Many pottery companies have made and still make ceramic figurines. Royal Doulton are famous for their figurines because of the vast number of subjects they have produced, the high quality of their work and the relatively large numbers they have produced of many of their items.
John Doulton originally manufactured ceramic items such as inkwells and ginger beer bottles for everyday use, but the company expanded rapidly after it began producing drainage pipes that were sold around the world. John’s son joined the company in 1835, and in 1867 the factory employed a young sculptor called George Tinworth to establish an art pottery studio at Doulton’s Lambeth factory.
This was such a successful venture that by the mid-1880s they employed over 300 people producing vases, figures and other ornaments for the Victorian household. Most of these items were made with a salt glaze finish, which entailed covering the ceramic items with salt whilst in the kiln. When heated, the salt melted and left a shiny and waterproof finish.
Tinworth produced a range of figures, usually chubby children and animals in human situations. They ranged in size from several centimetres to over 2m (80cm) in height; The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has just recently acquired two of these life-size figurines.
Tinworth was later joined by Mark Marshall, Leslie Harradine and Charles Noke, and although each of these sculptors produced figurines none were manufactured in large numbers. (Later, when the ‘slip’ process was used, figures could be produced in greater amounts.) These earlier figures lacked the colour of today’s figurines, and were much larger. They had an ivory tone, stood about 50cm (20in) in height and are generally known as vellum figures. Their limited production runs means they are very scarce and expensive today.
The entrepreneurial Charles Noke was convinced there was a market for the revival of 18th century Staffordshire figures, and by 1913, when King George and Queen Mary visited the factory, Noke had a range of figures about to be released for sale. Queen Mary was very impressed with one figure of a child in a nightdress, modelled by Charles Vyse. She commented, ‘What a little darling’, and the figure was subsequently named Darling and given the number HN1 (the HN was in honour of Harry Nixon, the senior painter at the time).
This numbering system is still used today; Doulton are now up to the 4000s, although not all the numbers have been used. There have probably been over 3000 different figures produced since 1913. Between 1913 and 1917, forty-seven separate subjects were produced, and a total of 680 figures had been sold - or about three per week. The most popular was Darling, of which 148 copies had been produced. The wholesale export price of most of these figures was around £2 or £3 each.
Since the early days, Doulton has covered a wide range of subjects for its figurines. Basically, they can be split into several main groups.
Pretty Ladies: Ladies in long, flowing dresses and ornate outfits, painted in a rainbow of colours.
Character Studies: Figures depicting men, women and children engaged in a range of everyday activities. The Old Balloon Seller - an old lady sitting whilst selling her colorful balloons - is probably the best known of these. Numbered HN1315, it was produced in large numbers between 1928 and 1998.
Historic Figures: This range covers kings and queens, generals, admirals, inventors, statesmen and religious figures.
Literature: A wide range of characters from well known novels and mythology. For instance, a popular series at the moment are the figures from the Lord of the Rings books.
Several figurines have represented Australia. From 1918 to 1938, The Australian Digger (HN322) was produced - a World War I soldier in his uniform. It is thought that one of the Shorter family modelled for this figure, as the Shorters imported Doulton into Australia for many years. There is also a New Zealand digger and an English soldier, each of which sells for around $4000 today.
During 1988, Australia’s Bicentenary year, Doulton also issued a Top o’ the Hill figurine in a commemorative colourway of yellow/gold.
Buying Royal Doulton figurines
As previously mentioned, many of the early figures were made in very small numbers, in some cases only one or two and in other cases less than one hundred. Scarcity, not age, is the main factor that influences prices of collectables. For example, The Old Balloon Seller, which has been produced for over seventy years now, sells for $450. Darling HN1, which was made for 15 years, sells for around $4000.
With figures that have been in production over a long period, it is possible to identify earlier versions by the back stamp. All Doulton figures have a back stamp on the base to indicate the maker’s name, trade mark, name and number of the figure. These stamps have changed over time, and by comparing them to lists found in most books on Doulton it is possible to narrow down the figure’s age. Some figures even have the date of manufacture impressed into the base. In most cases the earlier figures are better painted, perhaps because the painters were allotted more time per item.
Figures that did not sell well were withdrawn from manufacture after several years, and this scarcity may increase today’s prices. However, in some cases the unattractiveness of the figure was the initial cause of slow sales, and this may mean that such figures are still hard to sell today, even though their scarcity means high prices. Charley’s Aunt HN35 is an example of this.
Charley’s Aunt was a popular play in the early part of the 1900s. The figure depicts the male W.S. Penley dressed as Charley’s Aunt, in a long black dress. It has a book value of $1500 but is very hard to sell, even with its age and scarcity.
The opposite occurs with the Art Deco figures produced in the 1920s and ‘30s. These figures were made in reasonable quantities, but because of their brilliant colours and attractive poses they now bring prices of around $10,000, and are not hard to sell.
Limited Edition figures
In the 1930s, Doulton began making some items in limited editions. The idea met with limited success and was subsequently shelved for thirty years. Both the early and today’s limited edition items have a good history of increasing in value over time. However, the issue price reflects the extra work that goes into making them.
Prestige pieces are large and intricate figurines, usually made to order and taking up to twelve months to produce. Two of these are the Matador and the Bull (HN2324) and Princess Badoura (HN2081). Royal Doulton has a recommended retail price on these of $45,000 each, a high price that makes reselling very hard.
Doulton produces several ranges of figures to which a new figure is added each year. This includes the Figure of The Year and Michael Doulton ranges. Usually they are only sold for twelve months.
As new collectors are attracted to the range, the early figures rise in price. One cautionary note: sometimes factory seconds appear on the market. Although they look perfect, there may be some sort of imperfection in the figure, or Doulton has had trouble selling the deisgn and slashed the price. Not wanting to upset people who have already bought the figure, they mark it as a second. Such seconds can be identified by looking at the back stamp; if it is drilled out or has been scratched out, it is a second. These are harder to resell than perfect items.
Because of the wide variety of subjects, colour, attractiveness and good availability, Royal Doulton figures have a worldwide market. There is a figure for everyone at a price everyone can afford, because while some figures sell for thousands of dollars, many are priced at less than $500. A reasonable price for ‘Poetry in Pottery’.