Early Staffordshire Pottery Figures Article
- In a nutshell
- Why are they so appealing?
- Real or Repro
- History Time Line
'Staffordshire figures are 19thC folk art, of the people, for the people...'
To navigate our article on Staffordshire Pottery Figures, use the tabs above. Some of the pieces illustrated are available for sale from our website. Other pictures are taken from Madelena's research archive.
We hope you find our article of interest. Corrections, comments, etc. are most welcome. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a nutshell, what are they?
Exactly why Staffordshire figures appeal to SO many people.
How they were made.
All sorts of figures “ how can they be grouped?
Get some tips on how to tell the difference.
Where do you stand in the debate on pairs?
What makes a figure valuable?
What effect does restoration have?
Key events and dates of the Staffordshire Figures era.
Staffordshire figures are earthenware figures made in England, mainly in the county of Staffordshire, but also in other counties and in Scotland. The broadest use of the term would include all earthenware figures made circa 1740 to 1960. The period we cover in our modest introduction to these fascinating objects is from 1780 onwards.
The main groups are:
-Circa 1780-1840 Pratt ware figures
-Circa 1810-1837 Pre-Victorian Staffordshire figures
-Circa 1837-1900 Victorian Staffordshire figures
-Circa 1890-1960 Kent
Choice of subject matter evolved in response to popular taste. Two subjects remained popular throughout the entire period - lions and dogs. A multitude of unknown small manufacturers produced most of the Staffordshire figures we see today.
They resonate with social history.
They are folk art. They are naive. They were of the people for the people. They echo the enthusiasm and sometimes low taste of ordinary folk
during a time when life was vibrant but in no way easy - many children died very young, and adults too - life expectancy for ordinary people was extremely low.
They make stunning decor.
A single large piece will highlight a corner, perhaps in the form of a lamp on a side table.
A hutch of figures all sporting significant pink or yellow or green may be chosen to co-ordinate with complimentary colors in the surrounding space.
All manner of pieces are available to fit with mountain or country themes.
They are hugely collectable.
Or maybe Victorian, or Kent; or they may choose to collect only portrait figures, or royalty, or theatrical, or religious; or particular animals e.g. zoo animals or domestic, cats or dogs; spaniels or whippets; or they may limit themselves to oversize figures, or miniature; or by form e.g. watch holders or cottages or busts only. The options seem endless.
They are a constant reminder of your own impeccable taste.
Working Staffordshire figures into a design theme makes a powerful statement about your own good taste and appreciation of art, history, and the connectivity between past, present, and future.
The individual molds were then stuck together with slip to produce a figure, then fired, driving out all water content, to form the biscuit.
It is essential to keep in mind that manufacturing processes evolve continuously.
Visualize the development, over many generations, of constructions, molds, methods, modeling style, choice of subject matter, formulae for glazes, enamels and gilding, and ovens and kilns.
And recall the wide diversity of potters and artisans and factories, adapting to change at different speeds. At any one time there would have been significant variation in the end product of all these different enterprises.
This may help to explain why an unusual looking figure is not necessarily 'wrong'.
There are various ways to group the different types of Staffordshire figure:
By form: Bocage figures; table groups; busts; plaques; flat-backs; spill vases, etc.
By subject: Royalty; religious; theatrical; portrait figures; naval; military; domestic animals; farm animals; buildings; sports; events; etc.
By period: We have chosen here to group by period, noting the distinguishing features of the figures produced during the period, their subject matter, and makers, and adding notes on the changes taking place in manufacturing as time went by.
Circa 1780 to 1840
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: Distinctive painted underglaze colors.
Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, conquered most of Europe, represented good change in government with Napoleonic Code 1804 making the law fairer for working classes. Curiously popular with the British public despite being the enemy.
MAKERS: Pratt, Barker, Emery, Dixon, Austin & Co, Ferrybridge, and a host of unknown makers.Pratt ware was made in many forms: Candlesticks, cornucopias, dishes, flasks, jugs, mugs, tea-caddies, teapots, and vases, as well as figures and animals, plaques and watch-stands.
MANUFACTURE: A limited range of colors consisted of black, brown, blue, green, orange, yellow, and mulberry puce, all metallic oxides uniquely able to withstand high temperature in the kiln. They were painted on the biscuit, dried, covered in transparent lead glaze, and the object fired at around 1100 degrees Centigrade.
Circa 1810 to 1837
Also known as Pearlware, Early, and Early 19th Century.
MAKERS: Sherratt, Lloyd, Salt, Walton, and many unknown makers.
MANUFACTURE: Taking over from Pratt wares simple underglaze colors, a more extensive palette appears, mainly as enamels on top of the glaze, often meticulously applied. The figure receives its enamel decoration after glazing and is fired again at a lower temperature. Finally gilt decoration of the best gold, old dull gilt variety, might occasionally be applied and fired for the last time at a low temperature. Multiple molds producing very complex figures were now in production. Not only the front and back press-molds of the main body but also the flowers, leaves and branches of bocage groups as well as arms, legs, spades, swords, etc. were all separately molded then pieced together and smoothed with slip before firing. In the most advanced state the art of Staffordshire figure making ever reached, multiple figures were assembled on plinths with legs. These figures are known as table groups.
EARLY and MID VICTORIAN
Circa 1837 to 1875
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: Characteristic blue tinge to the white lead glaze; decorated front only from circa 1845; concave bases; rich cobalt blue until circa 1860; no makers marks; old dull gilt.
SUBJECTS: The public was hungry for images and no longer interested in imitation pieces. Most ordinary folk could not read, therefore modelers, inspired by theatre programs, music covers, popular culture, London Illustrated News, Talliss Shakespeare Gallery (1853), Punch, etc., transposed 'Today's News' into clay images. Riding the wave of the young Queen Victoria's huge popularity, and with an expanding market to town and city buyers, sales of pottery figures reached new heights.
Figures depicting pastoral scenes and pursuits, reminiscent of rural life were of great sentimental importance to the rural poor now flocking to find work in rapidly industrializing towns and villages. Britain's lead in the industrial revolution, and success in overseas trade, had made her the richest and most powerful nation on earth.
The abundance of figures provides today's collectors and decorators with a unique record of public taste during this fascinating period in history. All subjects were transformed into clay for the enjoyment of ordinary people.
There were villains to enjoy
Murder scenes to intrigue
Humour, of a sort
Social concerns were reflected throughout the period, for example temperance
And life-changing infrastructural projects
Sport became gradually more popular as leisure time became available.
bible stories, and reminders of the Queens interest in hunting, shooting and fishing, and love of all things Scottish.
With the disappearance of the Queen to Scotland, for an extenuated period of mourning following Albert's death from typhoid in 1861, public interest had only the engagements and marriages of her many children to focus upon.
Her castles were popular especially Balmoral, Scotland, her residence during this period, and Windsor Castle near London which received an occasional visit.
American Civil War (1861-65) figures fired the imaginations of the English public
c. 1865 Pair Zebras and Foals
Along with all domestic pets especially Staffordshire dogs, in great quantities
MAKERS: 99% of figures in this period were made by a host of unknown potters, their wares unmarked. Two potters, Dudson, and Stubbs, are recorded as having been active figure makers throughout the period, and another thirty potters were active for part of the period. But there is little hard evidence to connect any of them to particular figure types. One group of distinctly similar early figures has been named the Alpha type but with no direct link yet with a particular potter. Another group is believed to have been the output of the Sampson Smith factory. Research continues with particular interest in excavations where pottery waste appears.
MANUFACTURE: Making a living was every potters aim. With a big increase in the number of competitors in a rapidly expanding market many cost cutting measures were adopted. Figures decorated in the round gave way to flat-backs. The rich underglaze cobalt blue that had made its appearance with the earliest Victorian figures discontinued circa 1860. The number of separate molds in a figure diminished. On the cheapest wares in place of expensive gilt lines and decoration, yellow enamel was substituted, and black enamel base lines for figures with manufacturing defects not so disfiguring as to necessitate trashing. Porcelaneous figures, with open bases, were now being produced in addition to the earthenware figures with their concave bases. Yet despite cost cutting by some producers there were still potters producing high quality figures throughout this period, out of sync with the general trend. Thus best quality is not always synonymous with early.
Underglaze blue or black was used during this era, the oxide colors painted onto the biscuit before being dried, glazed, fired, then colored enamels applied and the piece fired again at a lower temperature. Further colors may have been applied firing again at an even lower temperature. Finally gilt was usually applied and the piece fired one last time.
The most popular forms were pairs of animals especially dogs, figures with animals, figures alone, spill vases, watch stands, and pastille burner cottages. And also some candlesticks, jugs, trinket boxes and plaques.
Circa 1875 to 1900
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: Mirror bright gilt; sparsely decorated; glass eyes; slip cast; large figures.
Shocking news coming in from the Empire by telegraph created new war celebrities
Interest in royalty figures fizzled out except for a re-issue to celebrate Victorias Golden Jubilee in 1887
Cats, lions, and dogs, many of them large, continued as popular as ever and selling in large numbers.
MAKERS: Mostly unmarked. Sadler.
MANUFACTURE: Press molding continued but slip casting was increasing rapidly - it saved cost and was especially suitable for the large figures that were finished off with spray painting. Mass production by fewer makers brought costs down further. Good news for many of todays collectors and decorators for whom lions, dogs, and cats are as popular now as then, and whose interior dÃcor and design requirements are now for large, monochrome white, black, grey or tan pieces. Circa 1875 the gilt process suddenly changed. Child labour, poor working conditions, and appalling sanitation resulting in short life expectancy had been largely ignored by government until mid century. Thereafter the health of the city dwellers, workers and especially children became an issue. Arsenic and mercury were banned from the mix that had been used to produce 'old dull gilt'. The new mix produced a different quality of gilt - 'mirror-bright' - highly reflective like a mirror. This particular change was adopted more or less overnight and provides a useful indicator of age. Circa 1885 glass eyes were introduced and grew rapidly in popularity. Meanwhile the trend to using less brushwork and less color continued, fuelling yet another collecting genre that has grown up around these sparsely decorated figures.
Circa 1890 to 1960
Kent circa 1890: bases colored green /brown/ yellow with fine combed /streaked brush strokes.
Kent circa 1920: bases colored with dabbed brush strokes.
Kent 1944-1962: Black printed marks 'Staffordshire Ware Kent Made in England', and Staffordshire Knot; and Staffordshire Ware England from the 1940s.
SUBJECTS: William Kent & Co. took over the original Victorian master molds of the Parr companies that preceded it, and may have bought in other master molds from other failing companies , so the range of subjects is wide. The Tallis figures are of particular interest. The Kent Catalogue of 1955 gives an overview of what was available.
MANUFACTURE: Figures were produced from original molds, using traditional Victorian press molding techniques, and tolerably similar enamel colors. Kent figures are genuine Staffordshire figures but should always be referred to as Kent and correctly dated.
1900 to 1920 - is usually referred to as 'Early 20thC'
DISTINGUISHING FEATURES: Slip cast; spray painted; brighter whiter glaze.
SUBJECTS: Lions, dogs, cats.
MAKERS: Mostly unmarked. Sadler printed mark sometimes seen. Makers using printed marks usually including England or Made in England
Makers & Dates
Anyone looking for a profusion of makers names, marks, back stamps or date marks on Staffordshire figures will be sadly disappointed, though there are exceptions. Most figures are not marked. If a printed mark is found the piece is almost certainly 20th century.
Attributions can sometimes be made by comparing a hitherto unattributed figure with a positively identified figure or group of figures. Characteristics such as painting style, formation of bases, detail of bocage elements, use of underglaze colors, quality of modelling, size of head and feet, etc. are used.
A circa date of manufacture however can usually be easily determined, not by marks but by other characteristics. Here are some good date-indicators:
- Circa 1835 the blueish /greyish /greenish tinged color of the pre-Victorian white glaze changed to a distinctly bluish tinge.
- Circa 1860 the use of underglaze cobalt blue ceased.
- Circa 1875 the use of old dull gilt changed to mirror bright gilt.
- Circa 1885 glass eyes were introduced.
The safest way of being sure you are buying the real thing is to purchase from a reputable dealer who guarantees authenticity. Make a habit of asking the right questions. 'What age is it?', Where was it made?, 'How do you know?' Vague answers mean the seller does not know or will not tell.
REAL: Original. Pratt ware figures were made circa 1780 to 1840. Pre-Victorian figures, circa 1810 to 1837. Victorian figures, circa 1837 to 1900.
REPRO: Reproduction or copy of an original often using molds taken from original pieces. Objects have been copied or reproduced since time immemorial. Some examples of honest repros: Pratt ware gothic cottage re-issued by Kent during 20thC as Campbell Cottage, listed in 1955 Kent catalog; 1750 Chelsea porcelain bocage groups copied by Walton in circa 1820, pearlware, marked; 17thC Sevres porcelains copied by Minton in 19thC bone china, 1830, marked; 1750 Meissen Welsh Tailor and his Wife copied by Derby in 1760, marked.
The repros we have to watch out for are those being sold or re-sold purporting to be older than they actually are, either through ignorance or deliberate intent. For example the Welsh tailor and his Wife have continued to be copied repeatedly, usually without marks, often with incorrect date attributed.
Concentrating here on pre-Victorian and Victorian figures, to detect real from 20thC repro for yourself, first concentrate on just three characteristics: Base glaze, foot-rim, and the gilt. These three will eliminate 98% of the repros. You are looking for signs of 19thC manufacture (real), compared with 20thC (repro).
FOOT RIM: Look for base glaze coming up and onto the foot rim in one or more places compared to typical 20thC repro foot rims where glaze never comes up and onto the foot rim, and often has a brushed look or chalky feel.
Gilt with crazing showing through is always 20thC.
Beware 'brassy' or 'coppery' gilt.
Beware absence of gilt where gilt would be expected.
Old dull mellow gilt was used circa 1830 to 1875 and is hard to replicate.
Mirror-bright gilt replaced dull gilt from circa 1875.
Here are some further pointers, indicators, warning signs to look out for, for when the base glaze -foot rim “ gilt examination is inconclusive, or when you are not 100% confident in the seller. Never judge a piece by one or two of the following indicators alone, as exceptions abound.
-Marks. Pre-Victorian figures with fake Walton and Salt marks exist. Victorian figures were almost never marked.
-High value selling cheap. A danger sign in any market.
-No flaking of the weaker enamels, no rubbing of the gilt, no wear and tear.
-Hurried, less elaborate or minimal decoration on an allegedly older piece.
-'Fuzzy' modelling, lack of fineness in detail.
-'Wrong' colors. Some 19thC colors could not be mimicked with 20thC enamels.
-Wrong faces. A figure with an oriental look was probably not made in Britain.
-Slip casting “ indicative of 20thcentury manufacture “ evidenced by large vent holes on closed base pieces, smooth interiors on open base pieces.
-Rough texture to the glaze or enamels.
-Dark stained crazing.
Compare real with repro side by side whenever possible, handle every piece you can, and you will quickly learn to distinguish one from the other. It is easy when you know what to look for.
Variations in mold, weight, and glaze were inevitable as each half of a pair was moved through the production cycle. Mold: Molds for pairs were made from individual 'sculptures'. We can assume the modeler had in mind to match left facing to right facing but to produce a mirror copy would be impossible. Weight: When clay is pressed into the (half) molds, some may get a little more clay, some a little less. Glaze: Specks of kiln detritus would be embedded at random and different tinges of white/cream could arise due to different formulae and consistencies even within the same factory.
IDENTICAL PAIR: There truly is no such thing as an identical pair.
GOOD PAIR: Very slight differences in the mold, and/or in the white glaze color, and/or in the mirroring of the enamel brush work, but clearly from the same factory.
PAIR POSSIBLY MATCHED: Discernable differences in the mold, and /or in the white glaze color, and /or in the mirroring of the enamel brush work, and possibly not from the same factory.
c. 1860 Pair (possibly matched) Spaniels.
MATCHED PAIR: Marked differences in the mold, and/or white glaze, and/or brush work leading to the conclusion that they could not start have started their life together from the same factory.
TWO: Two identical figures are often described as a pair.
BOY/GIRL DEBATE: Assuming the painter knows she is working on pairs and has been instructed to mirror the patterns, when faced with one piece a little shorter or lighter than the others, and in the right mood, surely she will imagine this piece a girl and decorate her with a lighter touch? Some believe pairs were decorated simultaneously and stayed together through the rest of the production cycle. Others believe pairs were not selected until the end of the production cycle, after the firing of the enamels and the further firing of any gilt.
Factors that affect value are: rarity; age; provenance; condition; appeal; color; quality of workmanship; artistic merit.
Wear and damage is to be expected. Pristine un-restored pieces are extremely rare. Many sellers do not draw attention to repairs and restoration in as much detail as we do.
When buying don't forget to ask 'Is there any damage, repairs or restoration?'
Depending on how well the work is done and the rarity of the item, any damage, and the extent and quality of any restoration will affect value.
Spotting damage and restoration:
If your eyesight is not great, use a lens and bright light.
Damage: Look at the most vulnerable areas first.
Restoration: Look for slight changes in color. Look for a disappearance of normal crazing. Feel for a change in texture. Feel for a change in hardness - teeth will do, but are no longer recommended; tapping lightly with a sharp steel implement works well - the softer acrylic of the repair can be distinguished by feel from un-restored enamel or white glaze.
1801 Population of England 8.3 million
1835 Bull Baiting became illegal
1837 Coronation of Queen Victoria, aged 18
1840 Queen Victoria married Prince Albert
1841 Bristol to London Railway completed
1842 Mines Act: Boys in mines must be aged 10+
1843 Charles Dickens Christmas Carol published
1845 Irish potato famines and migration to US
1851 Great Exhibition
1851 Population of England 16.8 million, half now live in towns
1854-56 Crimean War: Russia v. Britain, France & Turkey
1854 Cholera epidemic
1856 Police forces now in every town
1861 Typhoid kills Prince Albert
1863 Worlds first underground railway
1864 Act of Parliament: Boys in chimneys must be aged 10+
1868 The last public hanging
1876 Telephone invented by Alexander Bell
1878 First public electric lighting in London
1880 School for ages 5 to 10 compulsory
1883 First electric railway
1887 Golden Jubilee
1891 Free school for all, ages 5 to 13
1901 King Edward VII coronation
1901 Population of England 30.5 million