Whim­si­cal il­lus­trated chil­dren’s pot­tery pieces are a de­light, what­ever your age

Nottingham Post - - ANTIQUES FAIR - With Christopher Proudlove

SO, what do you buy a child for Christ­mas? It used to be so easy, but now I’m not so sure any­thing cur­rently in the shops will stand the test of time.

Per­mit me to rec­om­mend any of the pieces il­lus­trated here, par­tic­u­larly if your gift is an at­tempt to in­stil an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the child­hood of a past age.

Each is a prod­uct of the Shel­ley pot­tery com­pany, de­signed by friends Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell and the some­what less well known Hilda Cowham.

Each made their names as il­lus­tra­tors of chil­dren’s books, pop­u­lated only by the cutest of chil­dren de­serv­ing all the good for­tune life be­tween the wars could of­fer.

Although it was Ma­bel who is per­haps re­mem­bered best, and con­se­quently col­lected most, it was Hilda who joined Shel­ley’s first.

Born in 1873, she stud­ied at Wim­ble­don and Lam­beth Schools of Art and fi­nally the pres­ti­gious Royal Col­lege of Art, win­ning a com­pe­ti­tion in The Stu­dio mag­a­zine, kick-start­ing her ca­reer.

Hilda was one of the first women artists to con­trib­ute to Punch mag­a­zine and also con­trib­uted to The Graphic and The Sketch among oth­ers, as well as il­lus­trat­ing var­i­ous chil­dren’s books, some of which she wrote her­self.

One of her char­ac­ters whom she de­scribed as a “bush-haired, black-stockinged imp with big sash bow and in­fin­i­tes­i­mal pet­ti­coats”, was so fa­mous it be­came known as “the Cowham child”.

The re­quest from the Shel­ley fam­ily to work for the firm came in 1924. Their in­volve­ment with the com­pany did not be­gin un­til 1862, when Joseph Ball Shel­ley left his job at Dres­den and joined Henry Wile­man, owner of the Fo­ley Pot­tery. Its name is taken from an area be­tween the Stafford­shire towns of Long­ton and Fen­ton, where it pro­duced do­mes­tic earth­en­ware.

In about 1860 and recog­nis­ing the need to branch out, Wile­man built a se­cond fac­tory to con­cen­trate on fine china table­ware. He died in 1864, leav­ing his sons Charles and James to each run the two fac­to­ries and when Charles re­tired in 1870, James took over both and made Joseph Shel­ley his part­ner.

Shel­ley’s son Percy joined the com­pany in 1881 and on the death of James Wile­man and his own fa­ther, Percy took over the busi­ness, in­tro­duc­ing new lines and tal­ent in the shape of the great Fred­er­ick Rheade (fa­ther of Char­lotte) whom he ap­pointed art di­rec­tor. Un­til 1925, the pot­tery was pro­duced un­der the Fo­ley China name but a le­gal tus­sle with other Stafford­shire pot­ter­ies re­sulted in the name be­ing changed to Shel­ley Pot­tery. It was then that Shel­ley en­joyed its most pros­per­ous pe­riod. In a break with tra­di­tional china pro­duc­tion, Hilda trans­lated her book il­lus­tra­tions into de­signs for nurs­ery­ware, notably a se­ries called “Play­time”. Each piece was dec­o­rated with a sin­gle, sim­ple de­sign rep­re­sent­ing child­hood ac­tiv­i­ties and was so well re­ceived that a se­cond se­ries based on the sea­side fol­lowed in 1928.

For this Hilda con­ceived a teapot shaped like a bathing tent, a sugar bowl and spoon like a bucket and spade and a milk jug shaped like a shell with a sea­weed han­dle.

These proved so pop­u­lar that help was en­listed from her friend, Ma­bel, who be­gan de­sign­ing for Shel­ley in 1926. The daugh­ter of a pros­per­ous Lon­don butcher, Ma­bel was born in 1879 and ed­u­cated pri­vately, prior to en­rolling at St Martin’s School of Art in the cap­i­tal.

Like her friend, Ma­bel’s ca­reer was based on mag­a­zine and chil­dren’s book il­lus­tra­tion, notably for such clas­sics as Alice In Won­der­land and Pe­ter Pan and Wendy by J.M. Bar­rie. He adored her work so much that in 1921, he asked her per­son­ally to take the com­mis­sion, but she also branched out into ad­ver­tis­ing.

Soon, her trade­mark cheeky chubby-faced tod­dlers be­gan ap­pear­ing in amus­ing sce­nar­ios on a huge range of do­mes­tic prod­ucts cov­er­ing ev­ery­thing from Valen­tine & Sons greet­ings cards to bis­cuit tins.

When her hus­band, the painter Harold Ce­cil Earn­shaw (18861937) was in­valided out of Artists’ Ri­fles in the First World War – he lost his right arm at the Bat­tle of the Somme in 1918 – she be­came the sole bread­win­ner.

He sub­se­quently taught him­self to draw with his left hand and con­tin­ued to work as a book il­lus­tra­tor, but he never fully re­cov­ered and died aged 51. The cou­ple had met as stu­dents at St Martin’s and had a daugh­ter.

Ma­bel’s first de­signs for Shel­ley fea­tured small pix­ies in green suits, whom she chris­tened, “Boo Boos” ap­pear­ing along­side chil­dren for­est an­i­mals and other fan­tasy crea­tures dec­o­rat­ing cups, bowls and other nurs­ery table­ware.

The Boo Boos had ap­peared first in two chil­dren’s books pub­lished in 1921 and soon they be­came at least as pop­u­lar with the tots who used them as they were with their par­ents.

The Pot­tery Gazette, the bible of ceram­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers across the in­dus­try, de­scribed it as “a truly ir­re­sistible range of nurs­ery ware, al­to­gether in ad­vance of what was usu­ally put be­fore the trade”.

One of Ma­bel’s most mem­o­rable de­signs, which com­peted for cus­tomers with Hilda’s tea

ser­vices, com­prised a mush­room house act­ing as a teapot, mush­room-shaped sugar bowl and a milk jug mod­elled as a Boo Boo salut­ing.

My favourite has to be a child’s cham­ber pot dec­o­rated with green Boo Boos hold­ing gar­den­ing im­ple­ments in a wheel­bar­row be­ing pushed by the ubiq­ui­tous chubby-cheeked boy gar­dener in red checked shirt and over­size blue trousers.

As­sist­ing him in push­ing is an­other Boo Boo, much to the amuse­ment of his com­pa­tri­ots who are trav­el­ling for free.

Ma­bel also cre­ated a comic strip called “Wot a Life”, which ran in The Pass­ing Show mag­a­zine for two years from 1935. Both Hilda and Ma­bel died within a few months of each other in 1964.

The pieces il­lus­trated will be on show with dealer Brian Car­ruthers, who trades as Bac to Ba­sic An­tiques, and can be seen at the Alexan­dra Palace An­tiques & Col­lec­tors Fair in Lon­don on Fe­bru­ary 17, 2019. He can be con­tacted on 01483 766228.

Left: A Shel­ley dessert plate de­signed by Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell and in­scribed We’ve Just Come From Fairy­land/ With Our Don­key Small/ Some­times He Will Go Quite Fast/and Some­times Not At All! dessert plate de­signed Right: At­twell and Cowham’s suc­cess saw com­peti­tors fol­low suit. This pix­ies plate was dec­o­rated with de­signs by J.A. Robin­son for Paragon China Left: A Shel­ley chil­dren’s cham­ber pot by Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell Right: A Shel­ley china dessert plate de­signed by Ma­bel Lu­cie At­twell

Be­low: A Shel­ley china tea plate de­signed by Hilda Cowham dec­o­rated with a car­toon in­scribed The Sail­ing Ship/isn’t It A Joy to/ship A’hoy There

Left: A Shel­ley china mug de­signed by Hilda Cowham

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