The Antiques Addict: Staffordshire Portrait Figures
Here in Georgetown, we live in the mother lode of antiquities, an antique community where relics are everywhere we look. Since Georgetowners interact with history every day in our 18th- and 19th-century homes and on our cobblestoned streets, it’s easy to stop actually seeing the objects and places that inform our daily lives.
So it’s interesting to delve a bit into the what and why of the old things that surround us, everyday household items or fine rarities from a century or more ago: a colorful vase that a favorite aunt left, an old bottle found under a floorboard during renovations, yellow ware bowls, glorious old silver, colorful tins that once held everything from soup to opium.
A dealer in antiques for most of my adult life, I am drawn to old things and old places. I still like to imagine the people who lived in my early 19th-century home and how they lived in it. They loved, lost and raised their families within the quotidian realities of the age.
Just as certain smells can flood us with memories, antiques can provide a powerful connection to our own personal histories. A familiar object spotted at an antiques shop can be an emotional bridge with our past, a childhood moment or a loved one. Many collectors’ fascination with the things of the past reflects a profound desire to connect to a time when life was more predictable. True collectors don’t buy to resell. They buy for that enduring link to the past, a sense of history, the thrill of the hunt or to furnish a home.
My penchant for collecting Staffordshire portrait figures (1837-1901) stems from all of the above. They are decorative and have a wonderful naïve charm. The figures were the Victorian version of People Magazine; made to communicate the “news of the day” to everyman, they had a broad appeal across social classes. Many a politico, murderer, actress, soldier and historic event of the time were portrayed in Staffordshire.
Victorian portrait figures are generally titled, but not always. The quality of the workmanship varies tremendously. Some were quite primitively rendered, making the characters impossible to recognize (likely the result of basing the portrait on a bad engraving in a periodical of the day). Yet all are historically interesting and, amassed, make up a visually pleasing and thought-provoking collection.
Prior to 1840, most figurines were made to imitate porcelain and finely worked. Starting in 1842, the “flat-back” design made them easier to reproduce in earthenware. The Crimean War (1854-1856) was the heyday of this form. There was intense popular interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the allied leaders and their war commanders, and a profusion of figures were made in the new style.
One of the chief attractions in collecting Staffordshire figures is the great number of variations within a type. Each potter created his own version of a well-known contemporary subject – a famous battle, performer, literary character or royal personage – hence the profusion of similar subjects that look extremely different from one another.
Some collectors specialize in certain themes, like Little Red Riding Hood (a popular subject). Others may collect circus figures, politicians, sporting figures or any of the hundreds of variations available.
By the start of the 1880s, the art was beginning to decline. Finally, with the death of Queen Victoria, fewer figures were produced. Although a few figures were made to commemorate World War I, they were in a different, more sophisticated style, lacking the former rustic charm.
For me, the fun is in buying whatever strikes my fancy. Since the figures are ubiquitous, I am almost always able to find company for the others in my collection.
An antiques dealer for more than 25 years, Michelle Galler owns Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, located in Georgetown and in Washington, Va. Contact her at email@example.com to suggest a topic for a future column.