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