Royal Doulton got its start in 1815 as Doulton Pottery, an industrial stoneware company in Lambeth, England, that made ale and porter bottles, covered jars, and garden vases, as well as outdoor statues and fountains. When John Doulton partnered with John Watts in 1820 and changed the name to Doulton & Watts, the company added utilitarian housewares and alcohol flasks, as well as busts and heads of popular characters, whistles with dog heads, and banks shaped like houses.
During this period, Doulton also began to produce Toby jugs, a popular style of British jug usually shaped like a standing figure of a man holding a pint, as well as character jugs, which can be simply shaped like heads. (These jugs, which some people call mugs, proved so popular, they were made by Doulton until 1956, when the Lambeth factory closed.)
When Watts retired in 1853, the company became Doulton & Co. The founder’s son, Henry Doulton, who joined the company in 1835, brought in a young artist named George Tinworth, whom he charged with establishing an art pottery studio at the Lambeth factory in 1867. By the mid-1880s, Tinworth’s studio employed 300 artists to make ornamental vases and decorative figurines from stoneware or terracotta.
At the Lambeth stoneware studio, Tinworth also produced series of portly kids playing and anthropomorphic animals in high-fired salt-glaze stoneware. He made at least 40 different five-inch-tall stoneware figurines of boys playing music, called Merry Musicians.
Another designer, John Broad, modeled salt-glaze stoneware and terracotta figurines of royalty, military men, and classical-style maidens. In the early 1900s, he produced figurines honoring current events such as the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, and Admiral Horatio Nelson’s centennial. Broad and his colleague Mark Marshall also produced some stylish “fair ladies” in white bisque.
Tinworth, Broad, and Marshall mentored Leslie Harradine, a young sculptor who joined the studio in 1902. Unlike his co-workers, Harradine had no interest in making vases. After his training in the city, Harradine moved to the country, where he created soldiers, farm workers, and pretty ladies out of slip-cast stoneware for small runs. He also created a series of stoneware figurines based on Charles Dickens characters in time for the centennial of the author’s birth in 1912.
Doulton & Co. expanded in 1877, taking over a porcelain factory in Burslem at Stoke-on-Trent and delving into the world of fine bone china. In 1889, Doulton recruited Royal Worcester modeler Charles Noke to design art vases for exhibitions. Soon, Noke, who became the factory’s chief designer, was producing figures. His figural pieces were as tall as 20 inches, made of ivory bone china with gilt decor...
Noke was a fan of theater, so his first figure in 1892 was inspired by the play, “Doctor Faustus.” One side showed Henry Irving as Mephistopheles, and other showed Ellen Terry as Marguerite. This popular acting duo was often the subject of Noke’s work. By the end of the century, Noke had come up with 25 figural designs; 21 that were freestanding, and four that hung on the wall. These are known as “Vellum” figures, and they are incredibly difficult to find.
In 1901, King Edward VII granted the company a Royal Warrant, and its name was changed to Royal Doulton. At the beginning of the 20th century, Noke, working with Burslem painting department chief Harry Nixon, became consumed with Doulton dinnerwares, focusing on new ways to glaze china.
But Noke never gave up on the concept of ceramic figurines in the tradition of 18th century Staffordshire. In 1909, he put a request for well-known sculptors to submit pieces that could be adapted to smaller bone-china figurines. The line was launched in 1913, when King George and Queen Mary toured the Burslem studio. The queen was particularly taken with a Charles Vyse figure of a small boy in pajamas, crying out, “Isn’t he a darling!”
The figure was then named Darling, and Noke gave it the first number in the collection, HN1. (The HN numbering system was named after Harry Nixon, and it is still used by Doulton for its figures to this day.) Darling became the most popular Doulton figure of 1912, and the company sold 148 of them. The first “fair lady” figure of the line was Crinoline (HN8), designed by George Lambert. Only seven of Noke’s own Pedlar Wolf (HN7) were produced, making it a particularly rare find today.
The first 680 HNs were introduced in the 1910s, with an average of three a week, while in the 1920s, only 200 new figures debuted. As Doulton’s design chief, Charles Noke also coaxed the reclusive Leslie Harradine, who had made figures for the Lambeth factory, to create ideas for the Burslem bone-china plant starting in 1920. Up until 1956, Harradine would send in at least one figure design a month, sometimes two or three. Favorite subjects included fashionable women in the latest styles or studies of Dickens characters. Harradine figures were so popular, the painting department had to grow to 10 artists in 1927.
During the 1930s, Harradine’s previous “fair lady” figures were adapted into miniature sizes, as well as utilitarian objects such as lamps, calendars, and ashtrays. His new ladies embodied the glamour of Hollywood movie stars, who were all the rage. Around 1934, the eyes on his ladies got much more expressive, too. The ever-growing painting staff began to detail iris and pupils, instead of just painting black “button” eyes, as they had in the past. This is one way to date Royal Doulton figurines.
When Noke retired in 1941, he was replaced by Jo Ledger, who recruited modeler Peggy Davies as a freelance figurine designer for Doulton; many earlier models were discontinued. (World War II put the figurines business on hold, as they were only authorized to be made for export during the war.) Davies’ first figure, Christmas Morn (HN1992) debuted in 1946. She was particularly obsessed with fashion and history, and she created a very popular series of eight esteemed women in British history.
Davies also specialized in children and ballerinas. Starting in the mid-1950s, Davies and Ledger collaborated on a series of contemporary teenage girls wearing flats on their feet and their hair in ponytails. For the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, Davies design the prestigious figure, the Marriage of Art and Industry (HN2261), which was not for public sale. Only 12 of these figures were made. She also pushed the limits of the ceramic medium with her complicated large-scale pieces such as the Matador and Bull (HN2324), Palio (HN2428), and the India Brave (HN2376). During the 1970s, Davies produced several wildly successful limited-edition figurine series, including Femme Fatales, Dancers of the World, and the Lady Musicians.
Mary Nicoll also began to freelance for Doulton in 1955, creating street entertainers, sailors, and other historical characters for the company. New director of sculpture Eric Griffiths, who joined the company in 1972, contributed more portrait lines, including actors and members of the British Royalty. In 1974, Griffiths pushed for figures that were larger than the standard 8-inch Royal Doulton pieces, introducing his Haute Ensemble line of 12-inch tall figurines. Griffiths also believed that a matte finish led to better detail, and so many of Nicoll’s character figures were produced in matte.
After Nicoll died in 1974, Bill Harper kept designing Doulton character studies, such as the Punch and Judy Man (HN2765) and his self-portrait, Thanks Doc (HN 2371). Other 1970s sculptors include Peter Gee, Douglas Tootle, Alan Maslankowski, and Robert Jefferson, many of whom stayed with Doulton for more than a decade.
During the 1980s, ceramic figurines became a hot market again. Royal Doulton began to release figurines in a wide range of styles and price levels. For those who loved cuddly kids, it manufactured series like Childhood Days and Characters from Children’s Literature. For people who loved history, Doulton produced Queens of the Realm and “crinoline ladies” for the more affordable Vanity Fair line. For those looking for something more modern and edgy, Doulton introduced the Images line with sleek, stylized figures in white (bone china) or black (lava rock).
In 1980, a Collectors Club was established, and Royal Doulton was happy to cater to it. The company commissioned figures exclusively for club members. Some of the most important in included Robert Tabbenor’s Prized Possessions (HN2942), which depicts a female collector consulting a value book, and Pauline Parsons’ Sleepy Darling (HN2953), a riff on the first figurine of the HN collection, which was made for only six months or less. Davies retired in 1984, and Griffiths retired in 1990, when he was replaced by the company’s first female art director, Amanda Hughes Lubeck.