The Delights of Derby Figures
Published 15th March 2023
By Andrew Thomas View profile
The early history of Derby porcelain is problematical but we know that a factory was in existence circa 1750 for in 1751-3 it was recorded that an ‘outside’ decorator William Duesbury in London was enamelling Derby porcelain figures. In 1756 Duesbury became part owner of the Derby factory. In the early years, the somewhat mysterious Andrew Planché was also involved together with a local banker, John Heath who was one of the partners in the well established Cockpit Hill earthenware manufactory. Planché soon faded from the scene to leave Duesbury in charge of the manufactory with Heath providing the finance. Even at this early time, figures formed an important feature of Derby porcelain and the factory produced a large range of figures, far more than any other factory, throughout the remainder of the 18th Century. In a newspaper paragraph of 1757 we read that “Numbers of Quality and Gentry…admired at the great perfection of Derby figures in particular, that many good judges could not distinguish them from the real Dresden”. Figures included the Continents, the Seasons, the Elements, Shakespeare, Milton and numerous figures from classical mythology.
The early figures from about 1750-55 often have the underside of the base free of glaze and the edge cleaned up, perhaps with a knife. The glaze applied to the dome of the base stops short of the rim, leaving a ‘dry edge’. From about 1756-60 the figures are often painted in pale colours and thus these two early periods are known as ‘dry edge’ and ‘pale family’. These two divisions of figures and many of the later productions do not bear any factory marks but often show three or more ‘patch marks’ or ‘pad marks’ where the piece was supported in the kiln. From 1770 to 1785 William Duesbury’s Derby Company also ran the Chelsea factory in London and traditionally the wares are known as Chelsea-Derby.
At this period factory-marks were introduced, the most common during 1770-82 was a crown with D below, then from 1782 a crossed batons below the crown was added and this remained in use for many years as the standard Derby mark. This crowned batons mark was also incised into the underside of figures, particularly to some of the superb biscuit figures and groups which were introduced in about 1771. This biscuit porcelain was without glaze or paint and as these articles were completely unadorned by anything to conceal blemishes, they had to be modelled and finished with great care. They were subsequently sold at slightly higher prices than glazed and coloured examples. Figures made after 1770 usually have an incised script ‘N’ or ‘No’ followed by numerals denoting the model. Three modellers of the period are known: John James Spangler, Pierce Stephen and William Coffee. The men who assembled the figures, known as ‘repairers’ sometimes also incised their individual symbols under the bases.
The fashions of the day have always had an effect on the antique market but this seems particularly so during the last five or six years. Although it is well known that the demand for certain specialised collectables and works of art has never been stronger, at the other end of the scale buyers can be few and far between. The market for antique ceramics which historically has been pretty robust has alas not been immune from the vagaries of fashion in recent years. Late 18th and early 19th Century Derby porcelain figures are a case in point. Between about 1970 and 2000 there was always a steady competitive demand for these wares as collectors bought the different models and antique dealers used them to make their shops look interesting and attractive. Since that time though interest has weakened which is a shame. It must be said that at the end of the 18th Century, some of the quality of the modelling and painting had decreased but the figures are still attractive and charming. What is more, they can now be obtained for relatively modest sums, as £100-150 will often be sufficient to purchase a single late 18th or early 19th Century example in good condition. The earlier figures and pairs are of course more expensive but I sincerely hope that fashion will change and all of these lovely figures from one of our most successful and long lived porcelain factories will appeal to more collectors in the future.