While most of us shudder at the mention of a snake, let's remember that in ancient times the snake was associated with some positive attributes. In fact, the snake seems to have been associated with anything and everything. Fertility, wisdom, sin, envy, deceit...the list goes on and on. In particular, snakes were associated with healing--remember that a snake sheds its skin in a 'rebirth' of sorts. On multiple occasions in the past few years, I have noticed lone examples of this classical figure, and the snake in his hand should provide a clue to his identity.
Not the most handsome of figures, I will admit! Because of the snake, the figure is often thought to be Aesculapius, the Roman god of medicine. Aesculapius is associated with healing, so this is not too big a stretch of faith.....except that this figure is definitely NOT Aesculapius.
So let's go back to the drawing board and look at our man-with-snake yet again. Notice he has a fire at his feet, and therein lies the best clue to his identity. This figure symbolizes winter. Do you think this is too big a stretch of the imagination on my part? Believe it or not, I am correct! Look at the set of figures symbolizing the Four Seasons below. They are titled. Yay!---it makes life so much easier when we know who is who. And Winter is indeed the ugly man with a snake!
Now that our mystery man has been identified, take a moment to ponder how lovely this set of Seasons is. Although they are far from common, I have seen pearlware examples decorated both with enamel colors as above, and with underglaze colors, as below.
The figures in this posting are tall--a good 9 to 10 inches. Strangely, I have noted two pearlware musicians on similar tall plinth bases. (Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, Vol. 1, 26.184 and 26.185). As to why Winter is holding a snake..this remains one of life's mysteries
Andrew Dando's winter exhibition went on line a week or two ago, and, like many of you, I pounced to see what I might "need." Among the offerings, was a little pearlware "Sherratt" cat. I have one, so I don't need another. I recall how long and hard I looked for my little cat, and (as my collection is now totally packed in boxes awaiting a move) I reminisced about how sweet it looked on my shelves, tucked in among bigger figures. Many of you write to me about small figures--in fact, I am often accused of not giving them enough blog space--so I was convinced that Andrew's "Sherratt" cat would quickly find a loving home. Alas, not. And this is what I just don't understand. Please tell me what I am missing here. Do you think it's the price? I am unconvinced. More costly, more damaged, more common, and less desirable figures sell every day....whereas this charming, sweetly-scruffy little cat lingers. You see it below left, alongside my own cat (right).
I have not yet recorded an example of this cat facing in the other direction...but I live in hope. The "Sherratt" pot bank made a range of petite animals, and I buy them whenever I can find them. Below are three small "Sherratt" dog models that I have recorded. Notice the same sprig is on the base of all three dogs and on the base of both cats.
"Sherratt" didn't only make little cats and dogs. I have recorded tiny sheep and deer from that potbank. The first pair of sheep, below, I bought from one of Andrew's exhibitions. Kinda cuddly, are they not? Notice those sprigs on the base, yet again.
"Sherratt" also made this same sheep pair with bocages. Below is a pair with bocages, and again that sprigging is on the base--poorly impressed, I will admit.
And "Sherratt" also made tiny deer in the same style, as you see below.
For me, a huge part of the pleasure in collecting is the hunt itself. These little pearlware animals are all difficult to find, so it is a thrill when I get a pair, or even one. And, at the risk of repeating myself, they add so much personality to a collection. Of course, "Sherratt" was not the only potter to make little animals. Below is a pair of deer on the same scale made by Ralph Salt and impressed SALT.
and a little stag made by I-know-not-who.
There are other tiny pearlware animal models. In particular, tiny felines and elephants have hefty price tags. In my opinion, all tiny animals are ridiculously under priced because they are both rare and lovely. But above all, they are collecting fun. I believe Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, Vol. 3 and 4 should be available any day--no doubt they are lingering in crates on the west coast, caught up in the current port blockage situation. Volume 3 has figures of animals, and I hope this will inspire you to add some teeny ones to your collection in 2015.
Cock fighter groups are most commonly of the type below: a couple with their cockerels before a bocage and mounted on a rather plain base.
Of course, we all far prefer thinking this is a pleasing farmyard tableau, with the couple contentedly feeding their chickens...but I have recorded an example titled Cock-Fighters, so I must concede that the animals in question are probably fighting game cocks. That doesn't mar my enjoyment of a nice example though. But the truth is that most examples are like the one above (attributed to Dudson) and are rather drab. There are exceptions though, and, of course, the exceptions are the ones that we collectors covet. I love this example, formerly in the stock of John Howard, because the colors are so pleasing and her hat is just divine.
The cock fighters group below is also rather gorgeous because it stands on a particularly colorful pink base. Such a pity that it has lost its bocage though, but when intact it must have been an eyeful.
Just added to John Howard's web site is the dazzlingly colorful example on a black marbled base (below), which I suspect emanated from the same pot bank as the.group on the pink base. Outstanding is it not? A picture is worth more than my words, so look for yourselves.
I remain forever intrigued by a cock fighting group in the Willett Collection. A third figure, that of a bird nesting boy, has been added. Why? I do not know! The boy is original to the group so perhaps the potter was a little confused that day or, perhaps it was made on a Monday, the day when many potteries workers were hungover.
If a cock fighting group is on your holiday gift list, the beauty on the black marbled base currently with John Howard is the one to buy. It's so easy to collect if money is no object, but in reality we all have to collect within our means, so I pose a theoretical question: if you could choose between the first example on the square white base and the group on colorful pink base, which would you pick? I must admit I prefer the latter. Despite its imperfections, it oozes charm. But neither group is as pretty as that on the black marbled base. In my years and years of talking to collectors, I have learned that what they buy is not always what they can afford. Admittedly, some of us overspend because collecting truly is an addiction. But many of us underspend because we have a mental price barrier. Buying 3 mediocre figures for $500 is not a problem....but one lovely figure for $900 illicits gasps of horror. If you want a great collection, buy less but buy better--make that your collecting resolution for 2105.
For Better or Worse
Last week, I corresponded with a lovely new collector of early pearlware figures. She said my site had scared her away from eBay, so instead, she wants to try online auctions. Out of the frying pan into the fire, I fear! While eBay is full of pitfalls, at the end of the process if you have been misled, eBay gets you a refund. This, of course, assumes that you are knowledgeable enough about your purchase to know you have been misled! In fairness, many eBay sellers really don't know what they are selling, and they do their best. But don't think you necessarily get a bargain on eBay. Yes, great 'finds' happen--but well-informed buyers latch onto these and quickly push the bidding up. The odds are that at best, your figure is not worth much more than you paid for it.
What about auctions? Admittedly, this is where the trade buys. But it is also where the trade sells its mistakes. Every dealer makes mistakes, and a reputable dealer will not want to add a mistake to stock....so off to auction it goes. Similarly, an item that has languished on a dealer's shelf for too long also must go to auction. When you buy at auction, you have no comeback. When the hammer goes down, you own the item, for better or worse. The small print in each auction house's terms of sale enforce this. So you REALLY have to know what you are doing when you bid at auction.
A few weeks ago, a new collector contacted me about this New Marriage arbor group he had bought at auction. He feared it was a reproduction.
The group is not a reproduction. It is, I suppose, largely original...but it has several flaws and one very fatal flaw: the bride and groom on the left are entirely made up. Nasty, aren't they? As you see from the correct pearlware arbor group below, the original bride and groom are much taller..
The collector had paid quite a lot of money for his problematic auction "win." It was a fraction of the cost of a correct group--but it was also a lot more than it was really worth. After all, who would want a New Marriage Act in this condition at any price? Talking of condition, what had the condition report disclosed ahead of the sale? Absolutely nothing. Instead, it had gone into a ramble of what the New Marriage Act was.
In this instance, the buyer had not paid, and the auction house backed down. This happens, but only rarely. Usually, the purchase becomes the buyer's, for better or worse.
Potential problem purchases abound at auction. Looking around today, I note this figure described as "A VERY RARE EARLY 19TH CENTURY STAFFORDSHIRE FIGURE OF SHAKESPEARE by Ralph Food, modelled standing beside a column upon a square base. 1ft 10ins high."
Ralph Food? Ralph Wood...a typo, surely? Shakespeare? Dear Auction House, we collectors know Shakespeare, and this beast is no Shakespeare.
Instead, this figure was once Sir Antony Van Dyck....but he now has a grotesque new head and new arm. Below is a correct example. This is what the auction figure originally looked like before the disfiguring damage and restoration.
A collector friend has dubbed Van Dyk-with-new-body-parts "Elephant Man." That may not be politically correct, but it hits the nail on the head. This figure has been floating around for some time. It was at auction last year, and I wrote about it then. From there, it made its way to eBay, where it, I think, did not sell. So back to auction it now goes. Perhaps a request for a condition report will disclose the problem to a potential buyer, but buyer beware. Most auction houses are staffed by generalists rather than specialists, so buyers should set their expectations accordingly.
If you want a thorough condition report, ask a restorer. In fact, a restorer often has to strip down all restoration to assess the true condition beneath. So is it really fair to expect total accuracy from an auction house? I think not. Recently, I requested a condition report and it noted "extensive repairs, restorations, damages, and losses." Talk about covering it all! In truth, the restoration may have been minimal, but this auction house was taking no chances.
As I write this, I note the spill vase group below, which is at auction this month. The description correctly describes it as a bird nesting spill vase. Lovely is it not...but do you know that it is missing two vital components?
Typically, two animals sit to either side of the spill--usually leopards or deer. Perhaps the condition report will note losses to the base, perhaps it won't. But a buyer may not realize how significant that loss is and may pay a significant price for a very undesirable object. I have known members of the trade to get stung in just this way!
And then we get to the murky area of figures that are indeed antique and they look just like the pre-1840 figures we collectors love. Indeed, some of them may even have been made in the nineteenth century using old molds. But they are later and shoddier examples of early figures and their value is reduced. The Vicar and Moses (below left) and Nell and Jobson (below right) are described by their auction houses as 'nineteenth century'....but these are not early nineteenth-century figures, and perhaps they were made in the twentieth century.
To complicate matters, another pair of figures like the Nell and Jobson above is also at auction at the same time. The pair below is also late-nineteenth century or perhaps twentieth century, but is described as early nineteenth century! How is a novice collector to know what to do?
I am not unsympathetic to the problems faced by auction houses. How can a small generalist staff be expected to know everything about everything? But at the same time, the buyer's premium--which is usually well over 20 percent on top of the hammer price--raises expectations, and it should provide something. If only the premium was proportionate to the service/information provided.
At the end of the day, if you "win" at auction, you have to ship your item home. This can be very, very bothersome and expensive and it is risky. Collectors write to me routinely about their auction issues, but one collector's experience many years ago is seared onto my brain. This then-new collector bought a "Sherratt" Courtship group at auction and used a professional shipper. When the box arrived, it rattled ominously--a death rattle, you might say. See for yourself.
Heart breaking, is it not? The moral of these stories is that unless you really want what you are buying and you are prepared to risk much of what you are spending, buy from a reputable dealer. That is what the purchaser of the shattered Courtship group now does. Putting this disaster behind her with determination that I admire, she has built a fine collection.
Josephine, a.k.a Rose
I learned to love pearlware busts while working with the extraordinary busts in Nancy and Herbert Hunt's collection of early pottery figures. Among those that won me over is this charming bust portraying Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Height is approximately 13 inches.
Josephine is known by many names and titles: Josephine Bonaparte, Josephine de Beauharnais (the name she carried when she met Napoleon after the execution of her first husband), Empress Josephine (the title conferred on her when Napoleon put a crown on her head at their coronation ceremony in 1804). Less well known is that Josephine was born Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie, and she went by the name Rose....but Napoleon preferred calling her Josephine, so Josephine she became. Josephine retained her fondness for her former name, Rose. Appropriately, she took an avid interest in horticulture and planted rose gardens at Malmaison. Under her patronage, modern rose hybridization began, leading to the thousands of rose cultivars we enjoy today. For this reason, Josephine has been dubbed "the Godmother of modern rosomaniacs."
We are told Josephine had a sallow expression and kept her mouth closed as much as possible to conceal her bad teeth...but I do think this bust is just lovely. It is pretty from the back too, is it not?
The Hunt Collection's bust of Josephine is the only example I know of that is decorated totally with enamel colors. I have recorded two other examples from the same molds that were decorated somewhat differently. The silver luster bust below used to be in the stock of Paul Vandekar. Silver luster decoration indicates manufacture some time in or after 1805, but I wouldn't think that either the silver luster or enamel-painted bust had been made much later than 1815.
The bust of Josephine below was formerly in the stock of Steven S. Powers. It's apparently from the same molds as the previous two busts (although the socle is somewhat different), but it has been decorated predominantly with a yellow glaze as well as black enamel. A slightly darker glaze decorates the hair, it seems. Yellow--how appropriate for a lady with a sallow expression!
Josephine's marriage to Napoleon was tumultuous to say the least, and she reportedly was far from faithful. Despite this, Napoleon loved her till death parted them--even though the couple had divorced by that time. Josephine did not give Napoleon any children, but she had two children by her first marriage. Through them, her blood flows in the veins of many of today's European royalty--and of course her roses brighten gardens across the world.
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