Staffordshire Pottery

By Timothy Dent Autumn 2021 | ISSUE 79

During the late 1700s, potteries in the Staffordshire region of England created small ceramic figures to commemorate everything from classical artwork to sport heroes, from political movements to tabloid headlines, writes Timothy Dent.
Coinciding with a growing economy, these naively styled figurines allowed the British middle class to express their personal tastes and interests, and potteries began churning out detailed ceramic figures, banking on their appeal as social and political references as much as their pleasing aesthetics.

The Staffordshire area is in the Midlands of England, comprising five small towns over an area of 14 kilometres or so. Although figures were made throughout England, the Staffordshire potteries area was the centre of production. The reason was not because there was a lot of clay, but rather because there was access to coal. Twenty tons of coal were needed for each ton of clay that was fired; the clay itself was mostly shipped in from the south of England.

Figures produced before 1840 were highly detailed, comprising dozens of small parts made from pieces of clay pressed into a mould and then assembled. They were then fired, dipped in glaze, and fired again. Following this they were painted and fired again, and again in successive stages. It was quite a costly, time-consuming process and the oven man, who fired the kiln, was one of the most highly paid workers; since there was no temperature gauge, it was his skill that ultimately determined whether a whole kiln of figures would survive or perish. He did this by observing the glow of the coals, or sticking a little test piece into the kiln and spitting on it when it came out to see how quickly it evaporated. Alternatively he might measure to see how much the piece had shrunk in the kiln.

As demand for the figures grew, a new and cheaper method of manufacture was required. Increasingly, figures were made out of very few moulded parts. While previously the figures had been modelled ‘in the round’, now the era of the ‘flat-back’ was born, those simple Staffordshire figures with one piece in front and another less-detailed piece behind, joined together. As the figures were invariably displayed on mantelpieces, the backs were never seen.

The years from 1780 to 1840 also coincided with a visual revolution of sorts. In the late 18th century there were no reproduced images. Thomas Bewick, who was one of the great illustrators of his time, notes in his autobiography that he only saw three printed images during his whole childhood. Even newspapers weren’t illustrated. But as prints became more prolific from around 1810 onwards, the people began to see representations of things they also observed in everyday life, and the Staffordshire potters followed this development. Instead of concentrating on more classical images, they began producing figures of people engaged in daily activities.

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; in 1790, only about one percent of the English population could read. This changed dramatically over the next 30 or so years, with many books and newspapers including illustrations to aid their readers in understanding the written word. This, in turn, would influence the subject matter of the Staffordshire figures.

At this time there was already an established market for porcelain figures among affluent people in Britain. Imported porcelain was highly valued, but there were also English porcelain factories operating by the mid-18th century. Advances in clay modelling and decoration meant it was possible for the producers of ceramic figures to manufacture pottery that was desirable enough to compete with the porcelain market.

Just over 100 different portrait figures have been recorded, and some of history’s most notorious people have been immortalised in Staffordshire pottery. Lord Byron, whose likeness was made in 1815, is a good example. A poet and dazzling star of Regency London who was rumoured to have fathered a child by his half-sister and taken male lovers, Byron was forced to flee England to escape prosecution. His one attempt at marriage and a normal life lasted only a year, but he was a fascinating figure to the public; according to Shelley, who visited him at his home in Italy, there were: ‘Ten horses, eight enormous dogs, three monkeys, five cats, an eagle, a crow, and a falcon; and all these, except the horses, walk about the house, which every now and then resounds with their unarbitrated quarrels, as if they were the masters of it… [P.S.] I find that my enumeration of the animals in this Circean Palace was defective … I have just met on the grand staircase five peacocks, two guinea hens, and an Egyptian crane.’

Another early representation was that of Thomas Molineaux, an African-American freed slave who lived in Britain. He fought the title holder, Englishman Thomas Cribb, for the English boxing championship, but was cheated of his rightful victory when it was decided that a black American could not be allowed to take the English boxing crown; Cribb was unfairly declared the winner. Unfortunately for Molineaux, he did actually lose fair and square in a rematch and he went on to drink himself to an early grave. Both Cribb and Molineaux were immortalised in Staffordshire figures.

One of the rarest of the early Staffordshire figures represents the story of Maria Marten, who was murdered by her boyfriend William Corder, a local farmer’s son. Having already borne a child to William’s brother Thomas, and another to William that died at birth, in May 1827 Maria arranged to meet Corder at the door of a red barn on his farm so they could run away together, but she was never seen again. Her body was later found under the barn. She had been shot and stabbed.

Meanwhile, Corder had travelled to London and advertised for a wife. In 1828, he was convicted at the Crown Court in Bury St Edmunds of the murder of Maria Marten and was sentenced to death by hanging, his body to be ‘dissected and anatomized’ afterwards. 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. By repute, ten thousand people attended the hanging and The Red Barn itself was visited by more than two hundred thousand people in the six months following the discovery of the body, the visitors literally picking apart the building to obtain souvenirs. Such huge public interest caused the Staffordshire potters to produce a number of Staffordshire models of The Red Barn. The figures associated with it are, however, surprisingly rare.

Arthur Orton, a butcher from New South Wales, was also immortalised by the Staffordshire potters. Orton claimed that he was the twelfth baronet of Titchbourne and by invitation by Lady Titchbourne, who was convinced by his description that he was her long-lost son, went to England to claim the title. On arrival in England, Lady Titchbourne ‘recognised’ him and supported him in his suit for ejectment against the twelfth baronet, who was a young boy. After a long trial, Orton was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to fourteen years hard labour.

Queen Victoria was an oft-produced subject and the queen with Prince Albert is a particularly popular figure, although any royal figures can be considered collectable. After Prince Albert’s death, the potters tended to concentrate on the royal children.

The Crimean War also inspired the Staffordshire potter. Many portraits of Lord Raglan, the Duke of Cambridge, Omar Pacha and Abdul Medjid the Sultan of Turkey were produced, but probably more significant to our understanding of the nineteenth century working class man are the numerous models of the everyday soldiers – figures with titles such as ‘The Wounded Soldier‘, ‘The Sailor’s Return’, ‘Ready and Willing‘, ‘Brothers in Arms‘, and ‘The Soldier’s Farewell‘, evoking the feelings of everyday man. Many potters were Methodists and this is often reflected in the religious models that they produced. By far the most popular was that of Reverend Wesley, who preached some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime.

Staffordshire figures have been subject to reproduction over the years but there are some clues as to whether a figure is original. The use of cobalt blue is a hallmark of the period from 1840 to 1865 and is found on many figures dating from this era. After 1865 the colour was rarely used. Early gilding, which is softly coloured, is known as ‘best gold’ and is distinct from the later ‘bright gold’ that was painted on after the figure was fired. Poorly applied colour and gilding mark out a reproduction, as does a large hole at the base; earlier figures have smaller holes to let the air escape. A figure with a flat, unglazed base is not original; genuine figures have a concave and glazed base. For further in-depth information on Staffordshire figures, go to author and specialist Myrna Schkolne’s website:

Timothy Dent is a contributor to Antiques to Vintage magazine.
Recommended research and reference: Collectors Weekly interview with author Myrna Schkolne, 2013 – Myrna Schkolne is an expert and author on Staffordshire figures and her website and blog contain reams of relevant information.
Images courtesy Richard Gardner Antiques, UK.