During the 18th century, when millions of Britons left the countryside to seek work in larger towns and cities, enterprising potters in the English county of Staffordshire started creating a range of animal figures that evoked the charm of country life. In addition to barnyard animals, the creatures replicated in pottery included King Charles spaniels, the affectionate, luxuriantly coated toy dogs long associated with British royalty, in particular King Charles II (1630–1685), who was known as “the Cavalier King.”
It is said that everywhere Charles II went, he took at least three of his pet spaniels with him. They had free reign of Whitehall Palace, including the monarch’s bedchamber. His preference for his dogs’ companionship over matters of state drew some criticism. Diarist Samuel Pepys observed that the king even frittered away time playing with his beloved dogs during important government meetings.
In an entry dated September 1, 1666, Pepys described a council meeting thusly: “All I observed there was the silliness of the King, playing with his dog all the while and not minding the business.” The king’s fondness for his wee spaniels was also dramatized in the 1995 film Restoration, starring Robert Downey Jr., in which the palace physician is summoned to the king’s bedside to attend to an urgent medical matter, only to find that the patient is one of the monarch’s cosseted dogs.
Fueled by regal approval and the breed’s charming nature, pottery King Charles spaniels rose in popularity across Great Britain. Most came from potteries in England’s Midlands, an area blessed with abundant clay and water from several rivers. So prolific were those ateliers, and so winsome their depictions of the pets, that all of these pottery dogs became known as Staffordshire spaniels.
The earliest examples were fashioned from glassy salt-glazed earthenware or stoneware and were usually rather plain in color, shape and style. By contrast, those produced by the Brampton potteries of Derbyshire were far more artistic. Brampton artisans tended to create highly detailed, wistful-looking spaniels seated upon decorative paw-foot plinths adorned with images of sheep and floral cornucopias.
As pottery techniques evolved, salt-glazed spaniels were replaced by fine, thin, glassier creamware, bluish-white pearlware, and underglaze-painted Prattware spaniels with more colorful decoration. The pottery dogs became even more popular when Queen Victoria, whose dearest childhood companion had been a King Charles spaniel named “Dash,” ascended to the British throne.
Pairs of these canine status symbols “guarded” Victorian working-class homes. Some sat. Others stood. Still others, such as a particularly convincing 19th-century pearlware model, lounged upon textured pottery bases. Although most Staffordshire spaniels feature legs molded to their bodies, the more collectible ones boast distinctly formed front legs. Less costly, mass-produced flatback spaniels, such as the sponge-decorated pair traditionally known as “Grace and Majesty,” were designed to sit flush against mantelpiece walls.
Because each Staffordshire spaniel was individually hand-painted, none are exactly alike. Black spaniels might be as black as night or feature shimmering gold highlights and gilt-painted collars as well as gleaming red or yellow glass eyes.
On the other hand, white spaniels might be pale as snow, the purity of their coats interrupted only by their dark, expressive noses. Scores of Staffordshire spaniels displayed dark tails, ears and snouts; all-over scatters of delicate dotting; or random russet, black, green, or copper-colored patches. Some, possibly reflecting breeds popular in the day, boasted realistic-looking tan, brown or reddish legs and flanks. Others were depicted carrying cheery baskets of flowers in their mouths or sporting fashionable Disraeli-style kiss curls across their foreheads.
In addition to smaller spaniel figurines, Staffordshire potteries also produced a variety of large, sturdy, so-called “begging” spaniels topped by jaunty tricorn hats. Many of these creatures served as functional jugs, pitchers or storage jars. Others served as spill vases, holding slim wax tapers used to transfer fireside flame to lamps and candles.
While the majority of Staffordshire spaniels were produced during the Victorian era, accurately dating them is not always possible because identical molds were used, reused and shared among different potteries over many decades. Although it might not be possible to pinpoint their age or provenance, all Staffordshire spaniels stand for British tradition and recall a time when dogs were “king’s best friend.”