A combination of the right clays, inventive potters such as Josiah Wedgwood and available labor, often children, made the Staffordshire district in the center of the china industry. Many small forgotten factories as well as the giants suchas Spode Wedgwood Adams clustered in the towns of Burslem, Cobridge, Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall, now incorporated in the present day town of Stoke-on-Trent.
Thousands of transferware patterns printed on dinnerware poured out of factories and across the ocean to eager American buyers. But it was the colorful production of painted and glazed Staffordshire pottery figures that captivated Victorians on both sides of the Atlantic.
Most Staffordshire models of animals and historical figures that we see today are the work of the 19th century craftsmen; earlier 18th century examples by Ralph Wood, father and son, Whieldon and Pratt are scarce and costly. The earliest figures, now known as Astbury or Whieldon are more correctly salt glaze figures with glazes resembling tortoiseshell. While not nearly as attractive as later models, these primitive examples of pre figures, mounted horsemen or soldiers can fetch thousands of dollars at auction.
England’s Industrial Revolution coincided almost exactly with the start of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1838, creating wealth from industry, not merely inherited land. The new middle class was eager to emulate its betters by decorating their homes with objects similar to costly Meissen and Chelsea figures, and Staffordshire potters obliged by turning out painted and glazed pottery sheep dogs, cattle and more exotic animals such as zebra and elephants. Figures of gods and goddesses, examples drawn from literature, famous political and military men and above all, representations of royalty, all found homes in England and America.
Figures destined for mantelpieces were known as flatbacks, with modeling and painting confined to the areas facing outward. Others were modeled in the round; earlier examples often leaning against a stump or some sort of support to eliminate sagging during the firing process. Some figures were so complicated they required three molds to complete. Most of the Victorian-era Staffordshire figures were painted overglaze; colors were applied after the first white glazing, enabling the piece to be fired at lower temperatures and allowing a wider range of colors.
Popular characters from literature (Uncle Tom, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet) were identified on the base, as were political figures of the day (often the only way we remember them).
The popularity of Queen Victoria’s reign, coming after the “wicked uncles” of the Regency period, spawned hundreds of examples of the Queen, Albert and all her large family. Princes and princesses were shown on horses, and on zebras. Royalty of her European countries were represented, as well as American presidents and occasional female figures, such as Florence Nightingale. Actors and actresses were portrayed in their most familiar roles.
Few Staffordshire figures bear maker’s marks, although some experts can identifiy similarities of style that might come from an individual factory (for example, the style of the base may provide a clue). Potters copied figures and even produced variants of the same figure. Small factories frequently went out of business and sold their molds along with the remaining stock.
Most Staffordshire cermaics were solid, although a nubmer of hollow examples are known. Since these figures are strill being produced it is often difficult to tell a modern example from a mid-19th century example. Later pieces sometimes bear a stamp with England imprinted; these will be no earlier than the turn of the century.
Most of the Staffordshire molds of 19th century historical and political figures were not produced in later years, so examples are likely to be old and correspondingly costly. If you are interested in collecting these charming pieces, buy from a reputable dealer or study a number of examples before you take the plunge. Animals, particularly the popular King Charles spaniel dogs and sheep, are the most often seen. If you’re seeking a “look” and the price is right- e.g. modest- on a newer example, go ahead and buy it. Just be aware of what you’re buying- the difference in price ma be significant. -Barbara Sackett