Before 1775, English law allowed white clay to be used only for porcelain. When this restriction was removed, potters began to use the white clay found in Staffordshire to produce a variety of salt-glazed domestic wares and figurines. These potters included Thomas Whieldon, who had been a partner of Josiah Wedgwood, and Wheildon’s assistant Ralph Wood who was probably inventor of the Toby jug.
Staffordshire figures were generally made for workman’s cottages and were produced cheaply in large quantities in hundreds of small factories on a piece-work basis. The figures were moulded, usually in two halves (front and back) and pressed together. During the 19th century (but not earlier) the back was often not detailed or decorated as they were intended to stand on a mantelpiece where the backs would not be seen. The figures were often sold in pairs for each end of the mantelpiece.
The figures were painted in enamels over the glaze and then re-fired at a lower temperature to fix the enamel. At first, the most popular colour was a rich cobalt blue but this was not used after 1863.
Although the first Staffordshire figures were inspired the German Meissen wares, they were of far lesser quality having the charm of a folk craft rather than the technical quality of art pottery. Their heyday was from the 1830s until the early 20th century. Production has never really ceased but only pieces made before the First World War are usually considered collectable.
The most popular subjects were animals and, by far, the most popular animals were dogs. Early Staffordshire figures generally depicted domestic animals but, as zoos became increasingly common through the Victorian era, more exotic animals were produced.
Other than animals, most Staffordshire figures depict the heroes and villains of the Victorian period, including the Royal family, European statesmen, entertainers and sportsmen.. The most common subject was Napoleon Bonaparte. Representations of famous actors, actresses and singers now tend to bring the highest prices..These figures were modelled from engravings which had been published in newspapers, magazines and broadsheets. They were sold at theatres as souvenirs, as well as in markets, fairs and china shops.
Reproduction and fake Staffordshire pottery is very common. Most modern copies are made using slip-moulding (in which a mixture of clay and water is poured into a mould and left until a “shell” hardens; the surplus liquid is then poured out of a hole in the base.) Original figures were press-moulded and did not have a hole in the base. Modern copies are usually pained with a cloth or sponge swab whereas originals were painted with brushes, which may have left brush-strokes. Reproductions are mass-produced in uniform sizes; originals are never uniform, even when issued as a pair. Originals had no trademark or stamp except, sometimes, a raised number on the base. Many were marked with the name of the person they represented.