Thursday, 20 April 2006

Pictures from an exhibition - George Stubbs works reunited

Stubbs - Self-portrait on a White Hunter

by Christopher Proudlove©
The exhibition marking the bicentenary of the death of George Stubbs - which opened at Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery earlier this month, prior to a spell at Tate Britain and subsequently at the Frick Collection - has been eagerly anticipated. Rarely does the public get to see paintings by the great artist from normally closed private collections, but cooperation between the Lady Lever Art Gallery and Tate Britain has reunited four unique works for the first time since Stubbs painted them in the 1770s.

Interestingly, however, they are not paintings in the accepted sense. Stubbs’ reputation as a painter of animals in general and horses in particular is unassailable. What is less well known is that in the 1770s, Stubbs began a series of experiments to perfect a technique of painting on pottery.

The catalyst was his friendship with Josiah Wedgwood, who had revolutionised the pottery manufacturing process at his Etruria works in the Staffordshire Potteries. Wedgwood invited Stubbs to stay with his family at Etruria in 1780 and together they worked on making large pottery plaques on which the process could be attempted.

In the first instance, Stubbs painted a number of wooden plaques as models for his pottery versions and he and Wedgwood subsequently worked to repeat the process using a ceramic “canvas” and enamels rather than oil-based paint. When the pot was fired, the enamel vitrified in the heat, much like a glaze, but with far more delicate and subtle results.

The work was successful, as could be seen in a self-portrait in enamels on an oval Wedgwood plaque that Stubbs painted in 1781, the same year that he was elected to membership of the Royal Academy. Regarded then as merely a sporting painter, Stubbs was looked down upon by the art establishment anyway and at a time when even watercolour paintings were regarded as somehow second class art, his fellow Academicians were not impressed.

To see how wrong they were, I recommend you visit the Walker exhibition. There, together again for the first time since they were painted are two of the Wedgwood earthenware plaques, on loan from the Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, alongside the versions painted on wood, now in the Tate Britain collection. The plaques show haymakers at work and it is fascinating to compare the results.

One of five children of a comfortably off Liverpool leather worker, George Stubbs (1724-1806) started painting as a child drawing the animal bones from his father’s business. The boy had little formal art training, perhaps only for a few weeks in 1739, when he was briefly apprenticed to a Lancashire painter and engraver named Hamlet Winstanley. The tutelage ended after Stubbs objected to the amount of copying the was instructed to do, probably more for Winstanley’s benefit than his own.

By 1745 Stubbs had moved to York, and set himself up as a portrait painter. Interestingly, by the time he was 21, he also knew enough about anatomy to be able to instruct medical students studying at the hospital there.
George Stubbs: A Celebration runs at the Walker until July 30. Admission is free. From Liverpool it moves to Tate Britain from August 21 August to January 2007 and thereafter at the Frick Collection, New York, from February to May 2007.
He also won a commission from a Dr. John Burton in 1751 to draw engravings of foetuses to illustrate a book on midwifery, subsequently arranging for a local engraver to teach him how to etch the plates from which the book was printed.

In 1754, he went to Italy to study art and in the Palazzo di Conservatori, he saw an antique Roman statue of a lion clawing at a horse's back. This was almost certainly the inspiration for a series of later pictures of a horse being frightened and subsequently attacked by a lion. One of them, from the Lady Lever, can be seen in the exhibition.

By then, Stubbs was living in London with his common law wife, Mary Spencer. The couple had a son, George Townley Stubbs (1756-1815) who also became an engraver and printmaker.

By now the commissions were rolling in and many of Stubbs' great masterpieces featuring famous racehorses, hunters, their foals and their rich and important owners date from this period. He also produced a series of superb open-air portraits, so-called conversation pieces, of some of his clients and friends, notably the Wedgwood family.

Stubbs’ knowledge of horse anatomy was gained from scientifically dissecting the animals and he even managed to obtain the carcass of a tiger, which he also dissected and studied in detail, making dozens of drawings which were snapped up by veterinary surgeons of the day.

Despite a growing reputation as a scientist, Stubbs executed many commissions for the gentry, either riding to hounds or with their favourite hunter, which helped finance publication of his magnificent 1766 treatise called Anatomy of the Horse. In it, horses are shown with layer after layer of flesh and muscle removed, culminating in the perfectly drafted skeleton.

Stubbs was also commissioned to paint the first kangaroo brought to England, while other wild animals in Stubbs' pictures include a moose, rhinoceros, a baboon with a macaque monkey, a yak, and notable a commission commemorating the gift of a cheetah to George III by the Governor of Madras, Sir George Pigot.

Royal patronage followed, notably from the Prince of Wales, and all 18 paintings by Stubbs still hang at Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace.

However, by now in his 70s and despite his artistic success, Stubbs found himself in financial difficulties. Nevertheless, he embarked on yet another project which he called "A Comparative Anatomical Exposition of the Human Body with that of a Tiger and a Common Fowl" for which he completed 100 drawings and 18 engravings. Stubbs died on July 10,1806, in poor financial circumstances.

Pictures show, top: Self-portrait on a White Hunter. This is one of the enamel paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood pottery plaques in the exhibition
Below, left to right: Haycarting - one of the enamel paintings by Stubbs on Wedgwood pottery plaques in the exhibition
A Cheetah and a Stag, one of the most important works in the exhibition, with its theme of raw animal speed waiting to be unleashed. Copyright Manchester Art Gallery
A Lion and a Lioness. Stubbs had an understanding of the anatomy of such creatures at a time when few people had seen them in the flesh. Copyright Simon C Dickinson Ltd

Stubbs - HaycartingStubbs - A Cheetah and a Stag © Manchester Art GalleryStubbs - A Lion and a Lioness© Simon C Dickinson LTD London

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Friday, 14 April 2006

Royal Doulton Bunnykins figures - the perfect collectable Easter gifts

early bunnykins

by Christopher Proudlove©

Ever eager to keep these columns current, I felt compelled to find something to do with Easter. Inspiration came following a local auction sale in which this trio of pottery Bunnykins figures were offered. In the event, they were knocked down for a staggering total of £2,810. If nothing else, the sale proved there is no upper limit to the prices some hard-bitten collectors are prepared to pay for Royal Doulton rarities.

The bunny rabbit, whose propensity for breeding is legendary, has long served as a fertility symbol for the Spring. Bunnykins figures came from the fertile imagination of a young woman whose father, Cuthbert Bailey, happened to be the managing director of Royal Doulton. As a child, Barbara Vernon Bailey had filled sketchbooks with drawings of the countryside, and of the animals kept by her four brothers and two sisters including pigs, cows, horses and ferrets, as well as the more cuddly dogs, cats and guinea-pigs. But it was the wild rabbits, brought to life by her father's exciting and sometimes frightening bedtime stories, that really delighted her. When, in 1934, Cuthbert Bailey hit on a new line of children's nurseryware, he turned to Barbara for illustrations rather than a professional artist.

However, by then Barbara had joined the Augustine Order and become Sister Mary Barbara in an enclosed Sussex convent. The prioress was far from happy with the idea. Fortunately, permission was granted, albeit reluctantly and on condition that no profit should be made from the project for either the artist or the convent. It was an unfortunate demand, denying the Order considerable royalties which could have been put to good use.

Nevertheless, in a scene lovingly lampooned in the figurine Sister Mary Barbara Bunnykins, Barbara worked late into the night from the light of a candle, churning out dozens of whimsical sketches drawing on her childhood memories and centred on Mr Rabbit who bore a distinct likeness to her father with his round glasses and puffing a pipe. Barbara's illustrations of rabbits gardening, bathing, dancing and cooking were an instant success and within a year, Doulton's Bunnykins pottery was in nurseries around the world. By the time of the Second World War, there were 66 different Bunnykins scenes decorating plates, cups, sugar bowls, jam pots and other crockery.

Six figures were modelled by Charles Noke

Barbara ceased drawing when her convent teaching duties meant she was too busy to continue and her designs had been withdrawn by1952, but other designers continued in the growing Bunnykins tradition. Doulton's Hubert Light and later Walter Hayward adapted her drawings and then the latter began to create his own busier version of the Bunnykins world. Colin Twinn subsequently designed Bunnykins scenes from 1987 until the mid-1990s and Frank Endersby took over in 1995. Barbara Vernon died in 2003 aged 92.

Bunnykins figurines were added to the traditional tableware in 1939 with six figures being produced for a very brief time. They were modelled by Charles Noke, Doulton's most important artist and are so rare today that only the most serious collector seeks them out. However, in 1972, soon after Doulton took over the Beswick factory, a second generation of nine Bunnykins figurines were produced and for the first 10 years, they reflected Walter Hayward's tableware designs, ranging from Artist Bunnykins to Sleeptime Bunnykins. They were modelled by Albert Hallam. In 1980, Harry Sales, the design manager at Beswick, took over the Bunnykins range and realised the potential of appealing to the adult collector. Suddenly the bunnies were jogging, playing the guitar, blasting off for the moon and in the late 1980s various limited edition colourways and specially commissioned Bunnykins models were produced.

It is the pre-1950s Bunnykins designs, especially those that carry Barbara Vernon's signature, that are in most demand today. Values of many of these early pieces are now in the £50 to £100 bracket, but rarer pieces such as large jugs or teapots can fetch £200 or £300 or more. The vast majority of more recent Bunnykins ware is more affordable and can be picked up at fleamarkets and car boot sales in the £10 to £35 price range. There is an international collectors' club which offers priority notice of new issues to Royal Doulton enthusiasts.
For further reading, the definitive guide to collecting Bunnykins figures is Royal Doulton Collectables (formerly Royal Doulton Bunnykins) by Jean Dale and Louise Irvine, the fourth edition of which was published in January this year. It contains information on 36 new shape/pattern combinations which have been added to the pricing tables and 20 new pattern combinations, several in the "rare" pattern category. The guide is available from all good booksellers.

Pictures show, top:
Auction pricebusters, left to right: Mother Bunnykins, sold for £900; Reggie Bunnykins, sold for £1350 and Farmer Bunnykins, which sold for £560 despite having a broken and re-stuck right ear

Below, left to right:
Rare early Bunnykins figures produced in 1939, clockwise, top: Mother, Farmer, Mary, Reggie Freddie and Billy. The teapot in the centre of the picture is particularly rare and is worth £400-600

Sister Mary Barbara Bunnykins. Barbara worked late into the night from the light of a candle, churning out dozens of whimsical sketches drawing on her childhood memories

Recognising the gift potential of the figurines, Royal Doulton make a range of Bunnykins modeled to reflect their professions. Picture here, left to right are Plumber, Chef and Teacher

bunnykinssister barbarabunnykins professions

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Monday, 10 April 2006

Charles Vyse: the studio potter who revived Tang glaze techniques

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Vyse cat

Biscuit, the old family cat, is driving us crazy. Not only does she have the finicky eating habits of a two-year-old, but she's also shedding her thick winter coat like fur was going out of fashion. Next time we get a cat it will be like the pot one pictured here. Since Biscuit spends most of the time sleeping, we'd hardly notice the difference.

At just under a foot tall, this pot cat dates from around the turn of the century and was made by a modeller and designer Charles Vyse in the studio he set up in Chelsea. Reminiscent of the pairs of Staffordshire dog ornaments he remembered from his youth, the cat is so lifelike it looks like it might rise, stretch and walk away at any moment.

What sets it apart, however, is the remarkable glaze effect in black, green and cream to give a stylised yet convincingly realistic representation of the creature's tabby fur coat. The technique is called tenmoku. It was invented by Chinese potters 2000 years ago during the Tang Dynasty and perfected during the Sung period of 960-1279, when black tenmoku glazed bowls are recorded as being used in tea competitions held by the Chinese imperial court.

Tenmoku is a Japanese word from "T'ien-mu", a mountain range in the Fuchien Province of China which gave its name to the pottery after priests visiting a monastery there returned to Japan bearing Buddhist altar items. They included the intense black glazed tea bowls which had not been seen before.

The key ingedient was iron oxide and further development saw the rich glazes used to mimic such effects as tortoiseshell, amber, pig-skin and tea-dust with glossy, matt and even iridescent finishes. And then the technique was virtually lost, to be revived in the studio pottery movement in the early 20th century. Middle-class artists trained at art schools shunned mass-production methods to make pottery often working with temperamental wood-fired ovens in their gardens using ingredients mixed themselves. Interestingly, experimentation in tenmoku techniques continues today among contemporary potters exploring the endless possibilities produced by different glaze mixes and firing temperatures.

Charles Vyse (1882-1971) was among the more proficient early exponents. He was born into a Staffordshire family that had been involved in the pottery industry for generations. It was natural for him to follow tradition and he was apprenticed to Doulton in Burslem at the age of 14.

Clearly gifted and encouraged to develop by the farsighted Henry Doulton, Vyse enrolled at the Hanley Art School and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art to study sculpture from 1905 to 1910, gaining a travelling scholarship which took him to Italy in1909. He was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Sculptors in 1911 and studied at the Camberwell School of Art in 1912.

During his time at Doulton he trained as a modeller and designer, coming under the tutelage of Art Director Charles Noke. Noke himself was fascinated by experimentation with glaze effects and went on to perfect the so-called flambé decoration, another lost Chinese technique dating back to the Sung dynasty.

'Isan't he a darling!'

Noke was also instrumental in launching Doulton's HN range of figures in 1913, having picked an elite group of Doulton designers to produce the first set. Vyse was among them and was responsible for designing the figure Darling. Originally called Bedtime, the figure of the small blond-haired boy dressed in a nightshirt caught the eye of Queen Mary during a royal visit to the Burslem factory who exclaimed "Isn't he a darling!". Consequently, the figure was renamed, given the honorary number HN1 and is still in production today.

Vyse married and moved to Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, in 1911 and his wife, Nell, a trained singer, was fluent in French and German, so they were able to read the 19th century texts that discussed early Chinese glazes. Their neighbour was the renowned collector of antique Chinese, Korean and Persian pottery, George Eumorfopoulos, and he became a patron of their work and gave them access to his collection as reference pieces.

The collection, housed in two-storey private museum behind the patron's house, proved to be invaluable as a basis for scientific research and coupled with Nell's expertise, the couple built a formidable knowledge of glaze and firing techniques. They went on to master tenmoku glazes, rediscovered chun glazing, an iron glaze used in Chinese celadon ware and other oriental glazes of great beauty, exhibiting annually at galleries in New Bond Street for 10 years from 1928.

In complete contrast and harking back to his Doulton days, in 1919 Vyse and his wife modelled and produced two elaborate character figures called The Balloon Woman and The Lavender Girl. The first in a short series, the slip cast models were based on characters seen on the streets of London and proved popular enough to provide work for and a small staff of women to make them.

However, tragedy struck during the Blitz of 1940 when the Cheyne Walk studio was destroyed in an air raid. The couple left London, but their relationship suffered and they parted, Nell subsequently devoting herself to politics having been a Suffragette in her younger days.

Vyse taught pottery at Farnham School of Art and continued to produce his figure groups with the assistance of Barbara Waller, a Farnham student. He retired to Deal, in Kent, where he died at the age of 91.
The Vyses' work can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the University of Wales, Aberystwyth and Stoke-on-Trent museums. Somewhat underrated by today’s collectors, it appears less frequently on the market and is worth watching for – look out for the inscriptions “CV or Charles Vyse Chelsea” on bases. It is sure to increase in value over time.

Pictures show, top:
The cat with the cream and no bad hair days. This charming pottery model by Charles Vyse, decorated with figured tenmoku glaze to represent fur, sold at auction for £1000.

Below, left:
'The Gypsies' a pottery figural group, by Charles Vyse, 1925, the woman modelled carrying a young child and holding a bunch of clothes pegs, while her companion is wearing a yellow waistcoat and tweed cap and holds a bunch of cabbages. It sold for £10,200

Europa and the Bull a rare exhibition figural group by Charles Vyse, circa 1949,
modelled with a semi-clad maiden seated on the back of a large bull supported by two large fish, in a pale green grey glaze. The piece was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1952 and was sold last month for £8640

lot 75lot 80

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