For many, if you hear the term Staffordshire Figure, you might be forgiven for immediately thinking of the chimney dogs, sometimes referred to as “wally dogs”, that so often stood either side of the fireplace or on the mantelpiece of an elderly relative’s house.
In reality, those dogs are indeed Staffordshire but do not truly represent the very large number of varied pieces of pottery that fall into the definition of Staffordshire figures.
A brief history
Pottery figures have been made by the Staffordshire potters for many years. Perhaps the earliest was the Pew Group, made in the 1740s and now rare to find. Usually there will be two or three upright figures sitting on a high-backed settle seat. Often a woman will be sitting in the centre. The setting is not church, as you might think from the name, but an inn or home, which becomes more obvious when we look at the figures, who may be musicians, or holding dogs. The hair and clothing has been made with much care; wigs, buttons, lace and buckles depicted in detail.
Potting became more sophisticated in the 1750s and 1760s with the development of what is now called Astbury and Whieldon ware. John Astbury (1688-1743) was credited with innovations and improvements in earthenware associated with Staffordshire figures. Thomas Whieldon (1719-1795) also played a leading role in the development of Staffordshire pottery. It is impossible to attribute any piece of this early pottery to a particular pot bank (manufacturer) with any certainty. The pieces are very distinctly designed and decorated in muted browns, greens, and creams, similar to agate and tortoiseshell.
Between the years 1780 – 1840, the Staffordshire potters became more numerous and the figures were further developed and sophisticated. We are now in the times of some of the very greatest Staffordshire potting names such as Ralph and Enoch Wood, Sherratt, Walton, Salt and Tittensor. These potters introduced both greater colour and modelling detail into their figures and many of them had very beautiful bocages behind the pottery models to show them off to their best.
However, the heyday of the Staffordshire pottery movement must be the Victorian period between 1840 – 1875, when thousands upon thousands of figures were made in the small potting kilns that seemed to abound in the back yards of all the rows of back to back dwellings in the Potteries region of Stoke-on-Trent. These Victorian potters were very entrepreneurial and they modelled and made figures that represented life at that time. Many figures were politicians or other notable characters whose names and faces had appeared in both magazines of the time, notably The Illustrated London News, or play bills for theatre productions. Some of the figures produced were of the highest quality but many were simply run-of-the-mill produced at little cost to decorate the homes of the ever-increasing lower- and middle- class population of the country.
We turn now to collecting these figures and their cost and investment potential. Early figures (and by this I refer to those pre1780) are rare and seldom seen. For this reason, you can certainly expect to pay thousands of pounds for a figure.
As we move to figures dated between 1780 and 1840, good and rare figures might once again cost in excess of a thousand pounds and somewhat more for those that are really scarce and in good condition.
Victorian figures probably fall into a different category. Firstly, there are many more of them and the buyer will find a good number have been broken and often badly repaired or restored. It is fair to say that finding a undamaged Staffordshire figure is a rarity. However, many have been damaged and very well restored – in fact, so well that it would be impossible to spot with an untrained eye. Secondly, it depends very much what you buy. There are certain figures that are known rarities and therefore desirable which will command high prices whether or not they are damaged or perfect. There are however, many that we might regard as middle range in terms of rarity, and these are usually priced more moderately.
Finally, there are the very common figures which you can pick up very cheaply. These would not be the type of figures I would recommend you buy if you are looking to make money, as they are very unlikely to be a sound investment, but you may love and cherish them regardless.
In the last two decades of the 1900s and indeed the very early years of the 2000s, original, antique Staffordshire pottery was incredibly popular and commanded good prices. However, in the last 10 – 15 years and in line with the general trend of old brown furniture and the contemporary look of clean white lines, Staffordshire figures have declined in popularity and value and so it could be said that from a buying perspective it is a very good time to buy.
As a new collector, I would rely on the advice of a reputable dealer or a friendly Staffordshire figure collector. Figures that are in good condition and are rarer models will always command higher prices.
Buying at auction can be problematic on three counts, especially from a general sale. Firstly, auctioneers often have little or no knowledge of what they are selling. Secondly, auction houses have a tendency to put large numbers of figures together into single lots which can be very off-putting for a buyer who may only want one or perhaps two figures in a lot. Thirdly, and sadly, some auction houses are not good at giving accurate condition reports which are vital, particularly where the buyer is either inexperienced or buying online and where viewing the auction lots prior to the sale has not been possible.
There is also an active market for figures on eBay but once again the message is “caveat emptor”. Apart from condition issues eBay vendors often sell reproduction pieces which can be very convincing when only seen on a computer screen.
What to collect?
The important thing is to buy what you like. I, for example, have no particular theme to my collection which I have built up over some 50 years. I have just bought figures that I like and am happy to live with that bring me great pleasure on a daily basis.
If you were to collect Victorian Staffordshire figures and you felt that you might like to follow a theme, I would suggest the following:
There are many animal models; for example farm animals, zoo and wild animals, birds and of course dogs. The chimney dog is based on a King Charles Spaniel (Dash) who was the lap dog of Queen Victoria…. but there are many others, in particular whippets and greyhounds, terriers and hunting dogs.
Crimean War figures
The Crimean War (1853-1856), was a very significant event of the Victorian period and there are many figures manufactured to commemorate that. These include the military commanders on all sides of the conflict and, of course, the darling of our forces, Florence Nightingale.
There are many figures of people whether Military or otherwise, and these make an excellent subject for a collection.
Famous figures from history
Figures were not limited to personalities living at the time and there are representations of Thomas Potter, Captain Cook, Lady Godiva, Shakespeare and many earlier royal figures and military heroes.
Myth, legend and literary characters
The fantastical imaginings of figures from mythology and popular literature are some of the most charming, as they were often adapted from moulds made for military or other figures.
Imagine having a pottery figure of Boris Johnson on your parlour sideboard!! Very many of the British politicians of the time were modelled; for example, Lord Melbourne, Gladstone and Disraeli, to mention but a few.
Many religious figures, from both the Old and New Testament, were made as well as preachers of the time, such as the American Evangelists Moody and Sankey.
There were many figures made of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria and their children as well as the extended family from around Europe.
There are many figures of the early sports of bear baiting and bull baiting, and there are very sought-after figures of pugilists such as Cribb and Molyneux or Heenan and Sayers.
The Victorians were being treated to public productions of both theatre and opera, and figures of the actors and singers were produced and sold outside the theatres and music halls as keepsakes for those attending.
The list could be endless, but I think it is true to say that Staffordshire figures display best en masse rather than individual figures sitting on their own… another excellent reason to start a collection.
It is always good to have something to refer to and there are many publications on the subject. However most serious collectors will refer to:
Myrna Schkolne’s excellent four book volume: Staffordshire Figures 1780 -1840
P.D. Gordon Pugh:
Staffordshire Portrait Figures of the Victorian Era
This book was first published in 1970, with two revisions (1981, 1987). It provides an extensive photographic record of the 1,500 or so portrait figures produced in the nineteenth century, plus invaluable information on forgeries, fakes, reproductions and repairs. The book is affectionately known as ‘Pugh’.
The 1987 edition includes specially commissioned colour photographs from the City Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, where the bulk of Pugh’s collection is now housed.
A&N Harding’s five book volume: Victorian Staffordshire Figures 1835-1875
In addition, I also recommend The Victorian Staffordshire Figure and Staffordshire Pottery; The Tribal Art of England by the late lamented Kensington Church Street dealer Anthony Oliver (of Oliver Sutton). These books, rather than being directories, are a real insight into the whole history of the Staffordshire Potter and his wares.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Serious Collector’s Guide in 2022.
Alan Sturrock is President of the Staffordshire Figure Association. He is always happy to answer questions on Staffordshire figure related topics by email.