In “Miller’s Collecting Porcelain,” you can almost hear the renowned porcelain expert John Sandon grumble as he writes, “For this author to admit to liking Dresden figures is rather like a great classical musician confessing to enjoying lift (elevator) music.” That’s how a lot of people feel about porcelain figurines—while they might marvel at their craftsmanship, especially those pieces manufactured in Germany during the 18th century, the admiration is grudging. That's probably because figurines are such an extreme art form, ranging from sentimental and maudlin kitsch to over-the-top masterpieces of dizzying, even headache-inducing detail.

The practice of depicting characters from history, people from our daily lives, and a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals in miniaturized porcelain began in the West in 1710, when a Dresden alchemist named Johann Friedrich Böttger finally figured out the formula for hard-paste porcelain equal to that produced in Asia. At the time, Böttger had already established a faience (glazed earthenware) factory in Dresden, so he located his porcelain works in Meissen, just down the Elbe River. To this day, Meissen remains a major center for the earthy art, while Dresden is best known as the place where Meissen porcelain is decorated, often within an inch of its life.

One of the most popular early subjects of Dresden and Meissen figures was Italian commedia dell'arte, whose colorfully costumed actors were the perfect foils for the meticulous treatment they would receive at the hands of their German decorators. Meissen’s Johann Joachim Kändler, who is often credited with creating the format of the porcelain figurine itself, is the best known of these early artists, producing likenesses of the lecherous Pantalone, the spirited Columbine, and all manner of mischievous harlequins.

While Meissen may have been the place where European porcelain was born, Dresden is where its decoration was perfected and popularized, so much so that today, many people still mistakenly talk about Dresden china when they really mean Meissen. Of the many techniques perfected there, Dresden lace is the most sought. It was used to create the illusion of real fabric on figurines of, say, ladies dancing at a court ball or posing in so-called crinoline groups. To achieve the effect, decorators would dip real pieces of delicate lace into porcelain slip before applying it to the figurine. When fired, the fabric would combust, leaving a brittle and extremely fragile shell of billowy skirts and blouses behind.

Naturally, lots of ceramists and potteries tried to capitalize on the success of the Germans. Foremost among these was the Capodimonte (also spelled Capo-di-Monte or Capo di Monte) porcelain factory in Naples. Founded in 1743, Capodimonte produced soft-paste-porcelain knockoffs of the hard-paste stuff coming out of Meissen. Initially, Capodimonte figures tended to have glistening white surfaces that seemed to be still wet, but in recent years, the firm has drifted into the sentimental arena, producing everything from angels to hobos to ladies in cascading gowns.

Meanwhile, in England, potteries in the Staffordshire region began producing decorative figures during the 18th century. Initially, Staffordshire figurines were made out of earthenware or salt-glazed stoneware, but eventually Staffordshire embraced bone china, the English answer to pure porcelain. In addition to free-standing figures, companies made “chimney ornaments,” which featured a flat side so they could be mounted on the wall.

If commedia dell'arte inspired the Germans, the British monarchy and depictions of rural life guided Staffordshire artists. There were all the barnyard animals, of course, (cows,...

One particularly successful Staffordshire pottery, which we know today as Royal Doulton, combined figures with function in its Toby jugs, a popular style of British drinking vessel usually shaped like a standing figure of a man holding a pint (Royal Doulton character jugs, sometimes called mugs, are usually shaped like heads). By the late 1800s, the firm was well regarded for its large figural pieces in stoneware, some of which stood 20 inches in height. In general, the bone-china pieces were shorter, such as the figure of a small boy in pajamas who became known as Darling and was the first numbered figure in the firm’s collection.

Around the same time, in 1889, Royal Copenhagen unveiled its first figurines line of adorable children and cute animals at the Paris World Fair. At the beginning of the 20th century, Royal Copenhagen designers created many of the company’s most enduring figurines, including its beloved family of polar bears.

No doubt the success of these figurines and many others prompted the Goebel pottery company of Germany to approach Berta Hummel, who went by the name Sister Maria Innocentia, about transforming her popular Christmas cards of happy, large-headed, wide-eyed children into three-dimensional pieces. Goebel’s Hummel figurines debuted at the Leipzig Trade Fair in March of 1935, and by the end of the year, they were a source of income for the Sister’s convent. But Hummel was no fan of the Nazis, and her artistic opposition to Hitler contributed to her death. Her figures, though, carried on, becoming hugely popular in the United States from the late 1940s through the 1950s and ’60s.

In the years immediately following World War II, a number of European and American entrepreneurs got into the figurines game. In Spain, three brothers founded Lladró, initially to make decorative vases and platters but eventually to reprise the figurines of Meissen and Capodimonte. In the United States, American artists and designers such as Betty Lou Nichols, Hedi Schoop, and Betty Cleminson produced kitschy-and-cute ceramic figurines in small batches from their backyard studios. A few ceramics manufacturers such as Ceramic Arts Studio (CAS) of Madison, Wisconsin, took more of an assembly-line approach to crank out cats and dogs, boys and girls, and leprechauns by the score.

Japan recovered from the war quickly, though, so it wasn’t long before factories there started supplying U.S. importers like NAPCO and ENESCO with less-expensive versions of the work of Schoop, Nichols, CAS, and others. Of these importers, Lefton China of Chicago, Illinois, whose Miss Priss cookie jars are highly collected, was one of the biggest and arguably the best.

One postwar American artisan who tried to buck the made-in-Japan trend was Muriel Joseph George, who founded Josef Originals with her husband in 1946. Initially, when confronted in the ’50s by plagiarisms of her cute animals and adorable little girls, George tried to add more details to her pieces, but this just made them more expensive. By the end of the 1950s, Josef Originals were made in Japan, which kept the brand competitive throughout the 1960s and ’70s.

While porcelain was the material of choice for most figurine makers, glass was also used. Murano glassbowers had been making animal figures for hundreds of years, while Steuben had been known for its more sculptural creatures since the 1950s, but it was Swarovski who popularized the practice in 1976. That was the year the Austrian firm released its first crystal figurine, a 2 ½-inch-tall mouse, with a length of leather, braided metal, or spring for its tail. Today, Swarovski collectors can choose among thousands of figurines, from alligators to zebras, ballet dancers to Santa Claus. The 1970s were also when Samuel J. Butcher’s devotional Precious Moments cards and posters of children with large heads and teardrop eyes were transformed by Enesco into ceramic Precious Moments figurines.

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