Starting in earnest in the 18th century, millions of people left the British countryside to work in bustling towns and cities where there was more opportunity for them. Reflective of the times, enterprising potters in England’s Midlands region started adding functional animal-themed pieces to their existing range of decorative figures as an homage to the pastoral life. Since most of the small pottery works producing these items were located in Staffordshire – a region of rivers where clay was abundant – the wares from all of the studios became known collectively as “Staffordshire/”
Initially, these humble pieces were made of salt-glazed earthenware or stoneware. However, they eventually evolved into finer, thinner, glassy creamware, bluish-white pearlware, and underglaze-painted Prattware. Today, these delightful, functional items are collectible art.
Among British well-to-do, plump, white-glazed Staffordshire dairy cows, featuring hollow bellies, moo-mouth spouts, and curly-tailed handles, served as appealing creamers. Some, grazing on grassy-green bases, featured realistic spots and splotches characteristic of breeds common at the time. Others featured lighthearted freeform designs, dotting, sponging, or all-over Whielden-style spattering.
Before the advent of lucifer friction matches, cow, horse, bull, donkey, hound, and wooly sheep images graced ornate Staffordshire porcelain spill vases. These functional hearthside items, bearing tall, hollow vessels on raised bocage bases, were filled with spills—slender wax tapers used to conveniently transfer fireplace flame to grease lamps, candles, pipes, or cigars. Since traveling menageries also captivated crowds, spill vases sometimes bore images of exotic parrots, giraffes, elephants, leopards, and zebras.
Bold, naturalistic broody hen, guinea hen, rabbit, pheasant, dove, and duck figurines sat pretty or nested atop broad, deep soup tureens—apparently alluding to their enticing contents. Rarer elephant, leopard, and tiger-themed tureen tops, however, evidently celebrated memorable menagerie moments instead,
Flamboyant red roosters, molded into trendy 18th-century mustard jars, may have been prestigious in their day. “But happening on an identical pair in original condition, without repairs, was amazing,” explains Jason Woody, Operating Manager and Auctioneer at Woody Auction LLC. “When you think about the amount of time that has passed since they were created, and the fine detail these jars exhibit [including full combs and impossibly fragile “chicken-foot spoons”], these were truly extraordinary finds.”
Though all sorts of Staffordshire cat figurines were popular through the 1700s, few, if any, were functional in nature. During the Victorian Era, widely adored King Charles spaniel porcelain sculptures, associated with both King Charles I (1600–1649) and Queen Victoria’s beloved dog Dash, were also purely decorative.
Yet at the time, Staffordshire potteries also produced a range of tall, large, hollow, expressive “begging” spaniels, topped by incongruously cheery, flowered crowns. These sturdy, functional vessels served as milk or water pitchers and jugs. Though scores appeared life-like, others, more elegant, were gilt and white-glazed or treacle-glazed, referencing the dark, thick British syrup that resembles molasses.
Many Victorians found hunting hounds, like pointers, pugs, and poodles (bred to hunt bears), endearing. Yet after Prince Albert famously acquired a greyhound named Eos, sculptures of these sleek, fleet hare hunters, singly or in pairs, graced innumerable trinket boxes. Others, along with whippets, foxes, nesting birds, perching parrots, and swans, were fashioned into decorative, highly popular ink pots.
According to recognized authority on 18th- and 19th-century British pottery, John Howard, The Antique English Pottery Specialist at https://www.antiquepottery.co.uk, “Early 19th-century Staffordshire potters also created remarkable, quirky pearlware pipes in the form of coiled snakes. In addition to delicate enamel dot and stripe embellishments, they featured tiny human-head pipe-bowls. Vivid, zoomorphic pearlware porcelain sauce boats, with spouts shaped like bird heads and snake-like handles, date from the same era.”
Though these Staffordshire animal-themed, functional charmers fell from fashion by the end of the 19th century, they offer fascinating glimpses of long gone British values, mores, and ways of life.