A Bird in the Hand

The Martin Brothers

“When you enter the shop… you find yourself in a dim-lit passage with crowded shelves of stoneware jugs carved into leering, laughing, grinning and ogling heads, jostling with the most impossible, and most fascinating, pot birds with strangely anthropological expressions…”

The ‘pot birds’ were also known as Wally birds from an old English word for ceramic. They were modeled in stoneware by Robert Wallace Martin and sold at the Martin Brothers’ London shop run by Charles Martin. The most eccentric of the family, Charles was originally the aesthetic advisor, business manager, salesman and publicist for the Martin Brothers. However, latterly he often hid the best pieces and turned away customers who were less appreciative. When the Martin Brothers shop burned down in 1903, Charles lost his sanity.

Robert Wallace Martin, the eldest brother, was a sculptor by training. He studied also at the Lambeth School of Art where he discovered the potential of terracotta as a medium for portraits. His contemporaries included George Tinworth, the first artist to be employed at Doulton’s Lambeth Pottery, and Mark Marshall, who was a fellow stonemason working on Gothic Revival style carvings. During the 1860s, Wallace Martin exhibited his terracotta sculptures and in the early 1870s he established a relationship with the Fulham Pottery where he had studio space and firing facilities. Meanwhile, his two younger brothers, Walter and Edwin, worked briefly at Doulton’s new Lambeth studio and learned some of the stoneware coloring processes alongside Tinworth.

The Martin Brothers opened their own studio at Pomona House, Fulham in 1873 where they worked on architectural ornament with Mark Marshall, clock-cases in the Gothic style and decorative vases incised in the Japanese manner. In 1879, they moved their family enterprise to a disused soap works in Southall on the outskirts of London. Walter Martin was the main thrower and was responsible for mixing the glazes and firing the kiln. Edwin became a skilled decorator, incising flowers, reptiles and marine creatures into stoneware vases. Supposedly his underwater scenes were inspired by fanciful accounts of microscopic life in the polluted River Thames. Later works took inspiration from ocean and plant life including sea urchins and gourds.  His fabulous dragon vases are featured in our Fantastique exhibit.

The bird jars, which Wallace began modeling in 1880, are the most iconic creations of the Martin Brothers. They are derived from the traditional owl jugs made in Staffordshire and characterize professional types familiar to Victorians in avian form, including generals, admirals, judges, and barristers. Occasionally they represent actual people such as the famous politicians Gladstone and Disraeli. In some cases, the bird’s head swivels adding to the humor rather than the practicality of the jar.

A mischievous wink, a knowing smile or a sly sideways glance add to the anthropomorphic appeal of the birds, which were strongly influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Contemporary newspapers were full of satirical drawings by artists such as Ernest Griset and Henry Stacey Marks. Images of prehistoric animals, hybrids and mutations fueled Walter’s unruly imagination for his silly menageries. His even wilder fantasies included imps, hobgoblins, and strange hybrid beasts which served as spoon warmers. They evoke the boojums and snarks from Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense and Lewis Carroll’s wondrous creatures.  It was once said that Lear, Carroll and Martin dreamed similar dreams only Wallace dreamt them in clay and baptized them with flame.

Wallace Martin’s leering and grimacing face jugs were also popular with intrepid customers at the turn of the century. His inspiration was Janus, the two-headed god of Roman antiquity as well as masks of Bacchus, Pan and satyrs. The eccentric Martin brothers visited the Paris Exhibition in 1900 where they saw the work of the highly acclaimed French artist potters. Their own experiences contrasted greatly as they struggled for recognition with only lowly workmen’s wages.  The Martin Brothers studio survived the onslaught of the Great War in 1914 by which time three of the brothers had died. Robert Wallace, the oldest of the brothers, survived until 1923 and continued production sporadically.

Collectors have long been captivated by the eccentricities of the Martin Brothers and enjoy the combination of humor and menace in their idiosyncratic grotesques. The Wally birds consistently fly to record prices at auction. The first landmark Martin Brothers exhibition was held in 1978 at Sotheby’s, Belgravia by Richard Dennis, who also published the classic reference book. In 2001, Sotheby’s New York sold the Harriman-Judd collection of British art pottery which included many Martin Brothers pieces now at WMODA.

Related Pages...

Arts & Crafts Collection
Fantastique Exhibition
Here Be Dragons