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This ‘at home’ section of the exhibition uses the Fitzwilliam’s extensive collection of Staffordshire Figurines and Parian Ware to imagine how the Bible and antiquity sat side by side on the Victorian mantelpiece. Our display here will range all the way from imitations of ‘fine art’ sculptures, to cheap representations of figures and stories. And by placing these items next to each another, we will see how the worlds of faith and mythology came into contact at the very centre of the nineteenth-century home.



Right Hand of Felix Mendelssohn
(1809-1847), England
Object no. M2-1903


The exhibition also showcases objects that to present-day taste might seem tacky or bizarre. Indeed, to the modern observer, this plaster cast of the right hand of the composer Felix Mendelssohn may well seem faintly macabre. But in the eyes of its original owner, this mounted plaster cast was a contact relic with multiple layers of meaning. After all, it was this hand that composed the biblical oratorios Paul and Elijah, some of the most well-known and widely performed music of the time. The Victorian mantelpiece was, then, a place to display belief, taste, or just plain whimsy — but as these items show, it was seldom dull.


Staffordshire Figurines

A by-product of the crockery industry, Staffordshire figurines were produced as consumer goods from the mid-eighteenth century. They were mass-produced from moulds, and made mostly by children working up to fifteen-hour days. According to Asa Briggs, in the late 1840s there were around 30 figure manufacturers in the Potteries, but by 1851 this had risen to 165. A new popular market for these figures emerged — they were sold at the working-class resorts of theatres and music halls, holiday resorts and fairs — but larger scale figures were also made for wealthier collectors. They were widely exported across Europe, and across the British Empire. The selection here focuses on biblical and some classical figures, but Staffordshire figurines took in a broad range of subjects, including Royalty, politicians, sportsmen, soldiers, actors, and murderers (apparently the best sellers).


Moses holding the Tablets of the Law
(c.1860-75). Unknown factory, Staffs.
Object no. C.1018-1928

The different modes of engaging with Staffordshire figures in comparison to ‘flat’ visual media such as painting are perhaps epitomised by this object, a watch stand from 1860-75, depicting Moses holding the Tablets of the Law. The figurine has a hole at the bottom to house its owner’s watch, suggesting the expectation of regular handling — a real contrast, then, with the rather distant, touch-free interactions one would have with a painting. The watch stand depicts Moses holding the ten commandments on two tablets, as recounted in Exodus. The commandments appear as squiggles rather than being set out in full — perhaps due to the confines of size. Considering the second commandment’s proclamation that  “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”, the absence of any specific text might also, however, usefully evade any anxieties about idolatry or personal religious conflicts for the owner (and makers of?) this commercially-produced object.


The sacrifice of Isaac
(c. 1820-1850?) Probably made by ‘Sherratt’, Staffs.
Object no. C.969-1928


This figure captures a famous scene from a story in the biblical book of Genesis. In it, we find Abraham being tested by God, for God has commanded him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac — an heir for whom he has waited years. About to do God’s will and to comply with this divine command, Abraham is then confronted by a voice from heaven. On the piece itself we find this drama captured in the form of a caption — ‘Abram Stop’! — while Abraham himself has been freeze-framed, right on the point of plunging the knife into his son. At the bottom of the figure  we then also find a ram caught in a thicket, looking a bit like a piglet, ready to take the boy’s place on the sacrificial altar. Other renderings of this scene also feature a rescuing angel, suck onto a conveniently-placed tree.

While little is known about the maker, this piece is one among many attributed to ‘Sherratt’, a maker or firm active in Staffordshire. Its pearlware figures are characterised by their setting on a marbled ‘table’ with floral details. Behind, in the ‘bocage’ — the greenery that added decoration to such figures and often provided elaborate support for them — are triple oak leaves with mayflowers: another signature of the Sherratt pearlware style. The whole effect is simple and decorative, and individual painters had plenty of latitude when it came to colour and patterning. Figures of this sort speak to a culture soaked in biblical figures and stories, appearing as ornaments or in books or samplers. Equally, though, the composition is almost certainly modelled on a print of a renaissance painting: biblical story and classical form interwoven even in an everyday item.

Judith holding the head of Holofernes
(c.1800-60). Production place unknown.
Object no. C.2170-1928


This figure was accessioned by the museum as a sixteenth-century maiolica statuette, and attributed to the workshop of Giovanni della Robbia, a Florentine ceramicist and sculptor working in the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century. Its status was revised in 1993, however, and it is now thought to have been made in the Potteries between 1800-1860. The Della Robbia family were celebrated in art-industrial circles in the mid nineteenth-century, so it is not altogether surprising that imitations of their work appeared at this time. The piece depicts a scene from the Old Testament book of Judith. An honourable widow in the city of Bethulia, Judith had attracted the attention of Holofernes, an Assyrian general, whose armies were attacking the city. In a drunken stupor, Holofernes allowed Judith into his camp, and — as the piece shows — it was at this point that she beheaded him. 

The composition of the figure echoes Renaissance sculptures of classical mythological tales, such as those depicting Perseus holding the head of Medusa. Here, however, it is striking that we have a woman holding a man’s head, and that we are dealing with a distinctly biblical narrative. Biblical images and the shapes or form of classical antiquity are thus arguably combined in this figure. This nineteenth-century fake Renaissance object is rather different from the other Staffordshire figurines examined here — and it stands as testimony to the skills of nineteenth-century potters.


Mary Magdalene/Girl Kneeling in Prayer
(c. 1840-1865) Unknown factory, Staffs.
Object no. C.1021-1928

Mary Magdalene — the sinner redeemed by Jesus’s love — was an enormously popular subject in Victorian art in the 1850s and 1860s, appearing, for example, in works by D. G. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, Edward Burne Jones, and G. F. Watts. In painting, Mary Magdalene is often more of a femme fatale than a penitent, and similar ambiguities might also be identified in this figure, who is both praying and semi-nude. Sculptural nudes were increasingly (although controversially) expected and accepted, thanks to an increasing knowledge and distribution of classical sculpture (reinforcing again the importance of classical culture in allowing the distribution of biblical imagery like this figure). A morally ambiguous Staffordshire figurine, however, is a rather different matter than a painting — distant, elite, and safely restrained on the wall and behind a frame — or indeed from a large scale classical sculpture in a museum setting. Indeed, a Staffordshire figurine lives amongst its owners, and is perhaps troublingly tactile — even if its owners only ever take it off the shelf to dust it.

It is significant that there was a mid-nineteenth century obsession with the figure of the ‘Fallen Woman’ — a woman who has sex outside of marriage (leading in many Victorian narratives to an inevitable ‘fall’ into prostitution). From the 1840s onwards, missions and hospices were set up to ‘save’ these women, and the names of these institutions regularly refer to Mary Magdalene. This piece might have been adopted by a social purity campaigner working to end what became known as ‘the social evil’. More generally, the figure of Mary was also one appealed to by Victorian religious women, who found solace and recognition in the Magdalene’s central role as the first person to see Jesus after his resurrection. Was this, we might ask, a pious image? A feminist image?


(1815-20). Unknown factory, Staffs.
Object no. C.980-1928


This somewhat earlier Staffordshire figure, made between 1815 and 1820, is an interesting point of comparison with the washed out pallor of Mary Magdalene. It is modelled on the classical sculpture Venus de Medici in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence — a well-known sight for aristocratic Grand Tourists. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this image (both to a nineteenth-century person and to the present-day eye) is its bright colour palette. Indeed, it was in the 1820s that the first evidence concerning the painted quality of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture emerged, but the idea of painted sculpture wasn’t really debated in full in Britain until the 1830s and 1850s. The debate was reignited in the 1860s, when John Gibson exhibited his ‘Tinted Venus’ at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Gibson’s colourful sculpture of the Greek goddess — which now resides in the Walker Art Gallery, while the Fitzwilliam has an ‘untinted’ version — was denounced by The Athenaeum magazine as ‘a naked impudent English woman’. The work became both dangerous and embarrassing because it had crossed the line between the ‘ideal’ and the ‘real’.

This point about Gibson’s work makes our brightly-coloured mantelpiece figurine even more interesting: what did contemporaries make of it? Venus reminds us of the need to rethink preconceptions about nineteenth-century prudishness. It demonstrates that a vivid, living antiquity was present in ordinary people’s homes in the early nineteenth century.



Parian Ware

In the 1840s, both Minton and Copeland factories in Stoke-on-Trent claimed Parianware as an invention. The name ‘Parianware’ has classicising pretensions, because it refers to the island of Paros, where marble for the most famous ancient Greek sculpture was quarried. Yet despite these classical connotations, this was a ceramic, mass-produced in factories, and was very much part of new nineteenth-century modes of serial reproduction (like photography, invented just a few years beforehand). Parian is usually understood to have appealed to a more solidly middle-class audience than Staffordshire figurines. It also had a direct connection to ‘fine art’, since most Parian statuettes were reduced versions of larger scale sculpture. Two of the Parian objects included here were reduced from larger famous sculptures. Purity (1869) is the head from Matthew Noble’s 1859 marble sculpture of the same name, while Ariadne and the Panther is made after the famous 1814 sculpture by Johann Heinrich von Dannecker. Una and the Lion is an interesting reversal, however. It was designed by sculptor John Bell as a Parian product, registered in 1847, to be paired up with Ariadne and the Panther. The two were exhibited together at the 1851 Great Exhibition. 


(c.1869) Copeland Factory, Stoke on Trent.
Object no. C.11-1984


Art pottery is usually understood to have had an exclusively middle-class audience. Items like this bust would have retailed at around two guineas — around two weeks’ wages for an unskilled manual labourer, or a week’s wages for a builder, carpenter or mason. Purity was, however, distributed in a manner that at least aimed to include artisanal workers. This is revealed by a stamp on the reverse of the bust, reading ‘CPAU. Ceramic and Crystal Palace Art Union. Pub. November 1869.’ Members of Art-Unions paid a guinea to enter a draw where the winner could select an art work of their choice. Entry also guaranteed the member a ‘Presentation Award’ — often in the form of a Parian bust. This new nineteenth-century medium was championed for its ability to bring sculpture previously only seen by a few into the homes of a wider range of people.


Una and the Lion, or Purity
(1860) Minton, Staffs.
Object no. C.1-1973


Ariadne and the Panther, or Voluptuousness 
(1852) Minton, Staffs.
Object no. C.23-2014


These two images of nude women riding big cats bring together interestingly and perhaps unexpectedly the bible and classical antiquity. They also offer an opportunity to reflect on how exotic animals connected to British imperial territories padded their way into domestic settings. 

In Greek mythology and Roman poetry (as recounted by Catullus and Ovid), after escaping the Minotaur, Theseus flees with Ariadne only to abandon her on the island of Naxos. Dionysus/Bacchus, the god of wine, appears with his retinue of exotic beasts, and marries Ariadne. The latter is shown here confidently reclining on one of the panthers that drew Bacchus’ chariot, fully exposing herself to the viewer as she parades off to become Bacchus’ bride. 

Una and the Lion, while not a biblical story, was certainly one loaded with religious significance, for the subject is taken from Spenser’s sixteenth-century poem The Faerie Queene. Una personifies ‘true religion’, while the lion (which also represents England) protects her after she is separated from the Red Cross Knight. Una is also nude, but she is positioned in a more modest manner than Ariadne, her legs crossed and her arms wrapped around her body. Queen Victoria was regularly compared to Una, and also owned one of Bell’s Parian works. 

The subtitles of these two works ‘Purity’ and ‘Voluptuousness’ are particularly significant. It is all too easy to caricature the Victorians as being either puritanically prudish, or sensationally decadent. We might also connect ‘Bible’ to ‘purity’ and ‘classical’ – with its stories of Bacchus, and connections to nudity to ‘voluptuousness’. But what might it mean to bring these two modes together as a double act, as these Parian productions do? Positioned at either end of the mantelpiece, these two sculptures tell a more complex story of middle-class Victoriana.