My video portraying all known figure models of early pugilists is now on YouTube. These amazing men, the very first modern-day sports stars, have always fascinated me. I share their enthralling story and my admiration of figures of them in this video. Enjoy!
Three or so years ago, I made four YouTube videos on various aspects of Staffordshire pottery. The process was torturous, frustrating, and technically challenging, and I swore I would not go down that road again. In subsequent years, I have received so many encouraging emails, so this summer I escaped Dallas's triple-digit temperatures by hunkering down in my office and doing it again!
My latest video showcases the charming figures that depict courtship, marriage, and all aspects of family life in the 1780-1840 period. You can watch it on YouTube by clicking https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=680AoPGPKsM. You can also access this link on the Videos menu at the top of this page.
My PDF booklet illustrating all the marked Neale & Co. and Wilson figure models is available as a free download on the Books tab at the top of this page or by clicking here.
Neale figures are eye candy. They are, to my mind, the finest the Potteries produced, so enjoy! Please let me know of any corrections or additions.
My special thanks to collectors Bob Carde and Malcolm Trundley for their observations.
These stunning figures portray Ceres (right) and Cybele (left). Painted with soft early enamels of the circa 1790 period, “The Girls,” as I have dubbed them, are simply breathtaking. What could be prettier?
The Girls have spent most, if not all, of the last hundred years glued to crude wooden bases. Metal fittings attached to the bases supported light bulbs and shades. Yes, someone turned these beauties into lamps! Liberated at last, they found their way to me through Damon Revans-Turner at RTS Antiques.
The inspiration for these figures is a pair of Wedgwood blue and white jasper candlesticks. Eliza Meteyard, Wedgwood’s biographer, says of them, “Articles of this character and quality were always costly, namely £5 5sh.” That was a lot of money in those days, so Staffordshire potters took up the gauntlet and made much prettier versions, and, I would guess, at a more affordable price.
One way to keep cost down would have been to decorate the figures with underglaze colors, and indeed, most of the few that I have recorded have been colored in that way. This again places them in the 1790s, when enameling, although gaining ground by leaps and bounds, was a relatively new and more costly process.
The pair below is on bases like the pair I feature, but, again, the colors are underglaze.
I find underglaze colors rather strident, ill-suited to The Girls' gentle classical beauty. Until recently, the only other enameled pair I have recorded is the pair below, inscribed beneath "John Cartledge in the plantation COWBRIDGE 1800."
When I unboxed The Girls, their alluring beauty exceeded my expectations. Those serene expressions and Cybele’s goofy lion charmed me. At 13.8 inches, these statuesque ladies are far from petite, but they aren’t at all clunky, and I shall enjoy finding them a deserving resting place.
So why would Ceres and Cybele be paired? Did you know that the Romans considered both goddesses to be Earth Mothers associated with fertility? On the other hand, their devotees were divided. Rome had two hereditary classes of citizens: patricians, the elite, wealthy landowners, and plebeians (plebs), the commoners. One adopted Ceres as Magna Mater (Great Mother), and the other chose Cybele.
Ceres, based on the Greek goddesses Demeter, was first established in Southern Italy, but Rome imported her in the third century BCE. As the divine embodiment of agriculture, she quickly became the patron goddess of the plebs who were central to Roman economy. And her association with fertility also made her the guardian of marriage. Her name was synonymous with wheat, and even today she is in modern symbols linked to organizations associated with agriculture.
Cybele, originally a Phrygian earth mother, was portrayed in the ancient world wearing a turreted or mural crown (symbolizing her status as a guarding deity) and riding a chariot drawn by lions. Later, the Greeks adopted her, but shortly after Ceres arrived in Rome, patrician Romans decided they needed something more. Patricians had a fertility problem (caused by rampant lead poisoning) that was imperiling their elite blood lines, and none of the existing goddesses was helping. Believing that corn was first created in Phrygia, and associating Cybele with corn, fertility, and agricultural bounty, they established her as their very own Magna Mater. In record time, the harvest was abundant and the second Punic War was over!
Roman mythographers, knowing which side their bread was buttered, established Cybele as the ancestral goddess of the Roman people, and leading patrician families claimed to be her descendants. Her association with agricultural fertility and the protection of cities made her acceptable despite the frenzied, and sometimes-bloody activities associated with her cult, and she became a favorite for patrician women with fertility issues.
Today, the divisions in our society run deep. Republican or Democrat? Labour or Conservative? Step back over two thousand years ago, it was Ceres or Cybele, and your blood line, rather than your convictions, determined your choice.
The Girls traveled to America swaddled in layers of wrap within a very large box. Tucked in with them was yet another treasure, just 4 inches tall, at the other end of the size spectrum. About five years ago, Damon Revans-Turner visited our collection, and, when he subsequently acquired a small clown, he recalled that we have its companion, a sweet little man holding a vegetable of sorts. The two make a perfect pair, and, as the only other clown I know of is “jailed” in a museum storage room, I am thrilled to have found this one. Could you wish for a more perfect pair?
I am working my way through the makers of Staffordshire pottery figures of the pre-1840 period, and my photo index of John Walton's work is complete. The figures are gorgeous, so I hope you enjoy leafing through it. A free download is available on the Books tab at the top of this page. As always, comments and corrections are welcome.
I am a sucker for the carefully rendered, creamy enamel colors found on early Staffordshire figures of the 1780-1800 period. The Neale factory takes the prize for excellence, but the potter Ralph Wood (active 1782-1795) is a close runner-up, and I enjoy our family’s small collection of his enamel-painted figures. I especially like the group below. Today it is interpreted as being allegorical of married life, and collectors know it as Liberty and Matrimony--the cage symbolizes the restraints of marriage, and the bird represents freedom. But, as we shall see shortly, in his day Ralph Wood simply called this group Bird Catchers.
Our group is a little unusual in that the body is a porcelain-pottery hybrid. Wood, who was the founding father of the English pottery industry, experimented with a variety of bodies. Although he favoured pottery, it is not unusual to find one of his models made in some other ceramic material.
Wood modeled his own figures, and he sometimes looked to other sources for inspiration. In this case, English porcelain figures are thought to have set the cogs in his brain spinning. The Derby porcelain pair alongside was made circa 1780, and Bow made figures in the same style some decades earlier. They are known as Liberty and Matrimony, the very title that came to be applied to Wood's Bird Catchers in the twentieth century.
Wood would have been familiar with these models, but pottery figures lack the pretentiousness of porcelain ones, and Wood intended his group to be nothing more than common-or-garden bird catchers. The titled example below, decorated in a style Wood used later in his career, makes that clear. By the way, bird catching was something of a pastime in those days, and enterprising individuals earned their livings catching birds to adorn the aviaries of the wealthy.
For a period in his brief career, Wood impressed model numbers into his figures, and the number 89 is impressed on the reverse of the Bird Catchers in our collection. The men who worked in Wood’s pot bank were relatively illiterate and, at times, less than sober. In any event, they don’t seem to have set much score by those numbers, and errors abounded. For that reason, Bird Catchers can be found impressed either 89 or 90.
The vast majority of Staffordshire figure models have companion models, so what did Wood pair with his Bird Catchers? He must have loved shepherds and shepherdesses because he made several pairs, and apparently he thought that a bucolic shepherd and shepherdess fitted the bill. Below is a pair of pottery models that are undeniably Wood’s work. Their bocages (remarkably intact) are typical, and the rainbow-like colors on the bases only occur on figures associated with Wood.
It is possible to find these two figure groups numbered 89 and 90, or 90 and 89. It is also possible to find them with candleholders added. The pair I show above is in remarkably fine condition, and, despite a slight difference in the shade of green on the bocages, they appear to be a true pair the has lived side by side always,
Wood also made this pair of models decorated in colored glazes, as you see below. Each to his own, and some may prefer this mode of decoration, but for me those pretty enamel colors win any day.
Wood also made this pair of models "in the white"--in other words coated with clear glaze only. The examples below have lost much or all of their bocages.
And he made them decorated in colored glazes.
Each to his own, but for me those pretty enamel colors win any day.
As I type this post, I am, as always, aware that my vast photo archive makes it seem that such figure groups can be found with ease. Far from it. But don't let that stop you looking, and don't hesitate to buy a beautiful single--in my opinion, that's far better than a poor pair. Many examples have lost their bocages over the years yet still retain their beauty, but avoid anything with an extensively restored bocage.
Also, remember that nasty reproductions of the shepherds group can be found easily. Made in Asia in recent years, they are crude, garish object, and some even have "WOOD" scratched beneath. Anyone can tell them for what they are, but if in doubt the dog on the Asian disaster always looks behind it.
Yet another few words of advice: if you see other early figure groups of this form, do not assume Ralph Wood made them. After Wood's death, his molds passed to others. In particular, the Dudson factory made figure groups from these molds in the early 1800s. They are charming, but Ralph Wood's are the best.
If you want to know more about Ralph Wood’s work, please refer to my PDF on that subject, accessed by clicking here.
I was pleasantly surprised---correction, I was thrilled---when the figure below crossed my path recently. This little man, made in the 1830s, has great presence and stands at a commanding 8.3 inches. But who might he be?
The figure has excellent provenance, and an old label beneath attests to it previously having been in the stock of that esteemed dealer in English pottery, the late Jonathan Horne. Jonathan's label describes the figure as "a peeler or sailor," but which is he? Wiser heads than mine suggested the figure might be a midshipman, an entry-level officer in the British navy, so let's see if we can settle the question here.
What is a peeler? Today, British police are commonly called "Bobbies’," but originally they were dubbed "Peelers," both names being for Sir Robert Peel (1788 – 1850) who established London's police force in 1829. His officers wore blue tail coats and black top hats, a uniform that was deliberately chosen to ensure they blended in with ordinary folk. Each man carried a wooden rattle to raise the alarm and a wooden truncheon......but this figure carries a sword. Does this rule out his being a policeman?
But I can't conclude the figure is a Peeler because those intrepid gentlemen apparently always sported coats with long tails, and our figure has a short jacket nipped at the waist. Given his gentlemanly appearance, might he then be a midshipman?
Midshipmen in the British navy of that day were largely sons of professional men, as well as members of the peerage and landed gentry. Even Prince William, later King William IV, served as a midshipman in his youth. I have spent hours down the rabbit hole of naval uniforms, and I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say that the figure's hat is consistent with him being a midshipman.
The prints below shows a midshipman of 1828 (left) and 1830 (right), and, like the figure, he has a tall hat and a sword. But, unlike the figure, he wears a coat with long tails. Images courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Notice the white patches on the coat collars. Midshipmen then always had white patches on their coat collars, and our figure lacks those. Also, midshipmen always had coats with tails, as befitted their gentlemanly status, and our figure has a short jacket of the sort you might expect to see on a common sailor. Might the figure instead be a sailor?
Common sailor wore a wide range of headgear, so its not improbably for a sailor to have worn a tall black hat rather like the one worn by a midshipman. Like the figure, the sailor illustrated below has a neckerchief, a tall black hat, and a short jacket. He has no sword, but I note that the figure's sword is short, as was the standard for common sailors then. I have to conclude that the figure is indeed a sailor.
Sailors were plentiful in their day, but this figure is very rare. I know of only one other example, and his trousers were painted with stripes. I was reluctant to base my decision on what may well have been artistic license, but, with hindsight I admit the answer was staring me in the face.
I can't attribute this sailor to any specific potter, but I have noticed a small number of figures on similar bases, and I strongly suspect they too are of the 1830s period and from the same pot bank.
Final image (C) The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Small pearlware figures in fine condition remain the most elusive of Staffordshire figures. For generations, these little gems have been tossed aside--or tossed out--as fashions and tastes changed, but today collectors are wising up to their worth.
The best things are said to come in small parcels, and the same can often be said of early figures. The problem is that good, small figures are extraordinarily difficult to procure. And true pairs of small figures are nigh impossible. That's why my heart skipped a beat when this true pair of musicians popped onto the site of RTS Antiques. A pretty picture, are they not?
The decoration confirms that they are the truest of pairs and have lived together always. I have recorded a single example of each form, but I know of no other true pair.
The male figure is known to me from the little fellow below in our collection. He is made from the same molds as RTS's male figure, but with a bocage added. I bought him over thirty years ago, and I have yet to see another.
I value my perky musician so highly that I placed him on the spine of the dust jacket of my first book, People, Passions, Pastimes, and Pleasure: Staffordshire Figures 1810-1835. I have not yet seen another, and I have assumed that his mate looks like the lady in the pair above. Imagine my surprise when this rather blitzed figure appeared on eBay recently. The bocage has been lost.
I suspect that this lady is my musician's companion, but I must await a better example. But, as it has taken me thirty years to come up with this one, I am running out of time!
By the way, all the musicians above have impressed numbers in their bases, suggesting Enoch Wood probably made them. The bocage on my male figure is also consistent with that attribution.
If pairs are so difficult to find, imagine the odds of assembling a hunting garniture, such as this one. All the figures are marked WALTON.
If you can find the pair of sportsmen, you are well on your way to assembling the garniture because four animal subjects have been recorded, any one of which will transform the pair into a garniture. If you are so inclined, RTS Antiques has this rare twosome available.
This has been the most barren of years for early figures, but I am constantly digging for the unusual. Amongst the unrecorded figures I have unearthed is this example of a lady, and, to my mind, she is a candidate for the Ugliest Woman of the Year award.
I was intrigued by the lady holding a book, below. She went through auction described as Faith, and she is in the stock of a dealer, again described as Faith. The problem is that Faith typically holds a cross, whereas this lady clutches a large tome. Some might think it to be a Bible, but I suspect otherwise.
The figure is most probably Metis, the goddess of deep thought and wisdom, or perhaps Calliope, the muse of epic poetry. You can see more on this subject here.
The figure on the left below caught my eye on eBay. She portrays Peace. This is a common enough figure, but for one thing: the head is different. The head on the figure is usually formed like that on the right.
If the head is indeed a "transplant" from another figure, it has been very well done and it sits quite naturally, Although one or two suspicious little bumps around the neck warrant further investigation, we may have yet another version of this otherwise common figure form.
Finding the unusual makes collecting fun, so enjoy your hunting. And remember to grab fine pairs when you can!
Those of you who collect early figures purely because they are eye-candy will be able to gorge on my latest effort, which includes very sparse text and tons of glorious color images.
In 1991, Malcolm and Judith Hodkinson published Sherratt? A Natural Family of Staffordshire Figures. Their groundbreaking work included an alphabetical listing of Sherratt models illustrated with small black and white images. In the ensuing thirty-plus years, further models have, of course, come to light, and for that reason I have assembled an updated photo record. It is available as a free download on the BOOKS menu at the top of this page or click here.
I have compiled much of what I have learned about Ralph Wood figures into a notebook, which is available for free download on the BOOKS tab at the top of this page. Ralph Wood was the Father of the British figure making industry, and I find his figures endlessly fascinating. I know many will consider this a nerdy topic, so those wanting only a list of the numbered models should start on page 19.
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