Stories on the Mantlepiece: New Testament Staffordshire figures from the Duckworth Collection
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.
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
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.
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.
Blessing the Little Children and Restoring Sight to a Blind Man
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.
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.
The Four Evangelists
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.
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 [email protected] for details of availability, shipping etc.