Staffordshire Figures

By Karen Parr-Moody


Pottery has been found in the soils of England for centuries, including jars left there either by Romans or natives. But the modern story begins when men found natural resources of coal and clay under the bucolic hills of Staffordshire County.


Coal was necessary for fueling Staffordshire’s kiln fires at the extreme temperatures needed to harden clay. By the second half of the 16th century, kilns were firing all over the area, producing lead-glazed earthenware and unglazed or salt-glazed stoneware.


By 1720, potting technology tipped toward a grand scale when the pioneer of English pottery, John Astbury (1688 – 1743), discovered that the addition of flint would make red earthenware whiter. Additional chemistry advances, as well as entrepreneurial efforts, were brought in by Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795). Ultimately the distinguished factories of Wedgwood, Spode, Minton and New Hall flourished in the region.


The plentitude of resulting Staffordshire pottery has created a secondary market for modern collectors, who seek everything from Toby mugs to transferware. One of the earliest categories was that of hand-painted, human figures that were made from 1740; they now fall under the general name of “Staffordshire figures.”


The earliest figures are attributed to the workshop of John Astbury, which produced figures of soldiers and equestrians. Historians also think Astbury likely originated the “pew groups” of two or more posed, salt-glazed figures. (Photo, above right; pew figures attributed to Astbury by Staffordshire pottery historian Steve Birks.)

In the photo, left, is an early earthenware figure, circa 1740, of a mounted soldier of the Astbury type (from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). There is a naiveté to the earliest figures that is retained by many of the later, more elaborate figures.


While earthenware figures were not the bulk of the Staffordshire business, they gained popularity as England’s middle class began to emerge, thirsting for home decoration. Collector and author Myrna Schkolne calls the years from 1780 to 1840 the “golden period” of Staffordshire figurines.


During those years the figures were made in a detailed manner, as dozens of small parts were pressed into a mold and then assembled by hand, according to Schkolne. There followed multiple stages of firing, glazing and painting. It was a time-consuming process.


Still, Staffordshire figures gave the English middle-class a reasonable alternative to costly Meissen hard-paste porcelain, which found its way into aristocratic homes. And the resulting Staffordshire figures – musicians, classical deities, portraits and more – possessed a charm that was particular to the region.


As the 1800s progressed, a shift in subject matter occurred. Before 1810, lofty figures were en vogue – including Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Milton and various gods and goddesses. After 1810, the results were more democratized, as figures depicted political and news events, as well as ordinary folk of rural, 19th-century England.


Take, for example, the early 19th-century figure of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, in the photo at right (1st Dibs). A military hero due to his victory over the French at Waterloo, Wellington was someone the masses would have recognized from the daily papers. Additionally, the “golden age” quality of early-1800s Staffordshire workmanship is seen in the careful construction of this figure and its sophisticated color palette of Pompadour pink, cobalt blue and orange.


Unless modern collectors spend thousands on a figure, the Staffordshire pieces typically collected today were made after Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1938, when details of the craft became “diluted by mass-production,” according to Schkolne. While some of these were still made in the round, this was also the era of the “flat back” designed with a flat, simple rear side meant to be hidden against a mantel wall. Such figures were called “chimney ornaments” or “image toys.”


The lamp, left, is a couple that is a familiar theme in the Staffordshire pantheon – the man and woman of the harvest. Found at GasLamp Too, $425 at T-140.


While King Charles spaniels were popular Staffordshire chimney ornaments during the Victorian era – likely inspired by of Queen Victoria’s pet spaniel, Dash – figures of the Queen herself were all the rage, as well. Consumers sought Staffordshire figures of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – standing, sitting on thrones, riding horses and more – as well as figures of their many children, including the Princess Royal, Princess Louise and the Prince of Wales.  


Popular people or events were often inscribed with their names beneath the figures, on circular orsquare bases. At GasLamp Too there is such a piece entitled “The Rival,” seen in the photo at right ($325 at T-134). This piece is a Staffordshire flat back figure depicting a couple being spied on by another man. It is a “spill vase” – created to hold “spills,” which would have been something to make fire (a twist of paper, sliver of wood or spiral of wood shaving). The cobalt blue of their clothing is an indicator that the piece was made between 1840 and 1865, when the color was widely used.


Equestrians were among the earliest Staffordshire figures produced and they continued to be popular through the Victorian Era. At GasLamp Too there is such a figure, a gentleman huntsman on horseback with a slain stag draped over his saddle, as seen in the photo at left (circa 1860; $245 at T-140). He wears Scottish highland attire; note his kilt and Balmoral bonnet topped by a feather.


While many of the potters who created the Staffordshire figurines are now forgotten, their charm remains in these forms that depict elements of everyday life for citizens of 18th- and 19th-century England. Like Folk Art, there is something childish, colorful and whimsical about such figures.


In my office I have a nattily-attired Napoleon ceramic figure, hand tucked into vest, standing at attention. Like most ceramics produced by the factories of Staffordshire, England, he possesses an inimitable charm. And as with the trendy Staffordshire figurines before him, which allowed Brits to express their personality and interests, he tells visitors that I am both an Anglophile and a Francophile.





Print this page