|Our Staffordshire figure of an elephant, ca. 1860-1880|
Photograph by Boy Fenwick
I was interested in seeing the elephant because, in addition to collecting early-nineteenth century pearlware figures, we also collect mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire figures. We display our earlier pearlware figures in our drawing room at Darlington House, where much of the furniture is formal and dates from the first quarter of the nineteenth century. We display our later Staffordshire figures in our cozier bedroom where the furniture is largely from the second quarter of the nineteenth century. In other words, we place our figures in rooms where the furnishings are from similar eras. Context.
|A colorful Staffordshire elephant spill vase, ca. 1860|
Image courtesy of worthpoint.com
In collecting Staffordshire figures* we concentrate on ones made in the middle of the nineteenth century, before their production quality had become degraded, as they did over time. We prefer ones that are neither too colorful nor heavily painted, and where the subjects are either animals—such as dogs, sheep, or cows—or humans engaged in bucolic or sentimental pursuits.
So what is Staffordshire, exactly, you may ask, and why do we collect it?
|An early-Staffordshire reference book|
by Bernard Rackham, C. B.
Formerly Keeper of the Dep't. of Ceramics
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Staffordshire is the name given to glazed earthenware pottery made in the English county of the same name that first appeared in around 1720, and which has remained in continuous production to this day, except for a brief interruption during WWII. For purposes of this essay, however, I am using the term "Staffordshire" to describe pottery figures made during the lengthy reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901, which is when they enjoyed their peak popularity.
|A very early and rare Whieldon ware underglazed elephant, ca. 1755|
Collection of the British Museum, London
Staffordshire figures were produced inexpensively and in vast quantities in the second half of the nineteenth century both for domestic consumption and for export, and were sold at reasonable prices to middle-class buyers; they were not figures for the most elite customers of the day. Although less popular with collectors today than thirty years ago, Victorian-era Staffordshire figures remain sought after and are generally affordable, with prices for most figures less than $1,000.
|An early and rare Wood family elephant, ca. 1780|
Ex John Howard (from whom we bought Minerva)
The variety of subjects for Staffordshire figures virtually knows no bounds. The most popular forms are pairs of animals, especially dogs; figures also depict solitary animals, both wild and domesticated; human figures—often depicting famous personalities, politicians, and members of the royal families of England and Europe; groups of figures engaged in pastoral pursuits; spill vases, watch stands, pastille burner cottages, and more.
|The press molding method of casting figures (19th century)|
Image courtesy of English Earthenware Figures, 1740-1840
by Pat Halfpenny
|The slip casting method of molding figures (20th century)|
Image courtesy of same
Staffordshire figures were produced using molds and decorated with both underglazes and painted overglazes, along with gilding. Early figures are usually more colorful than later ones and are often of a better quality, with crisper molding and sharper detailing. Later figures are cruder and less decorated than earlier ones, since over time the potteries' production became more streamlined, and labor-intensive steps were eliminated to cut costs. Not surprisingly, later figures are also less desirable to collectors. Production quality declined throughout the twentieth century, and the figures produced today are by and large mostly cheap gift shoppe junk. They are to be avoided.
Pages from a catalogue of Old Staffordshire Pottery
in production by William Kent of Burslem as of 1955
Images courtesy of same
The elephant that Boy showed me at the Ceramics Fair is pictured at the top of this post. It is of a substantial size, measuring ten inches tall and eleven and a quarter inches long, and is therefore larger than is typical for such pieces. It is decorated with painted overglaze enamel to the animal's body and gilt banding around the base. We both found it appealing not just for its size and subject matter but also because of its muted, limited color palette of gray and white.
|Philip Carrol's advertisement in|
the Ceramics Fair dealer's directory
Mr. Carrol said that he believed the elephant was made around 1860, but my research since then leads me to believe it could have been made anywhere from then until 1880. Regardless, I loved it on sight and had to own it when I found out its price, which was very reasonable as these things go. The elephant looks marvelous standing on the mantle in our bedroom, where he takes center stage, surrounded by a dozen or so other mid-nineteenth-century Staffordshire figures. I'm thrilled to have him.
|A later and more cursorily decorated version of our|
Staffordshire elephant (note discolored repaired trunk)
Image courtesy of worthpoint.com
I like to think that our elephant might just possibly be the mighty and beloved Jumbo, the most heralded elephant in modern history. For those of my readers who may not be aware of him, Jumbo was a large African bush elephant acquired by the London Zoological Gardens in 1865. He became wildly popular among the English people and foreign visitors, many of whom had never seen an elephant before. Jumbo's popularity triggered an avalanche of commemorative products, including trading cards, prints, hats, and other paraphernalia known at the time as "Jumbomania."
|A Staffordshire elephant, nearly identical to the one we bought|
Sold at auction in Texas in May 2010
Image courtesy of liveauctions.com
In 1882, over the outraged protests of many in England, including Queen Victoria and John Ruskin, Jumbo was sold to P. T. Barnum and taken to America, where he lived for only several more years before being tragically crushed to death by a locomotive in a heartbreaking accident that prompted an outburst of national mourning, both here in North America and in England. Barnum had the unfortunate Jumbo stuffed and then toured with him for several more years before donating him to Tufts University in 1889. Jumbo became the university's mascot and stood in Barnum Hall until 1975, when the building—along with Jumbo—burned to the ground! Poor, dear Jumbo.
|A carte photograph of Jumbo, ca. 1880|
Image courtesy of worthpoint.com
If our figure is of Jumbo, it is from his younger and happier days, when he was the toast of England and a worthy subject for the Staffordshire potteries. Regardless of whether he is Jumbo or not, I'm glad that Boy pointed him out to me at the Fair and that we now have him in our collection at Darlington House, where he is safe and sound.
* Note: Dear Reader, just as one never refers to curtains as "drapes," Reggie insists that one must never refer to figures as "figurines," at least within his earshot. It is simply not done. Of course one may break such a rule when using the term ironically when referring to cheap dime-store figures, which are—quite rightly—often called "figurines." But then you knew that, didn't you?
Next: A trio of Chinese export porcelain plates with an august provenance . . .