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Those Charming Staffordshire Dogs
by Bob Brooke

 

Staffordshire dogs have become one of the most popular pieces of collectible ceramics in recent years. For those interested in Victoriana, nothing quite exemplifies it as these spaniels, originally created to be displayed on fireplace mantels during the Victorian Era from the 1840s through the 1890s.

Origins
Staffordshire pottery dogs come from the many pottery companies located in the County of Staffordshire, England, which produced them to sell to working class families to decorate their homes. While they produced dog figures from 1720 to1900, the peak of interest and, therefore, production came towards the end of the 19th century. Staffordshire spaniels are the most common and come in many sizes, shapes, and color schemes.

The Staffordshire area, including Stoke-on-Trent, also known as "the Potteries," has an abundance of local clay and coal. Local folk artists used these resources to produce many charming unsophisticated figurines to sell to the working class. Aside from dogs there were depictions of other animals, royalty, famous persons, cottages, commoners, politicians, and even murderers! Made to decorate fireplace mantels, most had unfinished backs.

Also called "pot dogs" or "china dogs," these were ceramic figures. Liquid clay called "slip" was poured into molds to make them. When the clay figure had dried, potters fired it to a hard "bisque" state. They then covered the bisque figure with several coats of clear glaze then fired it again, this time to a higher temperature. It was after this second firing that they hand-painted them with china paint. This paint, being translucent, had to be applied in several coats, with firings between each coat. Finally, they applied real gold in a liquid suspension, with firings between several coats.

Staffordshire spaniels are the quintessential Victorian decoration. Of all the figures the potters created, sets of whimsical spaniels became the favorite, and came to epitomize Staffordshire ceramics. Why do these quaint dogs evoke the charm of the Victorian era so well? Perhaps, itís because they offer collectors a direct connection to Queen Victoria.

The Inspiration

What dog inspired the figurines? Staffordshire potters modeled their figures after dogs known as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, named for King Charles II of England who was constantly surrounded by these merry little dogs and gave them free run at court. His opponents accused the King of "Playing with his dogs all the while, and not minding his business." Lord Rochester made this poetic observation, "His very dog at Council Board, sits grave and wise as any Lord."

Charles's brother and successor, James II, also loved the little spaniels. When forced to abandon ship, he ordered "Save the dogs!" and after a moment of reflection added, "and Colonel Churchill."

Colonel Churchill later became the Duke of Marlborough, as well as a breeder of the little spaniels. Churchill developed the strain of Cavalier Spaniels that are white with chestnut patches called the Blenheim. Blenheims sometimes have a much coveted chestnut spot on the top of their heads. While Churchill was in Europe fighting the Battle of Blenheim, his wife was at home nervously waiting to hear the outcome. She found comfort by holding one of their spaniels that was soon to have puppies. As she stroked the dog, her thumb was frequently pressed on it's head. Her dog had five pups, each with a spot resembling a red thumb print on the top of its head. The mark became known as the Blenheim spot. Churchill won the battle of Blenheim and was rewarded with a great house called Blenheim Palace.

It was Queen Victoria that brought the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to prominence. And it was her love for her own spaniels that attracted the attention of Staffordshire potters in the mid-19th century. Her beloved companion "Dash" became famous and the subject of many artists. On the day of her coronation, she hurried back to Buckingham Palace to perform an important duty. She gathered her skirts and ran up to her room to give Dash his bath.

While many collectors think the potteries only produced spaniels, they, in fact, produced other types of dogs, among them Dalmatians, the rarest of all. Some potters mounted their Dalmatian figures on blue bases. They also produced detailed poodles, as well as pugs, pointers, foxhounds, sheepdogs, staghounds, setters, harriers and greyhounds. Staffordshire dogs appear most commonly in left/right pairs, but sometimes potters included a center figure. Over time the detailing changed and Victorian potters in Staffordshire engaged in less detailed modeling of their figures.

Buying Staffordshire Dogs

When purchasing Staffordshire dogs, collectors must first learn the variations and what clue this may suggest about their age. Two similar dogs can look quite different when side by side. Unfortunately, collectors may not be able to look at them side by side. Itís important to study these dogs in guides such as The Collector's Guide to Staffordshire Pottery Figures, which shows such a side by side comparison.

Staffordshire dogs dropped out of favor with collectors until the 1920s and 1930s, when reproductions filled the market. As in Victorian days, collectors displayed them on fireplace mantels. Even at that time, prices were high. By the 1940s, collectors had lost interest and prices plummeted. The dogs once again caught the attention of collectors in the 1980s and prices skyrocketed. Today, prices can be as low as $350 for a pair of late 19th century spaniel figurines. However, rarer ones, like Dalmatians, even when damaged or with known restorations, can sell for several thousand dollars.

Since the early 19th century pieces are the most expensive, itís important for collectors to recognize them when they can be authenticated. Itís very important to become familiar with the almost naive painting appearance, as well as the feel of the dogs. Since artists painted hundreds of these figures by hand, no two of the early ones look alike. Also, part of the charm of the early pieces may also be because children, who did some of the painting, were among the factory workers.

Determining Authenticity
To know if a piece is authentic or not, a collector should know that the interior surface was smooth. Later figures, produced by the slip-casting technique, have slight indentations. Collectors should also examine the vent or firing holes. Current reproductions can have holes as large as a quarter. Early, authentic figures have no holes. Since early molds still exist, itís easy to reproduce the figures.

Staffordshire potters never marked their figures. Other English factories that did similar figures, such as Bow and Derby, did mark their hand-molded pieces.

While most collectors may have one pair of Staffordshire dogs, itís only when packed together does their beauty and their subtle differences become apparent. A "pack" of Staffordshire dogs can form the theme for a special room in a collectorís house. Of course, to do this most collectors will either have to rob a bank or win the lottery.

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