To kick off the new decade, the third edition of Obsession is now available on the BOOKS menu at the top of this page. Because of its size, it is formatted for free download in three volumes, each distinguished by its cover. I welcome feedback, good or bad.
The year 2020 starts with yet one more early Staffordshire figure mystery. This month, auctioneers Bearnes, Hampton, & Littlewood, will be offering the very unusual figure shown below. The maiden is, I must admit, far from beautiful,.....yet her very ugliness is mesmerizingly attractive. The mystery lies in her identity. The auction house suggests she may be Herodias holding the head of John the Baptist, That's a nice guess but I think it's a long shot. In my experience, figures of this kind are classical rather than biblical in nature.
In researching our mystery maiden, I learned that Herodias is depicted in Renaissance art clutching the head of John the Baptist. To add to my confusion, the same painting occurs titled "Herodias with the head of John the Baptist" and "Salome with the head of John the Baptist". Seems artists weren't sure whether to credit mother or daughter with with the gory deed. In any event, I just don't think this biblical yarn inspired our mystery figure.
The other biblical woman famed for decapitating a powerful man is Judith. She is remembered for reducing the Assyrian general Holofenes to a drunken stupor and then gleefully slicing off his head. Today, this gory deed is better known than that of Herodias/Salome, probably because the subject is more common in Renaissance art. However, I have only recorded one Staffordshire pottery portrayal. Shown below, it is a small plaque in the Hunt Collection.
Having eliminated Judith and Herodias as inspiration for the mystery maiden, I suggest that she may be Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, who traditionally is portrayed holding a mask.
The figure of Melpomene, shown below, is decorated in pretty enamel colors. Other versions of this figure also occur.
As you have no doubt observed, our mystery maiden--rightly or wrongly henceforth dubbed Melpomene--- is decorated in a muddy and rather limited palette. That's because the colors are oxides that have been applied UNDER the glaze rather than on top of it, and the result is that typical Pratt ware appearance.
I have seen our Melpomene previously, but in a somewhat altered form. Here she stands alongside a figure portraying the earth mother, Cybele. Notice the similarities? Clearly, the figures share many common body parts.
The figure of Cybele is usually found paired with another of Ceres. As might be expected, Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, has wheat at her side, while Cybele, as the earth mother, is accompanied by a lion. Both Ceres-Cybele pairs shown below are decorated under the glaze in a typical Pratt palette, and both are formed as candleholders.
All these figures are sizable. Melpomene, the smallest, is over 10" tall (26 cms), but Cybele and Ceres, because of their candleholders, are even taller.
I have recorded but one example of Cybele and a companion Ceres decorated in pretty enamel colors. Unfortunately, I only have a black and white image of these beauties, and it was published 55 years ago.
To add yet another mystery to the mix, this enamel-painted pair is Inscribed "John Cartledge at the Lodge in the plantation COWBRIDGE 1800." There is no other record of this maker's work....or perhaps there is and we have yet to find it? There is no telling what 2020 will bring. Most importantly, I hope it brings each of you whatever you wish for yourselves. Happy new year!
PS: Another mystery: I remain puzzled as to why Melpomene's feet are painted brown. They look more like paws. A mistake....or am I missing something here?
Browsing the web recently, an unusual Staffordshire pottery bust, shown below, caught my eye. The caption read "Bust of Mary Queen of Scots c. 1815." Mary Queen of Scots? That threw me. I failed to see any resemblance, any basis for that identification, but, wanting to learn, I dug deeper.
The bust belongs to a well-known American museum, but the museum's record for it makes me want to weep. Quoting from correspondence with "a Staffordshire ceramics expert," it reads,
"the figure may very well be Mary Queen of Scots, but canny potters often left the names off figures so that the subject matter did not deter customers... I have seen the same large full-length figure untitled, but variously described as St. Paul Preaching at Athens, Eloquence, and Demosthenes."
What utter nonsense! Where do I start to pull this opinion apart?
Admittedly, the bust "may very well be" any one of a number of women, but she is not Mary Queen of Scots, who is invariably portrayed clothed in a manner befitting a sixteenth-century monarch, as shown in her portrait alongside. A plunging neckline, a simple headband and curls dangling on the forehead were definitely not that monarch's style!
Why add to our collective ignorance by speculating wildly as to the identity of the bust? Why not simply leave it as unidentified?
The "Staffordshire ceramics expert" is misguided on yet another issue: NOTHING supports her statement that "canny potters often left the names off figures so that the subject matter did not deter customers." Why would potters have made figures that they thought might deter their customers? Rather, I suggest that potters simply didn't bother titling figures when they thought the identity was obvious.
And what of the same untitled figure being "variously described as St. Paul Preaching at Athens, Eloquence, and Demosthenes"?
But as figures of Demosthenes are never titled--probably because the identity is self-evident---over the centuries, collectors simply got it wrong. Today, we are all older and wiser...or, should I say we are all older and most of us are wiser?
I can almost hear some snarky comments from UK readers about American ignorance, but hold it right there. The "Staffordshire ceramics expert" quoted above is British. And UK museums can be just as foolish.
Recently, a UK collector contacted me about a large, important pearlware figure, made circa 1810. Its look-alike---and the only other example on record--is in Brighton Museum's Willett Collection. Not knowing what he had, he took his figure to a UK museum that houses one of the most important collections of Staffordshire pottery in the world. After examining it, the curator informed him that he had looked in the Harding books on Victorian figures, could not find anything similar, and concluded that the figure might be continental!! Read that again, please. A pearlware figure oozing with all the features of a pre-Victorian English figure is taken to a British museum and is considered to be continental! To add insult to injury, the Willett figures is pictured in my Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, which I donated to that museum, and it is also in Stella Beddoe's A Potted History, which should be in that museum's library.
I am a bitterly disillusioned collector. I retain faith in one museum curator, and perhaps two or three auctions houses. I am as disillusioned with the trade, where various degrees of stupidity and dishonesty routinely rub shoulders. But none of that spoils my enjoyment of early figures.
Last month, I managed to complete a pair of "Sherratt" London Cryers. It has only taken me fifteen years to achieve this! My path, of course, was convoluted. I started with a female figure in 2004, and many years later I found a male to keep her company. The problem with this pairing, as you see, is that the female was made with a bocage, and the male without, so they were rather an odd couple.
This summer, I found a lady made without bocage to pair with my man. The result is as good an assembled pair as I can hope to find.
Of course, my task is not done because my lady with a bocage is now a singleton. If you have her mate and would like to buy/sell, do let me know because it would be so rewarding to complete another pair.
I know of only one other pair of London Cryers. They belong to a friend and are shown in Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840 Volume 2, chapter 30.
As you see, my friend's male figure differs from my male figure. It seems "Sherratt" made two versions of the male figure. Does that mean that there were also two versions of the female figure? Yet another unsolved riddle! As always, I have more questions than answers.
Recently, a new treasure arrived in Dallas when a large Wombwell's menagerie found its way into one of the city's several collections. I was fortunate in that I could handle and photograph it. In fact, of the 36 Staffordshire pottery menageries on record, I have been privileged to examine and/or photograph at least 25, and in the process I have learned a lot. Admittedly, there is even more that I don't know, and numerous unanswered questions tease my mind. Precisely when were these menageries made, who made them, how many were made, and why did their design evolve in the way that it did? I wish I had all the answers.
Of this I am certain: those magnificent menageries that survive are all stunningly beautiful, and they embody a wealth of information about the public's awakening interest in the natural kingdom. I have put together a video on Polito's and Wombwell's traveling menageries. You can access it on YouTube or by clicking this link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0y0FSe0F-jY
Links to my other YouTube videos on early Staffordshire pottery figures can be accessed on the VIDEOS tab at the top of this page. Remember, I welcome all criticism.
It's been a long, dry summer for collectors of early Staffordshire pottery figures. Very little new or exciting has come to market, and that doesn't seem likely to change soon. The most important figure group available is, of course, in the stock of John Howard, and what a stunner it is. This group, decorated under the glaze, was made by the potter Charles Tittensor, who is known for his weirdly wonderful creations.
Tittensor figures are especially rare and expectedly expensive. John's group is particularly remarkable in that it comprises four figures that are otherwise found in two separate pairings. The musicians below are the very same couple found seated on the left of John's large group.
The shepherds on the right of John's group are otherwise recorded as a twosome, shown below. Note that the figures have switched positions.
John's group is impressed TITTENSOR four times on the reverse. Three of the marks are on the side of the group portraying the shepherds, and I was interested to see that the marks are in exactly the same spots on both the 4-figure group and the 2-figure group. This tells me that Tittensor did not reach for a stamp and mark his work after he had made it. Instead, the marks were integral to the molds he used to form each figure group. Oh, the little factoids that delight too-serious collectors!
Tittensor figures require quite sophisticated taste. They certainly don't fit the bill for those who prefer their figures cute. Prize for the most imaginative goes to this remarkable Tittensor group. Yes, the same shepherd and shepherdess, but this time with oversized farm animals. Quite something, isn't it? What was Tittensor thinking?
Even in dry spells, I find fascinating features on relatively ordinary figures. What could be more ordinary than a lone pearlware Widow, yet the addition of a date boldly painted on the base of this Widow makes her noteworthy. Oh, had all potters painted a date somewhere on their figures!
If anything could be more run-of-the-mill than a pearlware widow, it has to be a pearlware figure of Charity. Don't knock them though! Because they are so "ordinary," lovely examples often can be had at give-away prices. I have a dozen or so arranged on individual little wall brackets on my office wall, and I am always open to adding more. Something unusual on this example caught my eye. Any idea what it might be?
It's the object in her hand. I have no idea what it is, but it resembles a flower or vegetable of sorts. Again, what was the potter thinking?
This widow, again with that mystery object in hand, is currently in a set in the stock of new dealer John Cockburn, so visit his shop, Pickleherring, at http://www.antiquebritishpottery.com/
Lastly, do check in at Moorabool Antiques in Australia, where Paul Rosenberg is offering an astounding array of ceramic objects, including early figures, at his Exhibition that commences on October 5.https://moorabool.com/
Browsing the internet recently, I was smitten by an antique pottery figure group that I had not before seen. The two fishwives below look in many ways like early Staffordshire pottery, but the group was actually made in Scotland and resides in the National Museum of Scotland. Despite the obvious breaks at the ankles, I would give my eyeteeth to own it. What collector wouldn't? Objects of such beauty help me understand museum thefts--but don't for one moment assume I would start down that slippery slope!
Beneath the broad umbrella of figures loosely dubbed "antique Staffordshire pottery figures," are some that were not made in Staffordshire at all. Among these are figures that were made at the ten or so pot banks along the east coast of Scotland.
From the mid-1700s on, Scottish pot banks produced figures, plaques, and useful wares often in much the same style as those made in Staffordshire. But one subject in particular was inspired by a Scottish presence. Scottish potters captured in clay their local fishwives, who were known for their robust physiques and striking garb.
This line-up of fishwives, all made in Scotland between 1790 and 1840, gives us an idea of what these women looked like. The ladies wore a series of skirts or petticoats, and the topmost one would be tucked up to form a handy catch-all. (For individual images of these and others fishwives, see Staffordshire Figures 1780-1840, vol. 1 and http://www.earlystaffordshirefigures.com/29-trades-and-occupations.html)
The rare and unusual example third from the left jumped out at me because one just like it is currently is with Paul Vandekar at www,vandekar.com. This fishwife is shown selling her fish. Her creel containing her heavy load is at her feet, while a smaller basket placed atop displays the catch that is for sale.
A fishwife customarily transported her basket on her back, and a strap around her forehead helped her support it, as we see in the figures below.
Look at the base of the figure above. Believe it or not, real shells are incorporated into the decoration! Also, notice the rope-like border. Bases with rope-like borders occurs exclusively on figures made in Scotland. You see it again on this very fine pair of figures below, formerly with Andrew Dando.
That same distinctive rope-trimmed base supports the figures of Faith and Charity below. Were it not for the rope trimming, you might reasonably assume the figures to have been made in Staffordshire.
This figure of Hope is just like the one above. Again, it has that distinctive rope-trimmed border that confirms a Scottish origin. This time, the colors are quite different. That raspberry shade is one that occurs frequently on Scottish pottery, as does that green shade on the base.
The figure of Faith has the same rope-trimmed Scottish base, but notice the very different color palette, which, I must admit, I find rather unappealing. The deep green is common on
Scottish pottery figures, but that sky blue (for want of a better term) is one that I think occurs only on figures made in Scotland.
You see the same coloring on the figure of the pugilist Thomas Cribb on the left. Note also the raspberry belt. Were it not for the coloring, it would be difficult to distinguish it from the figure on the right, which was made made in Staffordshire.
The figures and plaque below are all output of one or other of the Scottish pot banks, and all sport a typical Scottish palette. All, to my knowledge, are forms only made in Scotland. (Click on images to view.)
I can't sign off without emphasizing three points.
There is always much doom and gloom in the antiques world, with old dealers inevitably dying and no promising new ones taking their place. Dinner was very delayed in our home last night because I discovered Pickleherring's fabulous new site, and I had to spend an hour perusing the stunning stock that John Cockburn is offering. The site is beautifully done, and I appreciate John's obvious love of pottery and his erudite approach.
I don't know John, but I expect he is young (which means he should be around for a long time). What makes me conclude this? John offers the opportunity to view a potential purchase via Face Time!
Pickleherring Pottery offers something for every pocket, so do visit it at http://www.antiquebritishpottery.com/
In the universe of antique Staffordshire pottery figures, the two groups below stand out because of their stunning, unusual bocages. Only a handful of figures sport bocages of this form, and, until recently, we have not even been able to guess at who made them.
Our collective knowledge took a giant leap forward recently when the widow below with the same bocage came to auction. As pretty as the front is, the most interesting aspect is the mark on the reverse. It is the mark of the potter John Walton.
John Walton was a prolific manufacturer. No suprise really, given that he potted for over thirty years. In that time, Walton produced more than eighty MARKED figure models. He would almost definitely have produced unmarked models too, but we have little basis for attributing unmarked figure to him.
Until now, each and every one of the bocage forms on marked Walton figures is of a sort that multiple potters used. But the large-leafed bocage on the groups shown above occurs so very rarely that there is reason to assume it is specific to Walton.
For the record, marked Walton Widows also occurs with the generic bocage of the sort seen on the example below.
What other figures occur with that rare large-leafed bocage, and what are their links to Walton? The beautiful lion and unicorn below certainly have bocages of that very form. Although they are unmarked, I am now certain that Walton made them.
Supporting my conviction is the marked WALTON pair below with a rather common bocage form.
The Potteries Museum owns this beautiful figure of St. Peter, again unmarked and with that distinctive bocage. I believe it too was made by Walton.
I wish I could show you a marked Walton Peter, but here's the strange thing: paired figures of Peter and Paul occur with Paul marked WALTON...but Peter is NEVER marked! The WALTON mark is integral to the mold used for the base of Paul, but it seems that Peter's mold was made without a mark.
For those of us who focus on attributing figures to makers, the plot now thickens.
The rare nanny-and-child group shown at the top of this posting also occurs with another bocage form. In the example below, the leaves are arranged in clusters of three. Did Walton make this group too? Is this bocage possibly one that Walton also used?
We see that same bocage form on an unmarked St. Peter. Again, did Walton make it?
If such three-leaf combinations were specific to Walton, it opens the door to attributing a host of other unmarked figures to him. The trail grows warmer!
We have a new menu tab at the top of this page: Videos.
My three videos on early figures are now up and seem to be working. You can access them via the Videos tab on the menu bar. Or you can find them on YouTube by searching "Early Antique Staffordshire Pottery Figures."
This is my first attempt at this sort of thing, so please let me know how I can do better!
This summer, Dallas, Texas, was again the hotspot for early Staffordshire pottery figures when a lucky collector acquired the stunning pair of equestrian figures shown below. I was fortunate enough to be present when the box bearing these treasures was unpacked, and, as each figure emerged from its tissue and bubble wrap, I was amazed at its size and presence.
Of course, the bocages add height to the figures, making each taller than other equestrian models, but the impact is about more than mere height. Each horse is strapping, and a good chunk wider than the horse used for most other large equestrian figures. And the people are bigger too. As you look at this pair, you hear pounding hooves--as I placed them on a shelf, I almost expected all else on the shelf to rattle just a little. Although I tried, my photos simply fail to capture the heft of these figures, but I assure you that, by comparison, other equestrian models are mere prancing ponies.
These equestrians can be attributed to the Leather Leaf Group pot bank. The bocages (with thick leathery leaves) and distinctive flowers are found routinely on other Leather Leaf Group figures. Also, the backs of the trunks are painted in a mottled pattern that occurs frequently on figures from this pot bank.
Menageries are the Holy Grail for pottery collectors, but these equestrians are just as impressive and far rarer than most menagerie models. They are colorful, animated, and attractive. Those bold bocages, the eye-catching colors, the horses and dogs caught mid-stride, and the elegant couple with riding crops in their hands...what more could a collector want? Perfect condition? Believe it or not, this pair, while not perfect, comes pretty close. Clearly, they have inspired careful respect for two centuries.
This pair of equestrians depicts a circus reenactment of a hunt, rather than a real-life event. In the early nineteenth century, women generally did not hunt because hunting was not a genteel pastime. Remember that the circus then was a relatively new entertainment genre, and it was all about equestrianism. Circuses reenacted hunts, and women, the circus's glamorous equestrienne stars, participated in these staged events.
P.S. Don't overlook the sweet little dogs on the bases!
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