I want you to imagine a Dickensian scene. It’s an inky, chill evening along Havlock Road, near Southall in the city of London in the winter of 1880. Four brothers, all gifted Victorian potters, are closing down their busy studio for the night.
Siblings Walter (called Robert), Wallace and Edwin comb the traces of clay dust from their silken moustaches with ragged fingernails, before stepping out into the smoggy gas-lit gloom of the canal’s edge.
Their brother Charles, who runs the family’s highly successful retail sales, takes some final well-calloused shouts of instruction before shouldering the door of the former soap-works to, with a familiar clash of the brass bell.
Managing the business, he’s trusted to check the books and secure the building before making his own way home. However, Charles Martin has another duty all his own and known to none.
Waiting for the muffled exchanges of his departing partners to melt into the night over the wet cobbles, Charles gets to his knees. Reaching to the edge of a great oak floorboard, he deftly works it up at one end. Assembled beside him are three hefty stoneware jugs with contorted animal faces leering from a swift mummification in the day’s penny newspaper. Charles plunges the jugs into a webby tomb under the timbers and taps the board back down with a balled fist.
Outwardly Charles was a whiskered, stoic businessman, a pillar of 19th century pragmatism and respectability. However, at heart he, like his brothers, was an artist who couldn’t stand to part with the magical menagerie they created. On occasion he would even break cover and defiantly see off even wealthy customers from a piece supposed to be for sale — throwing them out onto the cobbles.
In 1910, fire destroyed the Martin Brothers’ premises. In the ruins, Charles’ considerable and now priceless hoard was discovered stacked and blackened, in pieces, under the stairs and stuffed into the walls and floors.
The Martin Brothers were celebrated right from the start for their salt-glazed stoneware tableware, grotesque animals and character jugs, vases and pots produced from 1873 to a stuttering dribble by 1923 when the firm closed.
Always expensive, despite their rustic weight and themes, Martinware was studio pottery, intended for the open minded, open-pursed, well-off. Reminiscent of the kinds of carved beasties you might see hanging from the precipitous heights of a medieval cathedral, it fascinated above all with what one visitor described as its ‘strangely anthropological expressions.’
Robert Martin (1843-1923) the eldest and longest surviving of the brothers, trained as a sculptor and artist at the nearby Lambeth School of art, and is regarded as the central driving genius of this brilliant troupe. He and Edwin both spent some time working at the Doulton potteries, a thread that can be seen in their work.
However, where artists like the Barlow sisters over at Doulton scraffitoed and politely painted safe pastoral livestock and romantic set-pieces, the Martin brothers’ weird imaginings pushed popular tastes to the limit.
The ware reflects the Gothic revival style together with the ethos of the Arts & Crafts movement sweeping Western Europe which emphasised the value of completely hand-crafted items. They were particularly interested in the work of the 16th century potter, Bernard Pallisy.
Robert honed his talents with modelling, while Edwin worked as chief decorator. Walter divided his time between throwing on the wheel, incised decoration and the vital job of creating the earthy ancient flavoured glazes for which the brothers’ pots are known. Mineral salts would be flung into the kiln during firing to roughen the surface of the sticky, subdued glaze —heightening the sculpted areas and slashed relief.
However, beyond the materials and colours, it’s the expressive character in the most famous examples of Martinware that has brought the work to the top auction houses across the World.
This curious twisted zoo, largely from the hands of Robert, includes mythical and literal animals, birds, fish, serpents and bizarre human faces that still raise a smile or a shiver. The work could be read as humming with dark, teasing menace, but for me it’s always cartoonish in the delivery.
Their most famous ornithological treat, the upright, grinning ‘Wally Bird’ is a cult classic for wealthy collectors. The brothers were not above sly political comment —fashioning some hook-beaked Gladstone and Disraeli parrot jars which flew out of the shop in 1896, and which perched at six figures by the early 2000s.
The brothers were determined eccentrics with their own ways of working. For example, they did not include protective saggarts when firing, leaving the pots vulnerable to spontaneous explosion in the flames. One year, they retrieved just a single intact piece from the kiln, the sum total of a whole year’s work.
Rarity of course adds to the thrill of hunting a Martinware species. For most of us, the only entry point will be an incised plate or vessel, which occasionally come up for auction at high profile houses in London or New York, including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s and Woolley & Wallis. Prices start in the low hundreds, reaching €20,000 or more for a hint of grotesque. Have those creature’s features well insured, as I don’t suggest the floor boards banking system. Poor Charles.