A new book, "English Earthenware Figures, 1740-1840" by Pat Halfpenny (Antique Collectors' Club, $79.50), shatters popular myths about Staffordshire figures and already is changing the way antiques dealers, collectors and curators on both sides of the Atlantic look at, describe, date and attribute the popular mantelpiece and table-top decorations.
These glazed earthenware figures (often less than 8 inches high), generally in the forms of animals, sportsmen, musicians, circus menageries, and biblical, mythological, historical and pastoral scenes, have not gone out of style or production since the early 18th century, when they first were made in the Staffordshire region in central England.
The author, wreaking havoc on antiquated assumptions, is no bull in the china shop but the highly respected keeper of ceramics at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent (the heart of Staffordshire), which houses one of the finest collections of what some have called, not disparagingly, the "tribal art of Britain."
Ms. Halfpenny's methodology and conclusions make her generously illustrated book a necessary addition to any ceramics collector's library and will provoke debate and scholarship into the next century.
Using previously unexamined or misinterpreted factory, family and church records, letters, diaries, account books, new archaeological evidence, and the figures themselves to research and document her findings, Ms. Halfpenny's book tells the story of their makers, surveys potting practices, charts the technical developments in their manufacture, and banishes the names of most of the potters once thought to have made them. These earthenware vignettes of history and country life are so charming and popular that revised attributions and dates likely won't diminish their value.
The book also examines a bevy of fakes, explaining how to distinguish them from authentic antiques. This should return some confidence to the English pottery market, shaken recently when two Englishmen were charged with faking 18th century creamware coffeepots, candlesticks, and tobacco jars, deceiving prominent English and American dealers and collectors.
Earthenware figures originally were marketed in the 1700s to England's emerging middle class at a fraction of the cost of the English, Oriental and Continental porcelain decorations they imitated. Ms. Halfpenny shows that an earthenware figure is not necessarily older because it lacks fancy decoration or complex accouterments; it's probably an economy model. Other factors, such as the type of clay, glaze and paint, help date it.
The earliest figures were modeled completely by hand, while those from 1740 to 1840 were made using a press molding technique, in which potters pressed clay into two-piece plaster-of-Paris molds. Details, decoration and glazing remained handwork. In contrast, from the mid-19th century onward, figures were mass-produced on an industrial scale.
Decorative figures were a sideline for Staffordshire potteries and were made of the same creamy white clays, imported from Devon and Dorset, that were used for tableware. Starting about 1775, many potters made the figures whiter (more closely resembling porcelain) by adding cobalt to the lead glaze, calling it "china glaze." They are known now as "pearlware" and can be identified by bluish pools of glaze in crevices.
Attributions are risky
Ms. Halfpenny proves it's risky to attribute unmarked figures to a particular maker. Many early ones of musicians and mounted horsemen decorated with powdered oxides under the glaze to resemble tortoiseshell have been called "Astbury type" or "Astbury-Whieldon type" after potters John Astbury and Thomas Whieldon. Ms. Halfpenny concludes "18th century creamware figures" is a more accurate name, since Astbury died in 1743 before the techniques needed to make these figures were used widely, and Whieldon, arguably the best-known mid-18th century Staffordshire potter, was credited with figures made by his tenants. She also disposes of the once legendary potter Ralph Wood I; he died in 1772, before the introduction of the colored glaze technique attributed to him. The next generation of the Wood family deserved the credit.
"Pratt ware" no longer should be used as a generic name for figures dated circa 1790-1830 that are painted under the glaze with metal oxides in yellow, green, blue, brown, black and purple. Ms. Halfpenny found no evidence that Felix Pratt ever produced decorative figures and located just two jugs with his factory's mark. She concludes the best-documented figure maker was an early-19th century North Staffordshire potter, Charles Tittensor, who impressed his last name in upper-case letters on the backs of many figures.
Popular and pricey