Old pottery makes fine figures

Humble Staffordshire folk art can fetch high-class prices in the saleroom. By Winifred Carr
Popular Victorian heroes depicted in brightly coloured Staffordshire pottery were so well known to the cottagers and clerks who bought them that the potters rarely bothered to add names to the figures they made. More than 100 years on, present-day collectors and salerooms now need to do a little research among old paintings, photographs and books before they can identify some portrait pieces. Even then there can be doubt, which is why a small pair of figures mounted on camels and dated circa 1861 are listed in Christie's forthcoming sale of Staffordshire and related ware as "Sir Richard and Lady Burton, alternatively, Sir Samuel White Baker and Lady Baker".

Both Burton and Baker were intrepid explorers in Africa but Burton also served as a diplomat in the Middle East and since one of the figures is wearing a bright green Ottoman-style turban and his wife an enveloping hijab headscarf, I would guess that the pair are more likely to be the Burtons than the Bakers. Although there is some restoration, the figures are expected to fetch between pounds 800 and pounds 1,200.

Victorian Staffordshire pottery, often simply modelled and usually vividly coloured, is cheerful English folk art at its best. It robustly reflects 19th century social history and has endeared itself as much to the great and the good of the 20th century as it did to the more humble classes more than 100 years ago. From kitchen dressers and mantle-shelves in modest Victorian homes it has reached Buckingham Palace where the Queen has a collection, and the reception rooms of 10 Downing Street, where there are displays of Staffordshire portrait figures of 19th century British statesmen which were collected by James Callaghan when he lived there and have been added to by successive prime ministers.

The popularity of Staffordshire pottery was boosted in the 1960s by the rise of the second home, says Jane Hay of Christie's. "People were looking for suitably rustic ornaments for their newly acquired country cottages and Staffordshire was ideal." Prices rocketed from pounds 10 to pounds 100 for a good pair of gilded spaniels, known as comforters, to sit in sentinel pairs on either side of the fireplace. A similar pair now would cost pounds 350 to pounds 400.

Prices have been bubbling along steadily in recent years with frequent spectacular eruptions such as the pair of restored Obadiah Sherratt figures of Venus and Neptune with Cupid and a dolphin, circa 1830, which were expected to fetch between pounds 400 and pounds 600 in February and reached pounds 2,475, and a pair of recumbent lions, also restored, which went for pounds 1,575.

But collectable pieces can still be bought for under pounds 100, particularly spill vases, cow creamers and pen holders modelled in the shape of a bird's nest, a greyhound, or a fox and hare. A collection can be started by concentrating on one of these groups and progressing as the bank balance permits to military figures on horseback and astride cannons, to sporting figures of boxers and cricketers, actors, famous murderers, preachers, kings, queens, and their children or pastille burners in the shapes of cottages and castles. The scope is wide and every group has its loyal followers.

Until about 1860, deep cobalt blue was the favourite colour on figures, especially for waistcoats, uniforms and bodices. By 1880 a new liquid gilding, "bright gold", was being used which maintained its bright finish after firing, but was not as attractive as the soft, pale gold on earlier pieces. In the early part of the 19th century children of seven or eight were employed as painters, and for two shillings a week decorated milkmaid's dresses with sprigs of flowers, zebras with stripes and spaniels with gilded chains, often decorating up to 400 items a day.

Most of the portrait figures were made in plaster of Paris press moulds. After a run of about 100, the detail on the pieces became increasingly blurred so one should look for the more desirable crisply moulded figures. Many individual figures and groups were moulded as "flat backs" with all the shaping at the sides and the front, so that the pieces would stand safely against a wall. But even these can have hidden delights such as a Death of Nelson group which has Nelson slipping to the deck, supported on one side by Hardy and on the other by his servant, who is holding a cup in one hand. Turn the group round and on the unpainted flat back is an outline of HMS Victory.

There are some areas of the antiques and collectables market where long- term investment can give a good return and the best of Staffordshire pottery is one. It also has the advantage that most pieces are bought because the buyer likes them and wants to enjoy putting them on display. If they gradually appreciate in value, then that is a bonus.

The Christie's sale of Staffordshire pottery will be at South Kensington on Thursday 9 May at 2pm. Telephone: 0171-581 7611/fax 0171-321 3321