There is something utterly irresistible about antique Staffordshire figures. It could be the naïf, folk art appeal of a pair of dogs for the mantle, a figure of a member of the royal family riding a goat, or just an unknown child standing with a dog and a bird that catches the eye when you purchase your first, or most recent, piece. Perhaps what contributes to their charm is the fact that no two figures are alike. You know that what you’re holding in your hands was made by someone over 150 years ago, and therefore, it carries with it a history and context that is rich but gone. All you can do is hold the figure and appreciate its unique warmth and beauty. This is what made us collectors, albeit modest, of antique Staffordshire figures.
The purpose of this post is to briefly explore the history of Staffordshire figures, look at popular areas of collecting, care and cleaning, repairs and basic tips for spotting fakes and reproductions.
Staffordshire figures were originally intended as ornaments, to embellish a mantelpiece and enliven a home. Early wares were all hand done, like the rustic pair of dogs you see here, moulded in red clay indigenous to the area.
This was followed by moulds that were hand pressed and decorated all around, a time consuming and cost prohibitive method of production. The majority of pieces were produced in the Victorian era with the height of production roughly between 1850-1870. After Queen Victoria’s ascendency to the throne in 1837, a new form of production called the “flatback” emerged.
It used a three part mould and was designed to stand against the wall, eliminating the need to decorate the back. For the first time, Staffordshire figures were made in quantity at a low cost and were therefore considered affordable for the growing middle class in England. Over 5,000 different moulds were made at this time: over 110 different portraits, 60 versions of Queen Victoria, 50 of Prince Albert, 17 of Nelson, religious, musical, theatrical, as well as figures of children, soldiers, sailors, shepherds, hunters, animals and domestic buildings.
What to Collect
Because there is such a range of figures, most collectors concentrate on specific areas. More affordable areas are: religious, decorative figures of unknown people and occupations. More expensive or established areas are: portrait, royalty, theatre, politicians, military, Crimean War, sports, pairs of dogs and animals. Some things to consider when collecting:
- Standing dogs are worth more than seated dogs (see Poodles right)
- Dogs with separate legs are more valuable (see Poodles right)
- Red and white dogs are preferred to those in white or lustre
- Paired figures are worth at least three times the price of a single figure
- Dogs with glass eyes are always late, after 1880
- Popular dog breeds to collect: Spaniels, Whippets, Poodles and Greyhounds
- Rare dogs: Dalmatians
- Unknown children with dogs are more affordable
Domestic & Farmyard Animals
- Horses on their own are very rare & usually include their foal
- Cats are very rare, and in demand – Less than twenty models of cats are known (compared to hundreds of dogs)
- Wild animals are rare and highly collectible- figures such as
zebras, lions, fox, stags, commanding among the highest prices for any Staffordshire figure
- Domestic animals are more common and more affordable
- Figures depicting occupations are undercollected, and is where bargains can still be found. They include gypsy fortune tellers, gardeners, milkmen, shepherds, fishermen and hunters.
- Figures produced for purely decorative purposes such as pastoral scenes and couples under an arbour can still be found at a reasonable price
- Figures that serve a dual purpose such as spill vases are also more affordable
- Spill vases stood on the mantelpiece and held rolled up pieces of paper that substituted for matches
- Figures that are titled will increase the value of the figure
- Many smaller Staffordshire figures were produced cheaply and given away at fairs as prizes and were known as ‘fairings’. Look for those that are early from a mould.
- This moulded version of Little Red Riding Hood with the Big Bad Wolf, although some of the glaze has worn off, is highly collectible because of the popular story. It also serves as a trinket box.
- This is a highly collectible and well-researched category. Figures include Shakespeare characters, figures of actors, dancers and musicians.
- One of the most collected categories and most figurines are of the highest quality
- Queen Victoria with Prince Albert is a popular figure
- After Prince Albert’s death, potters concentrated on the royal children (shown right)
- Any royal figures are collectible and command higher prices
- The last figures produced were of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1901
- Just over 100 different figures have been recorded ranging from politicians (Benjamin Franklin), navel admirals (Lord Nelson), Prime Ministers, military (Napoleon – shown right) contemporary figures (Eliza Cook) and clergymen
- Titled portrait figures command a premium
- When inspecting a figure look at the neck and hands that have been made from separate moulds
- Condition is important so heavily crazed figures with flaky enamels will reduce the item in value
- Team sports were uncommon so figures are rare and command higher prices
- Look for pairs of cricketers, jockeys or fighters
- Many fakes and reproductions can be found in this category
- Figures of Christ, Rebekah, Mary with infant Jesus have not been categorized until relatively recently and can still be collected at an affordable price
- Practically all Victorian Staffordshire figures are unmarked so it’s not possible to identify the maker. A figure is therefore judged on its quality
Dating Staffordshire Figures
- Underglaze cobalt blue colouring was discovered in about 1830. Before this time there were no colours that could withstand the internal heat of the glazing kiln
- The use of cobalt blue is a particular hallmark of the period between 1840-1865 and is found on many figures at this time
- After 1865 cobalt blue was only used on one or two late figures
- Early gilding is known as “best gold”, a softly coloured gilding
- Later gilding “bright gold” is newer and brassier and was painted on after the figure was fired
- Look at any gilding to see if it is a soft coloured gold or has been painted on
Repairs and Restoration
- Today a good restorer’s work is almost undetectable. Whether the piece has been repaired or restored it should be done by a professional as this requires firing to set the enamels
- Contact your local museum to find a reputable restorer in your area
- Don’t attempt a repair yourself as this will diminish the value of your figure
Care and Cleaning
- Try not to clean your figure as this can sometimes damage the finish of the enamel
- However, if cleaning is necessary let the figure stand in a plastic bin with warm, mild, soapy water
- For crevices apply a soft brush toothbrush
- Rinse in cool water. Gently pat dry with a soft cloth
- Try to store your figures in a closed glass display cabinet to cut down on dust and cleaning
Reproductions and Fakes
There are many reproductions and fakes in existence. In recent years, intentional damage has been made to fakes to make them look old, and copies of the press-mould method make it more challenging to spot fakes. Here are some tips:
- Look for signs such as poorly applied colour and gilding
- If the hole at the base is large this is a clear indication of a reproduction. The earlier figures have smaller holes to let the air out
- If the base is flat and unglazed they are fakes. Genuine figures have a concave and glazed base
- It’s not always easy to spot a fake. Even the experts can get it wrong sometimes. When buying an antique Staffordshire figure ask for a receipt, ensure that a date is given and whether the figure has been repaired or restored.
- When you touch and observe enough genuine Staffordshire figures you will get to know the quality and it will become easier to spot the fakes and reproductions
Staffordshire figures have increased in value over the years but purchasing these objects in order to see them appreciate in value could be risky as the price of antiques ebbs and flows according to demand and the current economic environment. Instead, focus on what appeals to you personally and appreciate the stories they tell, their place in history, and the charm of the figures themselves. This will go a long way in helping you become a savvy collector of these wonderful and timeless objects.
Sources for this post
Hardy, Adrian & Nicholas, Book One & Two
Victorian Staffordshire Figures (1835-1875)
Schiffer Publishing, 1998
Staffordshire Figures of the 19th & 20th Centuries