Stories on the Mantlepiece: New Testament Staffordshire figures from the Duckworth Collection

08/03/202114:0908/03/2021 16:01Leave a Comment
Detail from Christ and the Woman of Samaria, attributed to the Parr factory, Burslem, c.1850s

In the 19th century the Staffordshire potters produced a multitude of colourful, sometimes naïve, figures of religious subjects. Some were depictions of biblical scenes drawn from the Old and New Testaments, others were figures of popular preachers or reflected contemporary concerns, such as the Temperance movement. They sold in their thousands and were displayed in the homes, and on the mantelpieces, of their purchasers. The people that they represented, and the stories that these figures depicted, would have been very familiar to the families that bought them, although some of the subjects are less easily recognised today.

Detail from ‘The Bottle’ (1847) by George Cruikshank showing the way that figures were collected and displayed in the home

In 2019 through the generosity of the Cultural Gifts Scheme, administered by Arts Council England, this museum was given the Duckworth Collection of Victorian Staffordshire figures of religious subjects. The collection had been the subject of the exhibition, Stories on the Mantelpiece: Victorian Religious Figures, at this museum the previous year.

With Easter approaching it is a chance to take a look at a few of those figures from the New Testament which cover the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, depicting people and events which would have been well-known to the potters and to their customers.

The Victorian potters drew their inspiration for their figures from various sources. Some were original models but others were adapted from printed reproductions of well-known paintings or from the engravings in the popular illustrated Bibles that were being published from the late 18th century onward. None of the figures have a factory or maker’s mark but stylistic similarities and differences make it clear that they were made by many different factories over a period of at least thirty years.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria

Christ and the Woman of Samaria, engraving by WT Davey after the painting by Leloir

One of the earliest events recorded in Jesus’s ministry was his encounter with a Samarian woman at a well. Several versions of this encounter were produced by the Staffordshire potters with at least one being adapted from an engraving by WT Davey (1818-1900). The potters added a tree stump at the back of the figure group so that it could be used as a spill vase.

Figure group inspired by the Davey engraving above which it closely follows in details of clothing, position etc . This example is both decorative and useful with the tree forming a spill vase to hold the paper tapers – or spills – used for lighting candles. Unknown maker c.1860s.

By comparison, the source for this large version of the same incident is not known but it is one of the most elaborate earthenware figures of the period, fully modelled and coloured ‘in the round’, and is the largest figure in The Duckworth Collection.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria, attributed to the Parr factory, Burslem, Staffordshire, 1850s.

Blessing the Little Children and Restoring Sight to a Blind Man

“Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me”, Unknown factory, c.1860s

Two figures, possibly from the same unknown factory, depict other well-known events. The group of Christ Blessing the Little Children is clearly titled, as is the miracle of Christ Restoring Sight to the Blind. This latter figure also functions as a spill vase. Like so many figures of the period these two subjects clearly are clearly ‘flatbacks’ with the modelling and colouring confined to the front of the figures.

“Christ Restoring Sight to the Blind, “Unknown manufacturer, c.1860s

Jesus at the column

An unusual subject is this tall and well-modelled figure showing Christ after his arrest and about to be flogged as the Staffordshire potters usually shied away from producing nude or semi-nude figures. In part this was because until the mid-19th century they had little or no access to the type of formal art education which would have included life drawing. The subject, however, was one that had been popular with sculptors since the Renaissance as it was an opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of modelling the human form. This figure is almost certainly based on an as- yet unidentified sculpture.

Christ at the Column, Unknown manufacturer, c.1860s

The Four Evangelists

The Four Evangelists, attributed to the ‘Alpha’ factory, 1840s.
Image courtesy of Stephen Duckworth

Christ’s life and ministry were recorded by the authors of the four Gospels of the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many different versions of the Evangelists were produced but The Duckworth Collection is unique in including not only all four of the Evangelists, attributed to the so-called ‘Alpha factory which was working in the late 1840s, but also titled figures of the Virgin Mary and of Jesus Christ, from the same factory.

Figures of Christ and Mary, attributed to the ‘Alpha’ factory, c.1840s

There is more information about the religious figures produced by the Staffordshire potters in the 19th century in the book “Victorian Staffordshire Pottery Religious Figures: Stories on the Mantelpiece” by Stephen Duckworth (ACC Art Books Ltd, 2017, hardback, 160pp), which is available as a special offer from our museum shop for £10.00 including p&p within the UK. Please contact  for details of  availability, shipping etc.

Written by Miranda Goodby, Senior Curator of Ceramics

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