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The Pierotti Wax DollAuthor: Lesley Gordon
( Article orginally published February 1957 )
"IT MUST be a Montanari!" Every collector of wax dolls has at some time heard or made this pronouncement. For years it was believed that the famous Montanari wax dolls were the first to have hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows separately embedded in the wax head. Every unmarked doll with hair thus set was pronounced, without further question, a Montanari, and most books on the subject quote 1849 as their first appearance.
It has now been established that Enrico Pierotti, whose father, Domenico Pierotti, had been making wax dolls in England as early as 1790, used this method of inserting separate strands of hair into the heads by means of a small bladed knife so that the hair appears to be growing from the scalp, twenty or thirty years before the Montanaris. The dolls continued to be made by various members of the family until 1935.
Questions about the marking of the Pierotti dolls, the methods of making, and the history of this family of skillful craftsmen and women have reached us at England's Toy Museum from time to time, and it is now possible for us to pass on the following facts, given by a member of the Pierotti family.
The Pierottis were originally Italian land owners and wine exporters in Lucca and Volterra. The first member to come to England in about 1780 was Domenico, who was sent after an injury to undergo the surgical treatment, not available in his native land. Domenico, a boy at the time, stayed in Portsmouth with an uncle and aunt, by the name of Castelli. Later he ran away to London, where his skill as a modeller in papier-mache was soon much in demand. He made the delicate panels and relief patterns for ceilings and cornices so much a feature of Regency interior decoration, and about 1790 began making wax dolls. At the same time, his aunt, Madame Castelli, an English woman, was making composition and wax-coated papier-mache dolls and figurines in Portsmouth. She and her husband also made wall and ceiling panellings coated with plaster, and tailors' and milliners' figures of papier-mache dipped in wax.Domencio married Susanna Sleight, daughter of John and Susanna Sleight, born on January 17th, 1773. His son, Enrico, trained in the same craft as his father, abandoned the making of ceiling and wall panellings and turned his attention to the modelling of wax portraits and effigies. He modelled the portraits of various civic dignitaries and other prominent persons, some of which appeared at the Pantheon. His dolls were of an extremely high quality with eyebrows, lashes and hair embedded in the wax as described.
Enrico married Jane Gumbrell in 1828, and died in 1871, leaving a family of four sons and four daughters. One of these sons, Charles William, who in 1859, married Mary Roach at London's famous All Soul's Church in Langham Place, took over the business on the death of his father.
The family settled at Hammersmith. The work was always carried out in the home with no set hours, no routine, dependent only on mood and necessity. The less important task• were undertaken by semi-skilled men and women, but the skilled artistic work remained in the family. They employed no advertisers nor canvasers, but had no difficulty in selling all the dolls and figures they could make to Peacock's, New Oxford Street, the famous Cremer's of New Bond Street, Hamley's, then in both Oxford Street and Regent Street, and to Francis Hamley, a brother, of New Oxford Street, Mrs. Morell and Mrs. Aldred of Burlington Arcade, Aldis of Belgravia, and many other well known toy men of the day.
But in 1877 Charles William contracted lead poisoning from the lead base used in the wax to make the images, and was unable to continue. The work was carried on by his wife and eldest son, Charles Ernest, and continued under the old business name of H. Pierotti. Mrs. Pierotti cut and sewed the cloth bodies until she was nearly ninety years old. Although the heads and limbs were entirely realistic, the bodies of the baby dolls were all given the same narrow waists as the adult dolls.
For the making of heads and limbs the wax was melted to blood heat, although no thermometer was used, in a silver-plated iron cauldron known as "the fish kettle," over a fire in the kitchen range. Melted white lead, carmine, and other colours were added by being pressed through the mesh of linen bags by a small stick while the wax was molten, the basic tint being determined according to the complexion needed.
The moulds were laid in rows on a bench, nine or ten feet long. First they were heated in boiling water. Then the water was shaken off and the moulds wiped with a soft cloth. As one assistant did this, another would fill the moulds from the kettle with fluid hot wax. Six to twelve moulds were filled at one time. When the wax showed signs of setting to the required thickness, the residue was poured out, leaving a settlement about a quarter of an inch thick.
The moulds were usually made of three interlocking parts, the face and front in one part, and the back of the head in two. Arms and legs were usually in two or three parts, according to the curve of the limbs. The parts were bound together with a strip of linen. When the moulds were removed, the seams were smoothed with a smoothing blade, eye-holes cut out, and nostrils, mouth and ears finished with a knife.
The eyes were inserted by being fixed to a flat stick by means of a dab of wax, warmed over a spirit lamp, then pushed into place from inside the head, and pressed against the apertures until the wax set. The whole head was then smoothed with turpentine applied with a soft cloth. It was next powdered with starch powder, brushed on with a dry painter's brush, and cheeks and ears rouged with wadding. Lips, cars and nostrils were dry-painted with a camel's hair brush. Eyelashes were then inserted, and eyebrows, and lastly the hair.
The hairs were inserted three or four at a time by being cut into the wax with a sharp scalpel, using a right to left undercut, and the wax was afterwards flattened with the back of the scalpel. In the best models the hairs were inserted singly. For a time, when it was discovered that the Pierotti models were being pirated, the heads were marked with the name of H. Pierotti under the hair at the back of the head, but many heads are unmarked. The fringe was put on first, so that half finished babies looked like chubby priests, and the hair was then worked up to the crown. For longer curly hair, damp strands were curled around sticks and baked at a low heat.
Forty or fifty models might be produced at a time, in six or more different sizes. Heads and limbs were sown on to bodies stuffed with cow hair, through holes reinforced with metal eyelets. The holes in the limbs were made with warm needles. The cow hair, packed in bales, was bought from leather dealers. That cow hair was replaced by kapok about 1900 is a useful guide when dating a doll. All this stuffing and sewing was carried on by the women members of the family.
The Pierottis also made wax figures for display work, hairdressers' heads and tailors' models. It is known that dolls were made also repaired for Queen Victoria by the Pierotti family, and tiny wax model figures were made for a cake for one of the Royal weddings.
After Charles Williams died in 1892, his son, Charles Ernest, carried on the business. At some time three of his brothers helped, but later he worked alone. He finally retired in 1935, when he was seventy-five years old.
In reviewing these facts for a Collector's Scrapbook, what emerges most clearly may be paraphrased in the words of an old riddle - "When is a Montanari not a Montanari?" And the answer is, apparently, "When it's a Pierotti!"