Unpaved Roadshow: In search of Staffordshire portrait figures

Here in Rappahannock County, we live in the mother lode of antiquities — where the domestic daily lives of past generations of large plantation owners, mountain farmers and Piedmont villagers still surround us. Old customs and old manners are still very evident in the county, and the romantic evocation of the nation’s childhood is preserved in our old homes and ancient hollows. The narrow, rolling roads that were blazed through the forests are a testament to the county’s agricultural roots, and farm relics still abound.

The Staffordshire figurine “Turkey England France,” dated 1854, was made to commemorate the Anglo-French Alliance. Queen Victoria is flanked by Sultan Abd-ul-Medjid (left) and Napoleon III.
The Staffordshire figurine “Turkey England France,” dated 1854, was made to commemorate the Anglo-French Alliance. Queen Victoria is flanked by Sultan Abd-ul-Medjid (left) and Napoleon III.

There are many reasons why people collect antiques. Some do because they are fascinated by the historical context of the item. Others admire the artistry of the turn of a table leg or a hooked rug, or the human ingenuity involved in creating pre-industrial-age objects using only 10-finger technology. Collecting objects from the past helps us interpret the age in which they were made by understanding the utility of the object or the cultural ideal of beauty at the time.

Everyday household items reflect the early economic and sociological flux of Rappahannock County and of the country. It’s interesting to delve a bit into the what and why of the old things that surround us — a colorful vase that a favorite aunt left, an old bottle found under a floorboard during renovations, a hand-wrought eel gig, an old farm implement, yellow ware bowls, colorful tins that once held everything from soup to opium, burnished furniture that shows the hand of man.

An antique dealer for most of my adult life, I am drawn to old things and old places. I like to imagine the people who lived on my mountain a century ago and how they lived. They loved, lost and raised their families within the quotidian realities of the age, when our county was the frontier to the untamed wilderness.

Just as certain smells can flood us with memories, antiques can provide a powerful connection to our own personal histories. A familiar object spotted at an antiques shop can be an emotional bridge with our past, a childhood moment or a loved one. Enthusiasm for the future and technological and social advances cause many to look back at what was felt to be a simpler time.

Many collectors’ fascination with the things of the past reflects a profound desire to connect to a time when life was more predictable and certain. True collectors don’t buy to resell. They buy for that enduring connection to the past, a sense of history, the thrill of the hunt or for furnishing a home.

My penchant for collecting Staffordshire portrait figures (1837-1901) stems from all of the above. They are decorative and have a wonderful, naïve charm. They were the Victorian version of People Magazine — made to provide the “news of the day” to everyman. Many a politico, murderer, actress, soldier and historic event of the time were portrayed, and the figures had a broad appeal across the social classes.

Victorian portrait figures are generally titled, but some are not. The quality of the workmanship varies tremendously, some having been quite primitively rendered — making some of the characters impossible to recognize, likely the result of basing the portrait on a bad engraving in a periodical of the day. Yet all are historically interesting and, amassed, make up a visually pleasing and thought-provoking collection.

This Staffordshire figure, dated 1842, is of Lady Florentia Sale, who was married to the British Col. Sir Robert Sale, who commanded the advanced brigade during the first Afghan campaign. She was taken captive during the British retreat and later rescued.
This Staffordshire figure, dated 1842, is of Lady Florentia Sale, who was married to the British Col. Sir Robert Sale, who commanded the advanced brigade during the first Afghan campaign. She was taken captive during the British retreat and later rescued.

Before 1840, most figurines were made to imitate porcelain and were finely worked. Starting in 1842, the “flat-back” design made them easier to reproduce in earthenware. The Crimean War (1854-1856) was the heyday of this form. There was intense popular interest in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and the allied leaders and their war commanders, and a profusion of figures was made in the new style.

One of the chief attractions in collecting Staffordshire figures is the great number of variations in a type. Each potter created his own version of a well-known contemporary subject — a famous battle, a performer, a literary character or a royal personage — hence the profusion of similar subjects that look extremely different from one another. Some collectors specialize in certain themes, such as Little Red Riding Hood, a popular subject. Others may collect circus figures, politicians, sporting figures or any of the hundreds of variations available.

By the start of the 1880s, the art was beginning to decline, and, finally, with the death of Queen Victoria, fewer figures were made. Although a few figures were made to commemorate World War I, they were made in a different, more sophisticated style, and lost their rustic charm.

For me, the fun is in buying whatever strikes my fancy, and, since the figures are ubiquitous, I am almost always able to find company for the other figures in my collection.

Hunting, buying and learning about antiques is like an addiction — but in a good way. Even if you are a casual collector or just have an item or two that you love, it’s a delight to feature a special “find” in your home. If you have a collection of antiques, especially any from the early Piedmont — old bottles, stoneware crocks, wrought-iron implements, painted primitive furniture or anything else of interest — and would like to feature it in an upcoming column, please contact me.

Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.

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Michelle Galler
About Michelle Galler 24 Articles
Michelle Galler has been an antique dealer and consultant for more than 25 years. Her business, Antiques, Whimsies & Curiosities, is based in Washington, Va. If you have questions or finds, email her at antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com.