Royal Doulton’s rise from Lambeth maker of domestic stonewares and art pottery to internationally recognised Staffordshire brand could scarcely have been predicted when Henry Doulton arrived in Burslem in 1877.
He later recalled: “In their view, we Londoners know little about God, and nothing about pottery.”
That it happened owed much to the launch in 1913 of its most enduring line: the Harry Nixon series of character figures. It was this 20th century take on a great Staffordshire tradition that made Doulton a household name across the English-speaking world.
The market for HN series figures, a collecting staple for generations, has painted a gloomy picture in recent years. Relegated to the status of ‘dust catchers’, most of the relatively common issues have bumped along at two- and even single-figure sums.
However, if one turns the focus on the 1% of Doulton figures that spark excitement in the collecting community, a more upbeat narrative can begin to be told.
A new record for any Royal Doulton figure was set at Potteries Auctions in Silverdale in July when a Bunnykins figure – a prototype tableau from 1998 titled Celebration Time with a provenance to the Doulton Museum – raced away to bring an astonishing £35,500 (plus 20% buyer’s premium) from an Australian collector.
Two fine collections of pre-war figures, one at Adam Partridge (20% buyer’s premium) in Macclesfield on October 12-14, the other at Chilcotts (21% buyer’s premium) in Honiton on October 15, plus a possibly unique figure offered in Exeter make the point equally well.
The highest bid at auction for a HN series figure for some years was recorded at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (25% buyer’s premium) on the second day of a sale held from October 11-13.
The subject of such keen attention was a remarkable 18in (45cm) exhibition size figure of a dancer. It is one of two similar large-scale groups (both numbered HN311) modelled by factory guru Charles Noke (1858-1941) in 1918. They copy closely the famous series of Art Nouveau bisque dancers modelled for Sèvres by Agathon Léonard and first shown at the Exposition Universelle Paris, 1900.
An original watercolour design for Noke’s figure survives in the Doulton archives, although it is likely these were never put in general production. The companion figure of a tambourine dancer, currently advertised for sale by a dealer in Florida, is deemed a one-off and has a provenance to the British Industries Fair in 1928. It seems likely this new discovery shares a similar history. Estimated at £500-700, it sold at £9000.
Part of Doulton’s success was its willingness to embrace the latest in fashion and follow nuanced societal change. Adverts, publicity shots, theatre sheets and book illustrations were pilfered for new design ideas that kept the range current.
The Noke figure The Mandarin HN318 appears to have been inspired by Chu Chin Chow, the musical comedy that ran for five years in London’s West End from 1916-21, followed by a silent film of the same name in 1923.
The model has been shown to have been borrowed from a character in Edmund Dulac’s Picture Book for the French Red Cross published in 1915. The figure appears in several colourways and examples have brought substantial sums in the recent past.
One in predominantly blue, yellow and black attire dated to the first year of production (1924) took £4600 at Adam Partridge in May 2020 while another in a blue, green and yellow Titanian glaze made $8000 at Florida firm Lion & Unicorn in October 2021. A version painted in shades of lilac and maroon took £1700 despite some faults to the side and back of the tunic at Potteries Auctions in March.
The example offered at Adam Partridge last month, as part of a much-loved collection assembled since the 1970s, was in a Titanian glaze and had impressed date marks for February 1920. Despite a repaired chip to the foot rim, it made £2500.
One of the Forty
In a similar vein are the Harry Tittensor (1887-1942) creations based on the Arabian Knights story.
These impish figures titled One of the Forty were produced in small numbers and in different colourways from 1921-38. A 7¼in (18cm) figure in a turban with a swag bag across his shoulder (HN666) offered at Adam Partridge had the impressed date 8.24 for the first year of production. It took £1750, although back in 2019 the auction house sold another at £2700.
Although not strictly part of the HN series, The Old Woman (formerly known as Despair) is a very rare figure from 1913. It was probably designed by Noke. Only a handful of this diminutive 4in (11cm) model are known – the example in Cheshire decorated in a desirable flambé Sung glaze. It proved the collection’s most desirable piece at £4100 (estimate £2000-3000).
The child study Shy Anne HN60 followed in the wake of Darling HN1, the hugely popular figure designed by Charles Vyse for the launch of the HN series in 1913.
Issued in 1916, Shy Anne is traditionally among the three figures attributed to the little-known painter and sculptor Laurance Perugini (1880-c.1940).
However, the figure has since been found with a Noke signature on the backstamp showing that he claimed ownership of this very rare design. The example in a blue floral dress offered as part of a collection at Chilcotts was in good condition and unusually decorated with blue flowers to the dress. It took £2300.
Spring and Autumn, two from a set of four figures of the seasons first issued in 1918, took £1200 each in Honiton. The designer of the quartet is unknown, although they are certainly in the style of Phoebe Stabler (1879-1955) who was among the first group of factory figure modellers.
Harradine’s house style
Designed by a diverse group of sculptors, the first tranche of Doulton figures were an interesting but disparate bunch. It was Leslie Harradine (1887-1965) who helped establish something of a house style and encouraged figures to be displayed together as a collection.
His story is well known to devotees. Reluctant to work in a factory environment after returning from the war in France, he instead set up as a freelance modeller from a small studio in Hertfordshire.
He came to an arrangement. For almost 40 years from c.1920 until the mid-1950s he would model figures in his chosen medium of saltglaze stoneware (he had trained in Lambeth under George Tinworth) and send them by mail for approval in Burslem. There is no hard evidence he ever visited Staffordshire.
Perhaps more than any other designer Harradine had his finger on the pulse of contemporary mood and fashion. His corpus of figures includes those based on traditional themes: nursery rhymes, Dickens characters, ‘Cries of London’ street vendors and the like – but also others that represented the fashions and interests of the era.
Harradine’s take on the Commedia dell’Arte, a popular subject since the earliest days of European porcelain, included Pierette HN1749, issued in eight different colourways between 1936-49.
There were examples of this figure (both versions decorated with playing cards) for sale at Partridge and Chilcotts. They made £1150 each.
In contrast, issued in 1929, Sunshine Girl HN 1948 (£1400 at Chilcotts) was inspired by swimsuit fashions while The Midinette HN1289 (£1950 at Adam Partridge) is modelled as a young Parisian girl enjoying the delights of shopping.
Far removed from the ball gowns and crinolines that were Doulton’s best-sellers, some of Harradine’s Art Deco beauties bordered on the risqué. Among the boundary-pushing figures is Carnival HN1260, a semi-nude woman with her arms stretched behind her head issued from 1927.
It was a good example of this 9in (23cm) high figure (one often prone to damage) that topped the Chilcotts collection selling at £3200 (estimate £200-300). This and a selection of other models from three sales are pictured here.