In Pursuit of the Perfect Figure

Contributed by Tim Clark

A Staffordshire figurine of Lord Raglan (1788-1855)

This earthenware figure tells several stories. It tells of a general at the peak of his career as commander-in-chief of allied forces fighting against Russia in the Crimean war of 1854. It tells of the humble potters who made commemorative figures like this for slave wages in appalling conditions in the industrialised villages around Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, England. And it tells of a university student, me, 50 years ago scouring the antique shops of northern England in search of treasure.

The equestrian figure of Lord Raglan is my proudest purchase. It is, to this day, the most valuable piece in my entire collection. More valuable than any figure I bought later from Sotheby’s and Christies. Yet surprisingly, at a mere £16, it is my cheapest purchase. Not discovered from the back of a junk shop where I would usually hunt for bargains as a poor student, but from a very up-market antiques emporium, which I entered little thinking there would be anything inside that I could afford, let alone prize. My hand trembled as I wrote the cheque and I hurried out of the shop clutching my trophy before anyone could realize their mistake.

Lord Raglan (1788-1855) was a war hero who served under Wellington in the Peninsular wars and lost his ‘sword arm’ at the battle of Waterloo in 1815. He had spent most of his career fighting the French and found it difficult to adjust to having the French as allies under his command, along with Turkish and Sardinian troops in the Crimean War. In fact, as a slip of the tongue, he often referred to the enemy, the Russians, as the French.

Celebrities and heroes of the Victorian era, whether from the military, royalty, clergy, and theatrical, political or even criminal fraternity, were commemorated in clay to adorn the mantle-pieces of ordinary folk. They were called ‘flatbacks’ because they were displayed with their backs to the wall so there was no point in wasting expense by decorating their rears. They originally fetched only a few pennies, yet they became a quintessentially English tribal art form and are now highly collectible by anyone interested in English ceramics or 19th century history.

But what makes this piece a perfect figure? Firstly, it has no restoration, in itself an achievement for anything so fragile that is 166 years old. It is very well defined, which means that it would have been one of the earliest to leave its three-piece plaster mould. Look at the fine facial features and the crisp details on his epaulets. And he is generously endowed with underglaze blue as well as meticulously applied enamels. I know of the existence of other versions of this figure that are scantily decorated, but I believe that mine is a uniquely fine specimen.

One detail worth mentioning is the use of underglaze blue, which would have added to the expense of a figure, not just because of the cost of the cobalt material but also because it required an extra (4th) firing in the bottle kiln. Historically, this was an inaccurate representation because British officers almost always wore red. But at the time the use of blue would have been generally understood to be honorific rather than realistic.

The biggest exhibition of Staffordshire figures that I know of is on the top floor of the V&A Museum in London, though they are poorly displayed in overcrowded cabinets. Another collection worth seeing is in the museum next to the Brighton Pavilion. There is also a sparse but fine collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.