Murder and Mayhem in Miniature: The Lurid Side of Staffordshire Figurines

A couple hundred years ago, pottery figurines were used as decoration, souvenirs, collector's items, political statements, and images of news stories. News stories? Yes, before tabloids and TV, potteries in Staffordshire, England, offered figurines that illustrated current events and poked fun at the powerful. Collectors Weekly talked to Myrna Schkolne, author of the upcoming book Staffordshire Figures, 1780 to 1840, who tells how the figurines of the time meant more than we realized.

Collectors Weekly: What forgotten events or characters have you discovered through Staffordshire figurines?

Schkolne: Well, my favorite is a figure showing a tiger or tigress mauling a woman and her baby. That sounds so wrong. The tigress is holding the baby in her mouth and the woman beneath her paws. The figure is titled “Menagerie.” A Staffordshire menagerie is a well-known genre, but this was clearly not a normal menagerie object. The thing drove me nuts. I couldn’t work out the whys and the wherefores. [See image at top.]

Then one night at about 1:00 a.m., I came across an old broadside that led me to the Colindale newspaper archive in the U.K. A small paragraph in the Northumberland Herald for February of 1834 describes how Wombwell’s Menagerie had stopped in a town overnight, and during the night, a tigress and a lion had escaped, and they had killed a woman with a child in her arms. Usually, any sort of menagerie mishap is very well publicized, but I think in this case the owner of the menagerie, George Wombwell, was very quick to open his wallet because if word got about, people wouldn’t have wanted his menagerie in town.

Read about other stories enshrined in pottery, like the changing laws of marriage, sports scandals, tax protests, and a lurid murder trial that would have been all but forgotten if not for surviving figurines. Link

(Image credit: © Myrna Schkolne 2013)

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