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.