IT’S hard to say whether modern studio potters find the Della Robbia story inspiring or depressing. Established by Harold Rathbone and Conrad Dressler in Birkenhead in 1894, in its 12-year operation the factory became a key part of the Arts and Crafts movement but also went broke.
However, there was no doubt that bidders at Neales March 27-28 sale (15% buyer's premium) were inspired by a 20-piece single-owner collection of the pottery consigned to Neales by the family of one of the factory’s most competent decorators, Elizabeth (Liz) Wilkins, who received some of them in lieu of wages – an indication of the factory’s financial troubles.
One of Wilkins’ workmates, Cassandia Annie Walker, was responsible for the decoration on a 10 1/2in (27cm) diameter wall plate which opened the sale.
Fully signed, marked and dated 1904, the blue, brown and green plate with a central incised head of Pandora in a woodland glade, was exhibited in 1981 and 1994 at the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum and made £1500 at Nottingham.
Next up was a rectangular plaque, 10 by 6 1/4in (25 by 16cm) designed by the modeller Ellen Mary Rope (1885-1934) and decorated by Hannah Jones.
Illustrated on the front of the sale catalogue, the plaque, glazed in tones of blue, yellow and green, was modelled in low relief with two children (known as pixies at the factory) playing in woodland.
It carried the decorator’s initials and M for Giovanni Carlo Manzoni who took over co-ownership from Dressler three years into production.
Known pieces by Manzoni are rare and, except for his clearly marked Granville production, he seems to have left his work at Della Robbia largely unsigned. The plaque sold at £1250.
Wares decorated by Wilkins herself included an Algerian vase, 13 1/2in (34.5cm) high, modelled by independent designer Charles Collis. The mottled glazes of green, blue-green and yellow and incised decoration of arum lilies and leaves in shaped panels on a ground of incised scrollwork helped bidding to £1900.
Wilkins’ saucer dish, 11in (28cm) diameter, glazed in shades of green, yellow and pale blue-green and incised with a design of four stylised yellow poppies, entwined stems and foliage, sold at £1200.
A large proportion of this sale was devoted to ceramics – so much so that the auctioneers took the decision to hold back furniture for a future catalogue. There were 24 lots of Moorcroft ranging from £65 to £1800.
At the top end was a ginger jar and cover, 7 3/4in (20cm) high, c.1925 in the Pomegranate and Berry pattern with a blue flambé glaze while a pair of Moorcroft Macintyre Florian Ware tapering bottle vases, 10in (25cm) high, c.1900 tube-lined with wild roses and foliate beneath fleurs-de-lys in tones of blue made £1150.
Two years ago Bourne Denby would have been general sale material but – as prices for good pieces are now in the £50-plus range – such pieces have moved into the fine art auction arena.
Best of a collection was a 10 1/2in (26cm) ovoid vase with scroll handles and a desirable electric blue glaze, at £210.
More familiar ‘fine auction’ material included a pair of Clarice Cliff cylindrical vases, 11 1/4in (28.5cm) high, in the Original Geometric pattern in tones of orange, yellow and black and blue. Despite damage to one vase, the pair sold at £780.
Seven of the familiar Wilkinson toby jugs of First World War leaders, by Carruthers Gould c.1918, took £1000. The set had undergone extensive restoration and Churchill – the most desirable figure of the series – was missing.
A Sylvac seated rabbit, 9 3/4in (25cm) high and glazed in pink, made £150, and an 8 1/2in (21.5cm) Royal Doulton stoneware jug, c.1900, decorated with three white vignettes of golfing scenes, The Lost Ball, Putting and Driving sold at a mid-estimate £980.
Among the earlier wares, a late 18th century Worcester part- tea and coffee service decorated with vertical stripes of dark blue alternating with gilt pendant husks sold well above estimate at £2000.
The set comprised a circular teapot, cover and stand, sugar bowl and cover, cream jug, bowl, ten teacups and saucers, five coffee cups and two saucer dishes.
A George III glass baluster ale jug, 8 1/4in (21cm) high with quilted base and scroll handle, inscribed Joseph Holly 1768 sold with a
pair of matching ale glasses, 6 3/4in (17cm) high, also engraved with hops and barley at £1000.
Leading a strong selection of tea caddies was a George III mahogany example of faceted pedestal urn form, with spire finial, 15in (38cm) high.
Outlined with line-and-dot stringing, pressed brass lion mask loose ring handles and a square base with key pattern stringing, satinwood crossbands and melon feet, the caddy sold for double its top estimate at £1900.
Also in this section was a bronze figure of a nude dancing girl after Joseph Lorenzl, (1892-1950) one of the most prominent sculptors of the Art Deco period. It made £1000.