Tuesday, 14 June 2005

Collecting Staffordshire figures and war medals for valour

figure groups low res
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by Christopher Proudlove©

Since this column is mostly about old things, I thought it only right that it should tip its hat to things worth seeking out and collecting that are 150 years old. The list is endless and the more we looked, the more we found. So we thought we'd better be specific.

Arguably one of the most important events of the period in question was the war in the Crimea, culminating in the battle and seige of Sebastopol.

By way of a quick history lessons, after the British victory at Alma, the British and French forces advanced on the Russian naval fortress at Sebastopol which was laid seige.

Bombardment of its defences began on October 17 1854 under the direction of the allied commanders General Lord Raglan and General Francois Canrobert, while a British naval squadron under the command of Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons bombarded the city from the sea.

The Russians attempted to break out by attacking the British at Balaclava on October 25 but this failed, as did attacks 11 days later at Inkermann and on August 16 1855 at the Chernaya River.

Lacking sufficient force, several allied attempts to storm Sebastopol failed in the spring of 1855, but on September 8, the French commanded by General Aimable Pelissier took part of the southern end the city.

The British, meanwhile, under their new commander General Simpson took the Redan, only to lose it again, but on September 11, the Russians abandoned the city after blowing up the defences and scuttling their ships in the harbour.

The seige ended and Czar Alexander II signed peace terms at the Congress of Paris on March 30 1856.

They were tumultuous times, reported in graphic detail in all the UK newspapers who, in fact, had been dealing with a kind of siege of their own: an iniquitous Stamp Tax, first imposed in 1712.

In 1815, the Tory government of Lord Liverpool increased the stamp duty to 4d but unable to stop the rise in the number of unstamped publications, the law lords were forced to remove the duty and the 1d newspaper was born in June 1855.

The 24-hour flow of instant news today creates heroes and villains almost instantly. In 1855, while newspapers played a part in speeding up the process, immortality took a little longer to achieve.

This is where the manufacturers of Victorian Staffordshire pottery figures stepped in.

Often illiterate and working as family groups in the backstreets of the Staffordshire Potteries, the potters began to churn out cheap but highly colourful decorative figures of the personalities of the moment.

Early figures were small and shaped and decorated all round. By the mid-1850s they had grown much bigger and the back left unmodelled and undecorated, hence the name flatback.

Also known as chimney ornaments, their flat backs allowed them to be placed on the mantelpiece against a chimney breast.

Until relatively recently of little interest to ceramics connoisseurs, Staffordshire flatbacks are now big business and specialist dealers sell nothing else.

Many of the early figures are anonymous but later examples can be identified by comparing the features with the likenesses of named individuals in the pages of such publications as The Illustrated London News, on sheet music and playbills, and in the popular "Penny Plain, Tuppence Coloured" prints, clearly the source of inspiration for their makers.

Interestingly, the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 gave a major boost to the Staffordshire figure industry.

Figures from the Royal household, notably Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the first two children, Princess Victoria and the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, being among the most popular, but foreign royalty also featured.

Immortalised in clay

Monarchs who were allies of the Crown, such as Napoleon III of France, his wife Empress Eugenie, the Sultan of Turkey, and the King of Sardinia were also modelled as were statesman and politicians involved at the time.

Florence Nightingale, who brought a semblance of professional nursing care to the dead and dying of the Crimea, was also immortalised in clay as were the likes of Sir Robert Peel, the Irish republican politician Daniel O'Connell, Gladstone and Disraeli, and arguably the hero of the era: the Duke of Wellington.

This list is by no means exhaustive and many more individuals such as sportsmen, criminals, novelists, social reformers and so on are all out there hoping to attract the attention of the well-heeled collector.

Early smaller examples can be had for prices starting around £35-50. Larger examples are more expensive, particularly if their bases are impressed with the name of the character depicted.

This can often be a source of amusement. The unknown potters who made them were often illiterate and their spelling left much to be desired.

They also thought nothing of using the same set of moulds for a number of different models, clearly assuming that no one would notice.

At the time, they were so cheaply produced it didn't matter. It matters even less today because the figures are so quirky and charming that this eccentricity only adds to their desirability.

However, the newcomer should beware the frighteningly large number of fakes on the market. They are so very well-made that they sometimes fall even the seasoned collector.

If in doubt, leave well alone. Alternatively, buy only by only from recognised dealers who are prepared to give you a written guarantee that what you're buying is authentic. No guarantee -- no sale.

Expect to pay upwards of £200 for a good example of a famous named individual.

Panel The Crimean War also produced a unique group of collectors' items, notably the military medals awarded for service during the 12-month campaign - a conflict marked by muddled incompetence, the Light Brigade attacking the wrong guns to name but one famous catastrophe.

A recent London sale included a section devoted to the medals awarded in the conflict including an Inkermann Distinguished Conduct Medal to a Private Sam Vickery of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.

Interestingly, Vickery was later appointed orderly to Florence Nightingale at Castle Hospital, Balaklava and Scutari.

Vickery' also saw service at Alma, Balaclava and Sebastopol - as the clasps on his Crimea Medal attested. The group was estimated at £6,000-8,000.

A group of four to a John Stewart of the 71st Foot comprised a Crimea medal with a Sebastopol clasp, an Indian Mutiny medal with a Central India clasp, a long service and good conduct medal and the Turkish Crimea Sardinian issue medal which were together estimated at £500-600.

A pair to William Lute, 1st Battalion Royals, included a Crimea medal with clasps for Alma, Balaclava and Sebastopol, together with the Turkish Crimea medal which was estimated a £200-300, while the going rate for a single Crimea medal with Sebastopol clasp to a named recipient was £120-150, or £60-80 to an anonymous recipient.

However, the real prize of the sale was a Victoria Cross dating from the First World War which was estimated at £70,000-90,000.

Like all VCs - even those made today - it was made from the bronze cannon captured by the British forces from the Russians at the siege of Sebastopol.

This country's highest award for gallantry is also the ultimate collectable for the lover of militaria.

Pictures show, top: On parade: Staffordshire potters immortalised military heroes almost at random. Some are recognisable, others named and some identified only by their style of uniforms

Below, left to right: The Victoria Cross made from the bronze canon captured from the Russians at Sebastopol. The group was in a recent London sale estimated at £70,000-90,000

A charming named figure of Crimea heroine Florence Nightingale. Ironically, the self same moulds were used for other unnamed figures

Private Vickery's Crimea Distinguished Conduct Medal group, worth £6,000-8,000. Notice the clasps on the central Crimea Medal for Alma, Balaclava, Inkermann and Sebastopol

VCMiss Nightingale low resCrimea DCM group low res

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