Monday, July 11, 2016

English Folk Art at its Best

QUESTION: I’ve long admired 19th-century Staffordshire figures, but don’t know much about them. Recently, I saw one that I can afford in a local antique shop. But before I get hooked on collecting these folk art pieces, I’d like to know more about them. Can you help me?

ANSWER:  Staffordshire figures have always been very popular with collectors. You can find some pieces, such as cow creamers and pen holders modeled in the shape of a bird's nests, as well as greyhounds, foxes, and hares, selling for less than $100. Sometimes, you can find an early 19th-century figure for sale at a reasonable price. But beware of fakes.

A handful of pottery families made Staffordshire figures. With their simple modeling and vivid coloring, they depict the changing social history of the 19th century, both pre-Victorian and later. Today, portrait figures of famous historical persons grace both Queen Elizabeth’s collection at Buckingham Palace as well as the reception rooms of the Prime Minister's residence at Number 10 Downing Street.

A good example is a late-18th-century Wood type creamware figure of St. George and the dragon. The Wood family of Staffordshire potters worked between 1754 and 1846. They typically modeled and painted this figure with colored glazes of brown, ochre, and green.

Another excellent example is a Pearlware figure of St. Paul modeled seated and holding the Gospel. Pearlware is a white, harder, more durable form of pottery, believed to contain a higher proportion of pipeclay and flint. The glaze on this piece is  blue with a touch of cobalt. Potters painted it in blue overglaze enamels, with lesser areas in puce and green. Made between 1820 and 1830, it bears the impression of the word "Paul."

The popularity of Staffordshire figures received a boost in the UK after the last war. Rising prosperity meant that wealthier members of the population could afford to buy a country cottage as a weekend retreat. People were looking for suitable rustic ornaments for their newly acquired country cottages and Staffordshire pieces filled the need nicely.

Cow creamers in typical primitive Staffordshire modeling, can be expensive. A typical one on a rectangular mound base can sell for nearly $200. However, an unique item such as a Pearlware candlestick modeled as a Cupid, standing wearing loose drapes and holding a bow and quiver can sell for nearly $400.

But the cream of the crop are the identifiable historical figures such as a figure of John Liston as "Paul Pry" the comedian, modeled standing and wearing a top hat, stock, striped waistcoat, breeches, and Hessian boots which can sell for nearly $800.

With the coming of the Victorian period there was a definite change in the modeling of Staffordshire figures. Pottery manufacturers realized that what people wanted were portrait figures, as well as figures commemorating special events. They often modeled these figures standing or leaning on a marbled plinth.

Up until about 1860, deep cobalt blue was the favorite color used on figures, particularly for uniform coats. Around 1880, pottery makers began using a new liquid gilding or "bright gold" in the firing process.

They increasingly used child labor to paint the pieces in order to meet the demand and keep costs down. These later figures tend to lack to the precision of the earlier ones. Also, potteries molded the later 19th century figures with "flat backs" with the shaping concentrated at the front and sides to make them easy to place on fireplace mantels.

Popular Victorian heroes depicted in brightly colored Staffordshire pottery were so well known in their day to those who bought them that the potters didn’t always bother to add names to them. Because of this, you may find you’ll have to do a little research in order to identify some pieces.

You should be careful if you plan to begin collecting Staffordshire figures because many of the ones for sale today have been made from 19th-century molds. Many of these came from William Kent Porcelains Limited, up until 1962. These reproductions of Victorian figures, usually referred to as "Kent copies," are usually lighter in weight than the originals made from the same molds.

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