Grotesque Birds On
Robert Wallace Martin
Pomona House, Fulham
Grotesque Birds On
By chance we have recently purchased within one week of each other two very interesting R. W. Martin Bros pieces made and fired at Fulham. The 1st is dated May 1874, a sleek and slender ewer depicting a nightjar in flight on one side and on the other side a group of 4 owls sitting on a branch (see image 1). The 2nd piece dated 3 months later August 1874, is a tall cylindrical jug with circular panels depicting morning, noon, and night. Our same family group of 4 owls in one of the panels are in exactly the same pose (see image 2).
It is tempting to suggest that the May 1874 R W Martin piece, could be the first time Wallace experiments in portraying a group of birds posed in a humanistic, rather than a naturalistic way. In grouping the birds huddled up close together we clearly get the impression of "mum and dad with the kids". On the 1st attempt he has quickly scratched his design directly into the clay, the 4 owls perched rather precariously on an awkward looking branch. Three months later in August and the same composition is now more considered, the bird group is better positioned in the pictoral space and draws in the viewer, the owls are now defined more clearly in a cobalt blue glaze, and look quite content on a level branch amongst intricate leaves (see image 3).
Wallace was able to use his carving skills in designing clock cases for the firm of Lund & Blockley, clock makers of Pall Mall, London. Often these clock cases were made in the form of small gothic structures adourned with grotesque figures. Could this be the first time that Wallace uses his modeling skills to portray his family of owls inside the clock case? The piece shown is dated 1876 (see image 4).
The first known carved model of a bird by Wallace Martin is a jug formed into the shape of an owl dated 1879 (see image 5). One year later and the first R W martin model "wally birds" as they have become known were made (see image 7) . The statuesque type birds were carved in stoneware as tobaco jars, the detachable head forming the cover could be swiveled around to create different atitudes adding to the birds appeal. Unlike traditional pottery models these birds were of no known species, but somewhat sinister mutations with human characteristic expressions.
Wallace sometimes modeled his birds with exaggerated facial features from people he had met or knew, even eminent politicians or barristers such as Judge Clarke who defended Oscar Wilde (see image 8) were not immune from Wallace's wit and unruly imagination.
The hybrid birds proved then, as now, very popular and sold quickly, the other brothers encouraging Wallace to do more. The birds however turned out to be one part of Wallace's menagerie of modeled creations. He produced from his own darker fantasies carved mutant creatures in stoneware that fortunatly have never roamed this earth. It appears to be that in Wallace's own creative mind "mutation" could be endless, as if Darwins theory of "the evolution of species" had gone mad, and Wallace wanted to model it! (see image 6).
Surprisingly it took Wallace until 1901 before he arranges 2 & 3 modeled "wally birds" sculptured together as a family group, (see images 9 & 10). The birds now appear to interact with each other creating a new dimension to their characters with the human emotions of companionship and love, and intrique with humour. In bringing the birds together, Wallace makes his stoneware sculptures come to life.
Little could Wallace have imagined that his original owl sketch on our May 1874 piece, would be the start for what would become his greatest creations. Wallace continued to make his bird models, along with his other unworldly modeled creatures through out his working life. Fortunately for us he took little notice of his brothers wish's to curb his more "sinister creations". His legacy and that of his brothers is assured, the R W Martin Brothers "wally bird" models and grotesques have become the outstanding icons of the British art pottery movement.
Barry Stock, Century Ceramics, June 2014.
My many thanks to Dr. Jonathan Gates, historian of Ealing Borough library for his patience and kind help in allowing me access to the Martin brothers archive.
We would also like to thank Richard Dennis for allowing us to use pictures from his publication of the fantastically rich and full account of "The Martin Brothers Potters" by Malcolm Haslam available for further reading. It is published by Richard Dennis ISBN 0903685 25 6. To order a copy telephone the publishers on +44 (0)1460 240044 or visit the website.