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While figures were made in the great pottery district of England from early times, the type popularly known as Staffordshire figures appeared about the end of the first quarter of the eighteenth century. For 100 years thereafter the potteries of this district, which Arnold Bennett has immortalized in his tales of the Five Towns, produced a long line of painted and glazed figures, not to mention the vast quantities of decorated dining services and tea sets.
Compared with the porcelain productions of Bow, Bristol or Chelsea, the Staffordshire figures, both in quality of ware and artistic result, are inferior. But they represented, at least during the first fifty or sixty years of the period, a native expression that, while limited in finesse, was vigorous and individual. During the last forty years, as Arthur Hayden points out in his "Chats on Old Earthenware," many of the figures were copied from or inspired by the finer porcelain wares, with which they could not compete in delicacy of modeling or artistry of coloring.
A good deal of the charm of Staffordshire figures is due to the fact that they are in many cases interesting records of the events, customs and personages of the times. Many exciting things were happening in the world during the century when they were being made in great quantities in Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Longton, Turnstall and other towns in the district, and some of these great events are found reflected in the little statuettes. The fame of Napoleon or of Wellington is frequently portrayed. Pottery figures of Washington, Franklin and Lafayette were made for the American trade after the Revolution.
The pottery makers were ever ready to capitalize public interest in political or social questions. The advent to power of Parliamentary leaders like William Pitt or of a new ruler meant hundreds of statuettes or busts for the mantelpieces of the cottages in the United Kingdom. The question of temperance, which, in country districts at least, was the subject of some discussion, had its two sides presented. For the Wets of the time there was a jovial couple sitting drinking ale, while the Drys had a companion piece labeled "Teetotal," with a man and a woman more sedately consuming tea.
One of the most celebrated of the figures, now known mainly because it is one of the best made by Ralph Wood, the most renowed modeler of these figures, is known as "The Vicar and Moses." This represents the vicar soundly asleep in his pulpit, while below him at a desk is his clerk, "Moses," delivering the sermon. The irony of this bit of Staffordshire pottery is lost today, but at that time, when shirking by the clergy was prevalent, the humor of the group had a great popular appeal.
When John Wesley visited the pottery district in one of his evangelical tours he was received with enthusiasm, and there are many busts and standing figures of him, some of which-such as the one made by Enoch Wood when he was only 22 years old-are famous among con noisseurs of Staffordshire figures. Biblical subjects were always in demand, and dramatic episodes, such as Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac, were especially popular. In most cases the maker of the original statuette is lost in the numbers of copies turned out by competing firms: As time went on and copies were made of copies, the detail and excellence of the earlier models were lost. The coloring of the pieces also became poor in this process of reproduction. Many a tale is told in the pottery district of the creation of a statuette by the simple expedient of a change in the color of a coat and in the placing of a new name on the pedestal. These methods marked, however, the degeneracy of the Staffordshire figures.
With the decorative use of the Staffordshire figure today the exact meaning that these groups had for their original owners is not a drawback. But it is interesting to discover now and then that perhaps the pleasant little cottage or farmhouse we buy to place on our desk or fireplace mantel may have had a grisly fame when it was first made. The murder and crime series of Staffordshire figures is not large; most of these figures were made late in the history of Staffordshire ornaments.
In 1848 there was the "Rush" murder, in which a farmer and his housekeeper figured. A quaint, three-story house with a thatched roof marked "Potash Farm" com memorates this in pottery. If you should come across another pottery building labeled "A View of the Red Barn at Polestead," with the figure of a man and woman in front, you may know that this immortalizes the celebrated "Red Barn Murder" of 1827. Most of the little houses in Staffordshire pottery are, however, merely innocent representations of picturesque farms.
It was during the best period of Staffordshire productions that the many classical subjects appeared. Many of these were made or inspired by Wedgwood, who in the latter part of the eighteenth century had such an influence on the pottery of the district as well as of all England. Allied with this interest was the multitude of busts and statuettes of great men of the past, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Milton, Shakespeare and Chaucer.
One can imagine that one of these Staffordshire figures on a humble mantel shelf started many a conversation about the great personages of the past or present. Perhaps the village curate, paying a visit, would show his learning by discoursing about them. Incidents of common life also are seen in groups of figures bearing such titles as "Courting," "Youth," "Old Age," as well as pictures of daily work at trades or on the farm. Representations of the sturdy farmer with his contented cows or docile sheep were popular.