ALEC VIDLER, the former Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, is to blame for Stephen Duckworth’s obsession with religiously themed Staffordshire figures. When Duckworth was studying at Cambridge, he admired a ceramic statuette of John Wesley in Vidler’s study, and sought to acquire one for himself.
Later, living in Notting Hill, round the corner from the Portobello Road, Duckworth began collecting in earnest, quickly specialising in religious figures.
Famous preachers and religious personalities formed a small subset of a much larger group of Staffordshire figures which seeped into pious Victorian households. Alongside the ubiquitous shepherds and shepherdesses, characters from the Bible proved popular, together with tableaux with angels or Temperance figures.
The trade in small figures grew during the 18th century. The models were porcelain, included fine details, and commanded high prices. As the 19th century progressed, however, new techniques were introduced that brought prices down. Simplified designs meant that clay could be used; the figures were generally cruder, and the decoration was simpler; and figures were designed for the mantelpiece rather than to be free-standing, which meant that the back of the figures could be left plain.
As the price came down, the market widened to include lower-middle-class households and the aspiring working class. Duckworth writes: “Income levels and home-centredness all point to the lower middle class as the most significant purchasers of Staffordshire pottery figures. As many of the purchasers of such figures would have been churchgoers, this explains the popularity and wide range of religious figures.”
Between 1830 and 1850, the market expanded greatly. It is estimated that 5000 different figures were produced in these decades, catering for all tastes. Thus, the arrival of Irish Roman Catholic immigrants was greeted with holy-water stoups and crucifixions (and also anti-Catholic figures such as “Protestantism” and the burning of Bishops Latimer and Ridley).
Victorian Staffordshire Pottery Religious Figures: Stories on the Mantelpiece by Stephen Duckworth is published by ACC Art Books, £30 (CT Bookshop £27).