For most of us, ceramic figurines conjure sentimental images straight out of children’s books, tame kitsch at its worst. But once upon a time, these little sculptures had an edge. The subjects that graced Staffordshire pottery more than 200 years ago weren’t for the fainthearted: Imagine giving grandma a figurine that mocked discriminatory marriage laws or portrayed a gruesome series of animal attacks. Welcome to the world of Staffordshire miniatures.
Long before people had Us Weekly or 49ers t-shirts, they bought Staffordshire figurines to celebrate pop culture. During the late 1700s, potteries in the Staffordshire region of England created these figures to commemorate everything from classical artwork to sport heroes, from political movements to tabloid headlines. Without the technology to mass-produce imagery like we have today, consumers were starved for affordable artwork and objects to decorate their homes. Coinciding with a growing economy, these trendy Staffordshire figurines let the British middle class express their personal tastes and interests.
“It’s not something you’d want to talk about in front of the children.”
Potteries began churning out these detailed ceramic figures, banking on their loaded social and political references as much as their pleasing aesthetics. While early designs typically featured classical artwork or mundane themes, like the four seasons, artists soon recognized a market for figures based on celebrities and current events.
When author Myrna Schkolne first happened upon the quaint-looking figurines, she had no inkling of the lurid stories behind them. Eventually, Schkolne uncovered these juicy historical tidbits, and wrote her first book on the subject, “People, Passions, Pastimes, and Pleasures: Staffordshire Figures 1810-1835.” Schkolne found so much material on the figures that she’s currently working on four more.
“I’ve attempted to put some order into the world of Staffordshire figures,” says Schkolne, “but it’s been a hell of a ride.” Schkolne focuses her research to a particular golden period of Staffordshire figurines, when output was booming but before the craftsmanship was diluted by mass-production. The first volume of her upcoming series, “Staffordshire Figures, 1780 to 1840,” is due out in November.
We recently spoke to Schkolne about the mysterious, hilarious, and downright shocking world of Staffordshire figures.
Collectors Weekly: Why did so many potteries set up shop in Staffordshire?
Schkolne: The Staffordshire area is in the Midlands of England, comprised of five little towns over about a 9-mile area. Figures were made throughout England, but the Staffordshire potteries became the place where the vast majority of them were made. They weren’t made there because there was a lot of clay; it was the coal. You needed 20 tons of coal for each ton of clay you fired. They would actually ship most of their clay in from the south of England, but the big deal was that they had the coal in Staffordshire.
The oven man, who fired the kiln, was one of the most highly paid workers because his skill determined whether a whole kiln load of stuff would survive. He’d have to look at the way the coals glowed, or stick a little test piece into the kiln and spit on it when it came out to see how quickly it evaporated. Or he might measure to see how much the piece shrunk in the kiln. But there was no temperature gauge; it didn’t work like that.
Collectors Weekly: What’s significant about the time from 1780 to 1840?
Schkolne: 1780 is when the production of Staffordshire figures really got underway, and 1840 begins a marked transition period. Afterwards, the figures changed quite dramatically. By then, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and coupled with wage pressures, it was necessary for potters to produce figures more quickly and cheaply.
“My favorite is a figure showing a tiger or tigress mauling a woman and her baby.”
Before 1840, figures were very detailed. They required dozens and dozens of little parts made from bits of clay pressed into a mold, and then all these pieces had to be assembled. Next they were fired, dipped in glaze, and fired again. Then they were painted and fired again and again in successive stages. It was quite a costly, time-consuming process.
After 1840, a growing number of middle- and lower-class homes wanted these figures, so they had to be made more cheaply. And with the Industrial Revolution, this was now possible. Increasingly, figures were made out of very few molded parts. The era of the “flat-back” was born, those simple Staffordshire figures with one piece in front and another less-detailed piece behind, slapped together. Paint the front, don’t bother with the back. Somebody’s going to stick it on the shelf against the wall, and you’re not going to see it anyway.
The years from 1780 to 1840 also coincided with a sort of visual revolution. In 1780, there were no reproduced images. If you read the autobiography of Thomas Bewick, who was one of the great illustrators of this time, there’s a great quote about how he only saw three images during his whole childhood. Newspapers weren’t even illustrated.
But again, the Industrial Revolution brought with it great advances in printing and engraving. Techniques changed, and these processes became much cheaper. From about 1810, prints started becoming more prolific, and along with this, there was almost a visual awakening. It’s so alien to us now, because we see pictures from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, but this was when the concept of trying to reproduce an image of something you see in your everyday life actually took root. And with that, pottery figures changed, too.
After about 1810, more and more of them show the common people of the day. Before 1810, the emphasis was largely on classical figures, on things like Milton and Shakespeare and all the Greek gods and goddesses. But after 1810, that becomes less true. Suddenly you’re starting to see more shepherds and shepherdesses, figures of everyday people. Now the figures were looking very English. There was a democratization of popular visual culture; the images were for everyone.
Think about it: If you were going away for a long time, you couldn’t email the people you left behind. However, a little figure that looks just like you or a couple arm in arm would be a nice thing to leave with your sweetheart. If you were a mother and your child was trying to read, well, a figure of a reading boy was a nice thing, or if you and your husband were into gardening, a figure of a couple gardening. What else did you have then? I’m sure in two centuries’ time, people will be talking about the Internet in the same way, trying to explain its proliferation.
Collectors Weekly: Was there a specific piece of pottery that first piqued your interest?
Schkolne: After I bought my first figure, I got a book on Staffordshire, and on the cover of the book, there was a couple of dandies, a man and woman arm in arm in the dress of the period. In that time, men were the focus of the fashion world. Masculine attire has changed quite a lot: Men wore corsets, cinched their waists. You had to be very trim. They carried little handbags because pockets might spoil the fit of their clothing. So this really spiffy couple was on the cover of this book, and I just knew I wanted one. That helped me focus, and funnily enough, many years later, I actually got the piece from the cover of the book.
As my collection grew, I realized that these figures all had unique stories. Whereas a plate or teapot is just a utilitarian object, the figures are created to tell stories, and they give us glimpses into a world that wouldn’t otherwise be recorded. There was no photography at the time, and the prints that were safely stored are few and far between. The concept of an image for the everyday man was a relatively new phenomenon. You had to be affluent to afford an image. Staffordshire figures are visual records that we wouldn’t have otherwise. Some of them show very ordinary people engaged in daily activities, and others capture really world-changing events.
Collectors Weekly: How did the market for Staffordshire figures develop?
Schkolne: There was already an established market for porcelain figures among affluent people. Imported porcelain was highly valued, and there were English porcelain factories by the mid-18th century. Pottery is just made from clay. Porcelain is quite a different mix of materials. It is fired to a higher temperature, and becomes translucent; it’s a thinner and more brittle substance.
But from around 1780, there were advances in clay modeling and decoration. It became possible to produce figures that were desirable enough to compete with the porcelain market. On the whole, pottery figures were made by small manufactories. The large outfits made plates and cups and teapots, but figure production was a little quirkier. The demand for figures also fluctuated with economic conditions.
Collectors Weekly: When these figures were first sold, were they pretty cheap?
Schkolne: We don’t have an incredibly good record, but from the 1780s through the early 1800s, they were still quite expensive objects. Of course, like anything else, there are grand ones, and there are teeny ones. But the lower classes didn’t have much disposable income. Around 1800, there began a new era of conspicuous consumption. People liked to buy. And the Industrial Revolution brought with it a growing middle class, so there were more homes for these things. The market grew at the same time that the range of figures grew.
Collectors Weekly: When did Staffordshire artists start portraying ordinary events and people with their pottery?
Schkolne: In 1793, a French revolutionary leader by the name of Jean-Paul Marat was stabbed to death in his bathtub by a young woman named Charlotte Corday. Around that time, a Staffordshire figure was made showing the murder. That figure is probably the earliest one depicting a current event, a real-world disaster.
But it wasn’t until 1810 that inexpensive prints showing everyday things became widely available, and that also affected Staffordshire figures. Broadsides, or penny strips of newspaper depicting events of the day, were often made from cheap woodcut engravings and sold on street corners. Literacy was a huge issue at that time. I think in 1790, only about one percent of the English population could read, and that changed dramatically over the next 30 or so years. There was a huge drive to get people reading, though not necessarily writing.
This also drove the need for printed matter, and of course, when you have a nascent reading public, something with an illustration is even more appealing. At the same time, all these societies trying to promote Christianity were putting out printed Bibles. If a home had one book, it was the Bible, which often had illustrations to help beginning readers. The Bible was the main book of instruction in schools, and it remained so well into the Victorian era, because there weren’t textbooks as we know them today. All these complex things came together to influence Staffordshire pottery.
Collectors Weekly: What inspired the mermaids?
Schkolne: The mermaids have a great story. People really believe that these creatures existed because, again, it wasn’t a world of pictures or photographs, so you could still believe there were mermaids. I think even today we half-believe in the Loch Ness Monster, don’t we?
The menageries [similar to traveling circuses and sideshows] were really important, because when certain animals failed to appear in menagerie cages or curiosity exhibits during the early 1800s, suddenly people weren’t so sure that they really existed. I’ve got a list of maybe three or four dead “mermaids” that were exhibited over a 40-year period. I think they were made somewhere around Asia, using various fish and animal parts. You had a very credulous public, and they wanted to see the unusual.
But there was much speculation about the Feejee mermaid that was put on show in London in 1822. At first people thought it was real, and finally the thing was debunked. Nonetheless, P.T. Barnum actually started his career buying what was left of that mermaid that had been on display in London.
Collectors Weekly: What were some other popular subjects of the day?
Schkolne: Another I was recently researching was a bust of Lord Byron made around 1815. I learned that Byron was really the first international celebrity, a “rock star” as we have them today. People were so crazy about Byron, and I had never thought of him that way. He was followed all over the English-speaking world, perhaps because he did nothing by the book.
He fathered a child by his half-sister. He was bisexual. He had to flee from England, lest he be prosecuted for all this. His one brief attempt at marriage lasted only a year. Another fascinating factoid is that his daughter went on to become what is recognized today as the world’s first computer programmer. She wrote the first algorithm for processing by a machine, a whole good century plus before we had personal computers.
You also mustn’t overlook some of my favorite figures, the animals from around 1790 or so when the great sport stars were still dogs. They weren’t into pedigrees yet, and the purebreds had not been defined. But the stars of the dog world were the hunting dogs—the pointers, setters, spaniels, and greyhounds.
There was a definite class structure in dog ownership because the law allowed only those with income of at least 100 pounds a year from land to hunt game, and only these people could own hunting dogs. If you were a banker in London and you didn’t have any land, you couldn’t hunt game.
But all the people who sat in Parliament were landed gentlemen, and this was how they preserved hunting as their exclusive privilege. The pointers, the spaniels, the setters, the greyhounds, these lovely dogs that we see again and again in early pottery, are the dogs of the landed classes. You don’t see a little bulldog unless it’s on something like a bull-baiting figure.
Collectors Weekly: Meaning these ceramic dogs were signifiers of wealth?
Schkolne: Exactly, yes. England was all about class structure, and Staffordshire figures were about England, about the people who meant something to the English. Americans were pretty close to their hearts since there were so many ties between the two nations, so there’s often an interesting American theme you can pick up on. Staffordshire figures also show us the first celebrity sport stars, and these were pugilists or boxers. There was a famous black pugilist named Thomas Molineaux. He was an American freed slave who lived in England, and he tried to win the English boxing championship.
His first match was against Thomas Cribb, an Englishman who held the title. (See second image from top.) Molineaux really won, but the thought of a black man, and an American at that, wearing Britain’s boxing crown was so abhorrent to the English that poor Molineaux was cheated of victory and Cribb was declared the winner. In a rematch, Molineaux actually did lose, and he went on to drink himself to death shortly thereafter.
You also had a lot of actors and actresses of the day shown in Staffordshire figures. Around 1828, a small-time American actor named T.D. Rice created the character of Jim Crow, parodying a disabled black man who worked in a stable near the theater he performed at. Eventually, he went over to London where he was immediately a huge hit as Jim Crow.
Legal events or political events were also popular, for instance, the abolition of slavery in Britain. I’m looking at a figure that shows a scantily clad black man, his arms raised in celebration. At his feet are his broken chains. Alongside him is a little figure of Britannia, a symbol of Great Britain, and they almost seem to be dancing together. It celebrates the abolition of slavery throughout Britain’s colonies in 1834. Issues like slavery, the growth of the teetotal or temperance movement, changes in marriage law.
Collectors Weekly: Some of the figures commemorating the New Marriage Act seem rather comical. Was that typical?
Schkolne: It isn’t a common theme, but I love when humor reaches out across the centuries, and pottery about the New Marriage Act does exactly that. The little faces on the figures tell it all. There was no divorce law then. You got married, and it was literally till death do you part, probably because, legally at least, a woman ceased to exist at marriage. She became one with her husband in the eyes of the law, and he obviously couldn’t divorce himself, so there was no divorce.
English marriage laws were very persnickety, and if you didn’t abide by any one of them, your marriage could be annulled even years later. Say you got married with a license, but you needed parental consent, and you didn’t get it. Well, as far as the world knew, you were married, but 10 years later, you might say, “Well, I’m not happily married. Divorce isn’t possible, but I didn’t check all the boxes when I got married. Therefore, I want it annulled.”
Even if both husband and wife were happy to get it annulled, the problem was for their children, who were suddenly declared illegitimate, which could have disastrous consequences on inheritance. The issue was brought to Parliament with such a case, when the Earl of Belfast found his inheritance in jeopardy because his uncle claimed his parents had married without parental consent, and therefore his inheritance wasn’t really his. Parliament tried every angle to fix it, and they couldn’t, so they went and passed the New Marriage Act in 1823. After that, it was no longer possible to use a petty violation of the law as reason for annulling the marriage.
Collectors Weekly: What other political issues were represented with Staffordshire figures?
Schkolne: The tithing figure, whose origin was a print that was published around 1750 showing much of the same scene. The porcelain factories picked up on it around the 1760s, and the pottery factories did much the same thing in the early 1800s. Tithing was such a contentious issue, and people resented it so. You had to donate or tithe one-tenth of your produce from the land to the Church of England, even if you were Catholic or Jewish or anything else.
It was really unfair, because tithing your produce from the land meant that if you were a banker, you didn’t have to tithe. Plus, people resented tithing to a church that wasn’t theirs. The whole system was rife with inequities and abuse, and very many parishes did not have a cleric who did his job halfway properly. So it was nice to poke fun at, and in the tithe figure group, you see the farmer and his wife offering their tithe produce, one-tenth of all their produce, as well as their tenth child. Clearly, the vicar does not want it.
Collectors Weekly: What forgotten events or characters have you discovered through Staffordshire figurines?
Schkolne: Well, my favorite is a figure showing a tiger or tigress mauling a woman and her baby. That sounds so wrong. The tigress is holding the baby in her mouth and the woman beneath her paws. The figure is titled “Menagerie.” A Staffordshire menagerie is a well-known genre, but this was clearly not a normal menagerie object. The thing drove me nuts. I couldn’t work out the whys and the wherefores. [See image at top.]
Then one night at about 1:00 a.m., I came across an old broadside that led me to the Colindale newspaper archive in the U.K. A small paragraph in the Northumberland Herald for February of 1834 describes how Wombwell’s Menagerie had stopped in a town overnight, and during the night, a tigress and a lion had escaped, and they had killed a woman with a child in her arms. Usually, any sort of menagerie mishap is very well publicized, but I think in this case the owner of the menagerie, George Wombwell, was very quick to open his wallet because if word got about, people wouldn’t have wanted his menagerie in town.
I felt that my research gave the piece back its history: This figure was made because this terrible thing happened in February 1834. That’s fascinating to me, being able to learn about things we have forgotten. After that, I was able to link about six more figures to this one event. One is a figure titled “Death of a Negro.” Another shows a large feline with a black man. I think the newspaper cutting says four people were killed, including a young boy, a woman with a child in her arms, and the fourth, I concluded, being a black man.
Then there’s the Red Barn Murder in 1827, which is one of my favorite stories of all time. That was the biggest murder story of its era—O.J. Simpson, move over. The Red Barn has been in the press even in recent years, when one of the murderers’ descendants claimed his skeleton from the World Royal College of Surgeons where it’s been ever since. It was also reenacted in the 20th century for a movie, an old black-and-white movie starring Tod Slaughter.
The Red Barn Murder is the story of Maria Marten, a young girl of a rather fallen reputation, who was killed by her boyfriend, William Corder. Corder was a local farmer’s son, and Maria was planning to run off with him and get married. She had already borne a child to him, in fact, I think she’d already given birth to a couple of illegitimate children by different men. They planned to meet at the door of a red barn on his farm, and after that night, Maria was never seen again.
Meanwhile, Corder left the area and claimed to be living with Maria. He ran an ad in his new local newspaper, looking for a wife, and a bunch of women replied and he married one. Back in their village, Maria Marten’s stepmother had a dream where she believed that Maria was buried beneath the floor of the Red Barn. So she urged and urged her husband, until he went and dug up the floor. And of course, there he found his daughter.
As a result, the police tracked down Corder, who was now married, and he went on trial and, inevitably, he was sentenced and hanged. It was huge event. Souvenir seekers picked apart that red barn bit by bit.
It’s estimated that 10,000 people attended the public execution at the end of which, in the manner of those times, the body was cut down. The chest muscles were cut open and laid back and the public filed past and examined his body and organs. The hangman claimed the rope as his due right, and he sold it off at a huge amount per inch. The surgeon who dissected Corder claimed his scalp as his due right, and the skeleton went off to the World Royal College of Surgeons.
But the thing is, the story really wasn’t cut and dry, even though Corder admitted to having killed Maria the day before he was hanged. He said that they had fought over the marriage and he had hit her, but he denied ever stabbing her, and she clearly died by stabbing. And can you really believe that her stepmother dreamed she was beneath the barn floor? We’ll really never know. Of course, it was perfect fodder for the penny press of the day.
Relatively few Staffordshire figures of the Red Barn seem to have been made, and they look just like the actual red barn did then. Although the illustrations at the time were crude woodcuts, you can still tell what the barn looked like. I also tracked down images of William Corder and Maria Marten that match what the pottery figures look like.
Collectors Weekly: It’s strange to think that people would want a reminder of such a lurid or violent thing in their homes.
Schkolne: Spot on. As much as collectors love them, figures relating to the Red Barn are rather rare. I think that supports my theory that most Staffordshire figures were for middle-class homes, or rather proper homes. Would you really want a Red Barn in your proper home? It’s not something you’d want to talk about in front of the children.
(To learn more about Staffordshire figures, visit Myrna Schkolne’s blog, mystaffordshirefigures.com. If you buy something through a link in this article, Collectors Weekly may get a share of the sale. Learn more.)