Crime figures, criminals, their accomplices and victims are limited when it comes to collecting Staffordshire figures, in which I include both pre-Victorian and Victorian examples. In recent times, this collecting genre has become increasingly desirable and difficult to locate and secure for one’s personal collection.
I could name a few pre-Victorian examples for those that are unfamiliar with what has been discovered so far. The ‘Red Barn’ figures associated with the murder by William Corder, his victim, Maria Marten. The ‘Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat’ by Charlotte Corday. We also have ‘Jack Sheppard’ who inspired that 20th century hit song Mack the Knife.
As for Victorian examples, we have a few more. ‘William Palmer’ the Rugeley poisoner and his ‘House’. ‘James B Rush’ who was tried mainly on the evidence of ‘Emily Sandford’. ‘Frederick Manning’ and his wife ‘Maria Manning’ for the murder of Patrick O’Conner. Then there are the criminals, ‘William Smith O’Brien’ and its pair, his devoted wife Lucy, ‘Mrs O’Brien’. We also have ‘John Brown’ the insurrectionist, and also the Decembrist Colonel Paul ‘Pestel’. Not forgetting a multitude of ‘Robin Hood’, ‘Tom King’ and ‘Dick Turpin’ figures, and of course the hotly debated ‘Smith and Collier’ groups! There are probably some others I have missed out, for which I apologise.
Most command high prices these days and are highly collectable by those among us with a taste for intrigue and the macabre! Few, if any new examples have come to light in the last fifty years with a positive attribution. It would appear they have all been found; to add another to the exclusive list above would be classed as a remarkable discovery, especially in the 21st century, one that I hope would be scrutinised rigorously by those serious Staffordshire figure scholars and collectors among us.
So, on this note I am going to stick my neck out and dare to put forward an old contender with a newly found attribution, one that I believe reveals indisputable and fresh evidence, new discovery material that, I hope, will add one more figure for the crime figure collectors to look out for. This attribution is based on evidence recently gathered and brought together by myself, parts of a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which have been discovered by several individuals over many years and finally pieced together by curiosity, the determination to know, a little bit of luck, plenty of serendipity, and most importantly, a lifelong love of Staffordshire figure collecting!Figure 1 – A rare subject
For those not familiar with it, figure 1 has long been the object of many discerning collector’s curiosity. An innocent young boy is seated on what looks to be a market crate. He is wearing a smart outfit, bowler type hat, shirt, necktie, waistcoat, jacket and trousers. On his lap he is cradling a caged rodent, is it a rat or is it a mouse? The mammal is curiously and very finely painted behind the bars of a cage, detailed meticulously by a skilful decorator, the likes of which I cannot recall seeing painted so well on any other Staffordshire figure. The potters have gone to great lengths and care to emphasise the importance of the caged animal by detailing it so; this leaves us in no doubt about its significance in the story they are trying to portray.
Some may doubt my dating of this well coloured and unsigned example, which I place to the early 1830’s. Please bear with me and read my findings before dismissing this at the first hurdle. One might associate the quality of this piece with the Lloyds of Shelton or more probably an early Dudson figure, perhaps?
But how could this sweet little innocent boy possibly fall into the ‘macabre’ category, I hear you ask?
I have seen four or five examples of this figure over the last 35 years. One appeared in Antique Collecting magazine, October 1989 edition, written by Delia Napier. The article focused mainly on John & Rebecca Lloyd of Shelton figures. The only other published illustration I have managed to find can be found in the book A Potted History (Henry Willett’s Ceramic Chronicle of Britain) by Stella Beddoe, page 311 and figure 1620. The figure is part of the wonderful Willett Collection on show at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery here in the U.K. The collection was formed in the latter part of the 19th century, a must-see museum display for any serious lover of English pottery. Stella also dates this figure to c1830 and gives the illustration in her book the title ‘Italian?’ a name I assume which has been handed down with the figure since it was first acquired and added to the collection pre-c1900.
No further details or explanation of the piece to my knowledge exists. It would be nice to think that at the time of its purchase by Mr Willet, he knew a little bit about who the chap was, for that name and date to have been added to the inventory and subsequently handed down. The intervening years appear to have eroded whatever other knowledge was known of it from the public domain. Nevertheless, this first clue is very intriguing and a good start, all that is required to fan the flames of my curiosity into finding out the identity of this beautiful little figure.So, what is an ‘Italian Boy’ and what is the significance of his apparent innocence and his caged animal?
Italian immigrants have been travelling to parts of Great Britain and London for hundreds of years. One of the latest waves at the time this figure was manufactured, I am led to believe, came as a result of the hardships brought on after the Napoleonic Wars. Many ‘Italian Boys’ would do well earning a living on the streets because of their good looks and innocent faces, performing several entertaining pursuits as itinerant musicians, some with exotic animals such as monkeys doing tricks, displaying tortoises, and exhibiting trained mice. Others would be image sellers, touting plaster of Paris figures of popular celebrities and politicians aloft on trays as seen in illustration 1. Some may even have sold our very own Staffordshire figures that we collect today!
Illustration 1 – Could this be Staffordshire for sale?