The history of Martinware

Director of Cheffins, Martin Millard shares his expertise on Martinware, from where it began to its auction value

Martinware
Published: January 18th, 2022 at 9:30 am
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Pottery created by the Victorian masters of the grotesque, the Martin Brothers, hit headlines in 2018 when a piece was banned from export from the UK government on grounds of its ‘outstanding aesthetic importance.’ Having sold for a massive £200,000, a huge grinning ceramic crab was bought by The Box museum in Plymouth and labelled a national treasure.

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What is Martinware?

The Martin Brothers started what is regarded as Britain’s first studio pottery in 1873 from a studio in Fulham, creating bizarre pottery pieces with a bent towards the grotesque all with an air of gothic fantasy. Jugs with faces, spoon warmers in the shape of bizarre animals with teeth or most famously the “Wally Birds”, grotesque stoneware tobacco jars or vases quickly became some of the most famous works to come out of Victorian pottery making.

These were part of the Aesthetic movement which shook up Victorian Britain, with the Martin Brothers’ work sitting alongside the likes of William Morris and Oscar Wilde, moving away from the mass-produced wares which had become so prevalent during the industrial revolution and delivering individual, handmade pieces.

Martinware birds
An iconic Martinware Wally Bird will be included in Cheffins' upcoming Art and design sale

Keen collectors at the time were the likes of Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, whilst in 1914 Queen Mary ordered 60 pieces of Martinware to be exhibited at the Paris Exposition. And it is the tale of tragedy around the Martin Brothers themselves which all adds to their intrigue.

Robert Wallace was quoted to have said in 1910 ‘my brothers and myself never got more than a labourer’s wages.’ They could only afford to fire the kiln once or twice a year and as they had no money for protective containers for the pots during firing, which meant that many were damaged.

The four brothers had tragic fates, with Charles Martin ending up in an asylum in 1909, Edwin dying of facial cancer and Walter dying of a cerebral haemorrhage only three months later. The longest living was Robert Wallace, who was recorded as being shocked when a Martinware pot sold for £50 at Sotheby’s in 1921.

How much does Martinware sell for?

Martinware has been rising in popularity since the 1970s, when in 1978 dealer Richard Dennis staged a landmark exhibition which brought the works back to the public eye. Instantly recognisable, the sky is now the limit for original Martin Brothers pieces, for example, a Wally Bird jar was sold at auction last year for £38,000, whilst a depiction of Benjamin Disraeli in the form of a Wally Bird achieved $233,000 in 2015.

As the firing process at the Martin Brothers’ studio was precarious, there are only a finite number of original pieces still surviving, with the majority of these being in the hands of a dedicated number of collectors, mainly in the UK and the US.

Where to buy Martinware

In the Cheffins Art & Design Sale on 24th February, we will be offering a fresh-to-the-market collection of works by the Martin Brothers, originally from a single owner based in the US (with the Wally Bird being the only exception which was purchased in England). One of the most exciting pieces in the collection is a highly rare and believed to be unique pair of stoneware andirons in the form of grotesque amphibians, crouching on their hind legs and bound back to back, which has an estimate of £50,000 - £80,000. Also available is one of the iconic Wally Birds, this example with a gunshot wound to its torso, and with an estimate of £10,000 - £15,000 and a particularly rare jug with teeth in the shape of a bird, which has an estimate of £20,000 - £30,000.

Martinware

Whilst the prices for the most iconic Martinware pieces are astronomic, for those looking to collect works by the brothers there are cheaper options. The brothers produced a number of ornamental and more typical Victorian pieces, including jars, jugs, bowls and so on which were modestly decorated, many with flowers or leaves, and which tend to sell for a few hundred pounds.

Martin Millard's top tip

As with anything, best advice is always to buy the best you can afford and from a reputable dealer or auction house. If you unable to examine the piece in the flesh, obtain a thorough condition report in advance, and always take note of a pieces dimensions, often they are rather larger, or indeed, smaller than you are imagining!

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