Wednesday, February 2, 2011

New York Antiques Week, Part III

Our second stop at the Ceramics Fair was the booth of Philip Carrol of North Yorkshire, England, where Boy wanted to show me a mid-Victorian period Staffordshire figure of an elephant that he had admired several days before when previewing the show with his assistant, Clarissa Montgomery.

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

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

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

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

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 . . .


  1. I love it--a wonderful find! And I laughed that you spelled gift shoppe (the place where one finds figurines) as you did. I eagerly await your next post!

  2. Oh dear me, I refer to my curtains as drapes frequently... my whimsical matte white "figurines" are indeed dime store quality....Shawnee, McCoy
    and the Wellers and Van Briggles are worthy "figures"

    Oh I am so happy to have found your do such a thorough and well researched sounds like a collaboration of two well educated minds.

    I am sorry to hear of Jumbo's unfortunate accident...

  3. Oh Thank God we have taught the "Hostess" never again to refer to her curtains with the "d" word! I will sleep tonight; knowing that just one less person who will make that terrible mistake. "Drape" is a verb! Or it is some sort of fabric on a coffin! NOT a window! Whew!

    "Jumbo" and "Zarafa" (a giraffe brought to England from Africa) were early ambassadors to England of the exotic animals who lived in Africa. They encouraged England to colonize there.....which did help for a while.....and the English did protect the animals.

    They both died. There is a book about Zarafa.......I started it at 8 at night....and watched the sun come up. Couldn't put it down!

    wonderful post!

  4. T&CM: Welcome back from Peru, and thank you for your comment. I'm pleased you enjoyed my feeble attempt at humor.

    Hostess: One can forgive the use of "figurine" under certain circumstances, as I note, but I am afraid that you must--I beg of you--do everything in your power never to refer to the cloth that hangs at one's windows as anything other than "curtains." I implore you!

    PB: Yes, I'm glad we cleared that up. I had never heard of Zarafa before your comment, and now I am determined to learn everything I can about this noble beast! Thank you.

  5. Quite a fun and informative post. Now to research Zarafa....

  6. Dear Reggie, they are delightful. Please post a picture of yours xx

  7. Love the elephant, I think even more than the pearlware Minerva. He has wonderful modeling and an intelligent gaze. So sad to hear the story of the figure's possible inspiration. A real sense of weight and majesty in that little body! He must look fetching as he strides across your mantel.

  8. Simply adore your new acquisition - he is truly a stately and handsome fellow and a fine addition to your wonderful collection. I've always loved Staffordshire and enjoyed learning a little something new- as I usually do here!

  9. Impeccable taste, and such an informative post!! Thank you!

  10. Brother Dear - How lovely to be reminded of the eponymous Jumbo. There's a reasonably good entry about him on Wiki (-paedia, not -leaks). The accident that took his life happened at a railyard in St. Thomas, Ontario, a mere 3 hours West by car from my home here on the Niagara Frontier. A St. Thomas brewery sells Dead Elephant Ale, which is said to be popular, albeit in bad taste. I remain your devoted brother, Frecky

  11. I love your new Jumbo - he is very regal! I'm sure he's enjoying pride of place on your mantel.

    Those cats, on the other hand, are creeping me out.

  12. Dear Mr. Darling,

    Impressive piece! Now, a question for you. Do you and Boy have a Staffordshire pug in your collection, or is Pompey the one and only pug allowed to cross the threshold of Darlington House?

  13. Dear Reggie, How one gets in trouble at antique shows, indeed! Your new elephant FIGURE is a handsome addition to your all ready wonderful collection. I found the early circa.1780 elephant strangely charming, with it's slightly distorted head. I traveled back to earlier posts hoping to see photos of entire rooms with furniture, but no luck. Please teach us about furniture, your furniture. I learn something new every time I visit you and I know I'm not the only poor ignorant soul that thinks this way. Please show us the way!

  14. CJ: Yes, I am all a flutter to find out more about Zarafa!

    Christina: All shall be revealed in time, m'dear...

    Michele: Yes, indeed! Thank you.

    Quintessence: The pleasure is mine, too.

    sandrajonas: Thank you!

    Frecky: Hello dear brother! The next time I visit you I must try a glass of said brew...

    Patsy: Why thank you, and yes, I think so too!

    LizaE: I am afraid we do have rather a lot of pug figures. I shall post about them at some point, I am sure.

    HFK: Thank you very much. As I wrote above, all shall be revealed soon enough, but not necessarily here...

  15. Dear Brother-
    All the elephants are charming (unlike the cats) but that 1780s elephant is to die for. It set my "Must have this!" alarm bells to ringing. Alas, it has to be in my virtual collection rather than the actual one.

    Do you remember Ellie at the farm?
    your sister, Hermione

  16. Love the Elephant. Agree about the likelihood of Dumbo-ness. Should point out that charming and better quality though the earlier pieces are, they are also earlier and better quality gift shoppe wares of another era, and were often produced as souvenir wares---and rarely made it into the State Drawing Rooms of Hatfield or Chatsworth. Which fact in no way diminishes the delights of these figures, obviously, but they have achieved far greater status through a 20th century filter than they actually had in their own day.

    And agree with the terminology. 'Figure' is correct. Except when used in a sentence like the following: 'My, the Dilettante certainly has developed a full-ish figure in middle age'.

    Incidentally, in my own decorative arts reading, I recently came across a copy of an early 19th century ad by a fashionable 'Drapery Maker', and an early 20th century ad for an equally fashionable Decorator who supplied 'Upholstery, Carpets and Fine Draperies'. This does not mean that I will stop saying 'curtain' anytime soon, but it does bear noting as a point of interest.

    And oh, that Ralph Wood version.


  17. Oops. The trouble with the blog format is that in scrolling down on longer pieces, I sometimes miss paragraphs between looking at pictures. Hence, on first reading I missed that you HAD pointed out that the figures were originally inexpensive. Mea culpa. Will turn the scroll on the mouse more slowly next time.

  18. Ahhh...Staffordshire. I used to have a rather nice collection of late 19th c. figures. My former wife is in possession of them at present. Perhaps I'll arrange a visit.

  19. oh Reggie Darling! I have heard among many suspicions about the elephant figurines-You should never buy 1 for oneself?? -bad luck, really-and never place them in a room with drapery or curtains. It is however good luck-in the extreme- to Give said pachyderm to a friend, I know you have my address. This little thing needs to pack up and move down South-not to mention the trunk is down-though it is curved, just a bit, and I think that might make it ok-So do not worry for my safety- or Jumbo's for that matter. and so on and so forth. You do have my address? No?
    xoxo,la G.

  20. I too collect Staffordshire and have recently purchased a rare "Uncle Tom" piece. The quality was not the best but the significance of the piece overcame that objection. However, I do envy your Jumbo! I've never seen one and would certainly snap it up if I ever did. I also have goats, a set of dogs (in black and white) and "Goat Girl" who is reputed to be Princess Victoria, the Queen's daughter and many other pieces. Its a charming addiction, isn't it?

  21. Hello Susu: Thank you for your comment. I, too, have an Uncle Tom figure, which I love, but unfortunately Little Eva is missing one of her feet and it needs to go for restoration. Yes, it is a charming addiction, indeed.


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