at auction, you are on your own.
Below is a figure group I photographed at a major auction many, many years ago. It appeals to those who want "cute" figures on their shelves, and I am sure it sold very, very well.
So what's wrong? Where do I begin? Once upon a time, a dealer had two elephants, their bocages lost. They probably looked like these (made by Enoch Wood).
What was the dealer to do? How to make a silk purse out of this sow's ear? Elephants are cute, but in this state, who would buy them? Perhaps the dealer contemplated adding bocages from other figures. You shudder, dear reader, but this has been done. Just recently, I spoke with a collector who concluded she had been duped in just this way.
But, in the instance of these two little pachyderms, the dealer had loftier ambitions. With the aid of a restorer, he/she created a figure group the likes of which the Potteries had never seen! As a base for this concoction, the restorer used the base from a Sherratt Flight and Return. Below you see a very nice example of such a group, with the base painted pink rather than blue.
The Flight and Return clearly had some good bocage with it, of the sort seen on the group above. The restorer used those bocage leaves to fabricate a bocage for his "masterpiece". The leaves above the elephants are arranged in a manner not seen on any early Staffordshire piece. Note the bocage trunk narrows suspiciously at the top, and the various shades of green on the leaves mask the glue job needed to hold it all together.
Which would you rather have: the humble little FRUIT GIRL at the top of this post of the "cute" and no-doubt-costly elephant group?
So how does a collector sleep at night? The answer is simple. If you want figures of fine quality--big or small, modestly priced or costly, rare or ordinary--shop with a trustworthy dealer. You will rest easy knowing your purchase was not be akin to shredding your money.
I have contemplated writing this post for a very long time but, frankly, I have lacked the courage. Where to begin? In summary, I am sickened at the mix of stupidity and dishonesty pervading the antique pottery trade. I routinely see buyers been taken for suckers. I know you are thinking “eBay”, but eBay is not my primary concern. On the contrary, many eBay sellers try to list honestly because there are repercussions when a sale goes pear-shaped.
My concern focuses on established dealers with their own web sites. By and large, these ladies and gentleman are pleasant individuals, and their personalities endear them to their customers. It’s so much easier to part with money when you like the recipient, isn’t it? But if you want to be sure of what you are buying, you need your dealer to be both clever enough to detect any issues and honest enough to tell you about them. Of the many charming dealers in early figures, in my experience only two definitely check both boxes, and a third comes close. For the rest, buyer beware.
Yes, we all make mistakes, and we learn from them. But I often wonder how people who have spent their lives dealing in early pottery can make the “mistakes” that I see them make. Surely it can’t be ignorance? Can anyone really be that stupid? Where does ignorance end and the dishonesty begin?
Let me give you examples of issues I have encountered recently. The BADA (British Antique Dealers” Association) presents itself as the bastion of integrity in the antiques trade. Recently, I noticed a group listed on the BADA site. It comprised a male and a female figure before a bocage. The main problem was that the original male figure had been lost, and a replacement of the wrong form had been put in his place. There was no mention of this in the description, and the piece was priced for perfection. If this were not bad enough, the US dealer who was selling this assembled object had also listed a pair of late Victorian (Kent factory) deer as made circa 1825.
What was I to do? Instead of reporting this to BADA, I emailed the dealer, making him aware, as nicely as possible, of my concerns about his BADA listings. I received a curt reply, and the next week he removed both listings from the BADA site. BUT, many weeks later, those same problem objects remain on his own site. And as today, both are also on 1stDibs, where you can buy both for the princely sum of $5,000….but good luck when you want to sell them. I would not give you 50 cents for either.
I routinely encounter alterations that deceive. Last year, I was extremely upset to see two small figures altered to make a matching pair. When I challenged this, the explanation left me with more questions than answers. The dealer assured me that the figures had gone into his personal collection, so I let it go. Interestingly, he sent me a picture of the offending pair proudly displayed amidst his Kent figures!
Just this month, a pair of small figures sold very quickly at a high price, and “cuteness” may have been part of their appeal. I have been around long enough to know that the bocages were oversized for the figures. And I know without a shadow of doubt that the bocages are not original to the figures. The figures lost their bocages and a restorer stuck pieces of bocage from other figures onto the stumps. Any trained naked eye can detect this, but there was no mention of this major alteration in the description. In other words, the new owner parted with a hefty sum of money and acquired four figures that had been reassembled into two. I do hope he/she was made aware of this, but I suspect not.
When you see something that appeals to your eye, the rational part of your brain takes a back seat. I know this because it happens to me too! But when you want to sell, you have a problem. In my experience, those same dealers who profess to see no issues when selling acquire eagle-eyed powers of detection when buying. Moral of the story: ask when you buy, and insist that ALL issues be detailed on your receipt. Never trust, always verify.
This month, Bonhams is selling a menagerie. I first encountered this very menagerie in 2003 at Christie’s in New York. Every menagerie (like most pieces of early pottery) has issues, and this menagerie had a great many that Christie’s condition report detailed. In a room full of collectors, unenthusiastic bidding fell to two individuals, and ultimately it sold to the trade, and then to a collector in 2004.
Almost eighteen years later, here is the same menagerie again, all dolled up and quite changed in appearance, and, of course, the condition report is now even longer. In addition to other work, the figure on the left has been restored, as have the birds atop. Also, the menagerie has acquired steps. Why? Some of the large Polito’s were made without steps, and the fact that the platform was painted in the center front suggests that there were never any steps there. Also note the chunky poles added to the top and sides (behind the lateral figures) of the platform. I want to snap them off!
I wonder if the person who bought this menagerie in 2004 was aware of all its issues. Quite possibly, the buyer looked, fell in love, and asked nothing. But now that it is time to sell, all is laid bare.
Believe me, my collection has its share of restoration, and some things bought complacently in my early days from friendly dealers have issues that I was not informed of at the time, despite asking. Now, I don’t expect perfection in my purchases, but I do want to know what I am buying.
I have learned, and am still learning from my mistakes. To know what you are buying:
If you are unsure, ask me or someone else…ideally before you buy. It’s fine to buy a restored piece, but the price must reflect major issues. Buying a reproduction….well, that’s another story. I want to be sure that you know what you are buying, that you don’t buy in haste and repent at your leisure.
Every early Staffordshire pottery figure tells a tale, and the tale I am about to recount is one I have told in my books, but I tell it here again because there is new development in the story. A twist in the tale---or is it in the tail of the yarn?
It all began many years ago, when my friend Nick Burton helped me acquire this stunning "Sherratt" figure at auction.
As you see, the figure is titled MENAGERIE, and I was puzzled because, as we well know, a menagerie looks more like this.
Then around midnight one night, I stumbled across a broadside in the National Library of Scotland. Dramatically titled "FEARFUL ACCIDENT! FOUR LIVES LOST," it recounted the gory happenings of February 1834, when the menagerie lion and tiger escaped during the night from Wombwell's menagerie. The animals attacked and killed four people, including a woman with a child in her arms.
Suddenly, the title MENAGERIE on my figure group made sense. This was the tiger who escaped, and the mother and child were its victims. I was so excited with my discovery, but who was there to tell, besides the dogs sleeping at my feet?
The broadside cited the Northumberland Herald as the source of the story, and I could not wait to get to London, where I accessed the British Library's microfilm copies of the newspaper and found the same account, almost word for word.
The news of this bloody animal misadventure spread like lightening across Britain because newspaper after newspaper printed the same account. As the disaster was said to have happened in Worksworth, just a stone's throw from the Potteries, it is not surprising that it inspired Staffordshire's potters to capture the horror of it in clay. And with my new-found knowledge and with the help of those potters, the tale unravelled.
What of the other two victims? The report tells us that one was a young boy, and here he is, again courtesy of "Sherratt".
In the figure group below, we have another depiction of events. This time, the lion is clawing the mother---the very same figure that the tiger is mauling in my MENAGERIE group.
What of the fourth victim? Newspaper reports did not identify the fourth victim, but the figure group below suggests that he was believed to be a black man.
The two Sherratt figure groups below again confirm that the fourth victim was indeed thought to be a black man. Lest you doubt it, the second group is titled THE DEATH OF A NEGRO, but, sadly the man has been lost....or perhaps he is in the beast's tummy. (By the way, don't let the spots distract you. In the early nineteenth century, there was still much confusion and ignorance as to which Big Cat was which!)
Each of these figures is known from only one example. But the joy of collecting is that you just never know what will turn up next. Recently, I was made aware of a large "Sherratt" tiger (on the scale of the tiger in Death of Munrow groups) with a black man in his jaws. That treasure has resided in the Czech Republic for around a century!
Similarly, the joy of researching is that you just never know what will be unearthed. Nowadays, British newspapers are searchable online, so today I would be able to access the story of the menagerie escape in a few minutes--no need to fly to London and spend hours scrutinizing microfilm. And so I decided to research it yet again. Sure enough, the story appears in umpteen publications across Britain in late February/early March 1834. But fast forward another month or so, here comes the twist in the tale: very brief retractions appear in those same newspapers.
It seems the story was fake news, a puff piece that the menagerist George Wombwell planted to drum up excitement and boost attendance at his show. Attitudes then were very different from those that prevail today, and animals that had taken four human lives were a drawcard. Add to that, many visitors secretly hoped to witness another gory mishap!
Although the retractions were published with as little research as the original story, I concede that the escapes of 1834 were almost certainly fake news. But the men who captured in clay the lion, the tiger, and their four victims did not know that. The tale fired their imaginations and inspired the creation of a handful of truly fabulous figures groups.
In the lethargy of these lazy lockdown days, I struggle to write anything worth reading. But as Dallas will be besieged by COVID for a good while longer, I must snap out of it! In my defense, the almost total disappearance of auctions for many weeks means that little fresh has come to market, but that is gradually changing, and I am finding fodder for thought daily.
Last month, this unusual little figure came up at Woolley and Wallis. Most auction houses would have lumped it into a lot with unremarkable figures, but, to their credit, Woolley and Wallis gave this little lady a lot of her own. She is special because she is a Leeds Pottery figure, and those are almost as rare as hen's teeth today. Although unmarked, bidders recognized her worthiness, and she did rather well.
I know this figure from the pair below, photographed from a book or magazine. I bought the Woolley and Wallis figure and hope some day to find the male figure to make the pair.
I have covered Leeds Pottery figures previously, so if you type LEEDS POTTERY into the search box at the top of this page, you can access those articles. I have three other Leeds figures in my collection, and, if you look at their faces, below, you can't help but notice the strong family resemblance. Those little pinched faces are hard to forget!
Note to self: other points of similarity are the use of dotted dress pattens and watery brown enamels on the bases. Perhaps these will open my eyes to other Leeds figures in the future. No photo can ever adequately convey their delicate beauty, and they top my list of favorites, just one notch ahead of Neale figures.
There are plenty of other unusual figures surfacing as Britain gets up to speed. John Howard, who never seemed to miss a beat right through the COVID shutdown, added this pair of cows recently. How nice to see these as a true pair.
And if cows aren't your thing, John also has a good-looking pair of dogs.
If animals also don't push your button, what's not to like about this sweet pair portraying the Sailor's Farewell and the Sailor's Return, now in the stock of Mears & Boyer? Eye candy, aren't they? It's so unusual to find a pair with their bocages intact and with the original blue enameling to the coats. Too often the blue has flaked, and the restoration is usually jarringly bright.
Does the lovely figure below, in the stock of Andrew Dando, remind you of some other figure form?
When I first saw one like it, in the collection at Winterthur, I did a double-take, because it looked half way between a figure of the Lost Sheep (below left) and a Flemish Music figure (below right). But rest assured, the figure is not a gummed-up restoration--not that Andrew would tolerate that in his stock. Rather, some potter creatively adapted the molds to create a new figure form. Both Andrew's figure and the Winterthur example are decorated in underglaze colors, and the museum labels the subject as a snuff taker. I am not convinced that's correct, but, if you add Andrew's figure to your collection, you can call it whatever you would like to call it!
At the low end of the price spectrum, there are some interesting small figures floating around. I have not previously seen this tiny version of a plump, bare-breasted Venus, height 6.5 inches.
The petite version of the Vicar and Moses, below left, is another that I have not seen hitherto. Although the vicar has the same facial features as his larger counterpart, Moses is an entirely new creation.
The unusual always sparks my interest, and the decoration on the base on the deer at the left fits the bill. Similarly, the crude but charming sheep on the right. I can't recall seeing a sheep on a yellow base previously.
This primitive, immodest, and rather striking Virgin Mary caught my eye.
She is decorated in underglaze colors, as are the one or two other examples I have encountered (see http://www.earlystaffordshirefigures.com/107-virgin-mary.html), but here the colors are particularly bright and pretty, and the base is of a different form.
And last but not least among the unusual items I have seen of late are these three pearlware stoups, all in the stock of Elinor Penna. Very colorful, aren't they?
So, as always, keep your eyes open. You just never know what will turn up next!
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