What a Hoot!

By Louise Irvine

International Owl Awareness Day on August 4 draws attention annually to these amazing nocturnal raptors. More than half of the 19 species in North America are endangered or in decline. Owls are solitary hunters and fly silently at night so it is hard to spot them in the wild. A “silence” of owls is the collective term for a group of birds in flight. Collectively, owls are known as a “parliament”, “wisdom”, “hooting” or a “stare” reflecting a variety of characteristics. Fortunately, Arthur Wiener has collected a parliament of pottery and porcelain owls to enjoy at WMODA.

A Stare of Owls

 Owls are adapted to hunting at night with specialized wing feathers for silent flight, excellent directional hearing to locate sounds made by their prey, deadly talons, and huge staring eyes to see in the dark. Many porcelain artists have studied these characteristics in realistic detail, including Edward Boehm and Robert Jefferson for Royal Doulton.

Some of their most spectacular sculptures portray the bright white plumage of snowy owls which are native to the Arctic regions. The female nests in the ground of the frozen tundra and lays a large clutch of eggs – up to 11 – yet global warming threatens their existence.

The smallest owl in the world is the elf owl which inhabits the Southwestern states where it feeds on insects. Royal Worcester artist, Dorothy Doughty, realistically portrayed the diminutive bird alighting on a saguave cacti where it often nests.

In the 1920s, Royal Doulton artist, Harry Allen, painted various owl species on the ethereal blue Titanian body which was ideal for portraying birds at night fall. The carefully observed owls perch on tree branches against the setting sun or crescent moon, ready for their prey.

A rare Titanian barn owl vase includes a frieze of mice for dinner. The voracious appetite of the widespread barn owl and the potential to rear large broods makes them very effective for pest control. A single breeding pair of barn owls can consume 3,000 rodents annually making them the natural solution for sustainable agriculture.

A Parliament of Owls

In Victorian times, owls were popular as functional items for gentlemen’s studies, including tobacco jars, match holders, jugs and lamps. Doulton artist, Mark V. Marshall, created stylized stoneware jars with swivel heads referencing the owl’s uncanny ability to rotate its head to 270 degrees left or right. Marshall worked originally with the Martin Brothers who made several owl jars as part of their range of anthropomorphic birds.  Robert Wallace Martin’s character birds with removable heads in turn inspired British studio potters, Andrew Hull and David Burnham Smith.

Many contemporary ceramic artists have stylized the owl’s features to create striking vase and plaque designs. Maureen Minchin and Sally Tuffin have combined figurative finials with surface pattern in their owl pieces. Before founding the Dennis Chinaworks, Sally was Art Director of the Moorcroft Pottery and she designed a majestic eagle owl vase, one of the largest owls in the world. It can kill prey as big as foxes and young deer.

Moorcroft artists have produced many striking owl vases and models including a ginger jar inspired by Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem The Owl and the Pussycat who went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat and got married.

A Hooting of Owls

The hooting of an owl at sunset is one of the most distinctive calls in nature. However, not all species hoot. The barn owl makes a spooky shrieking call while others screech and are named accordingly. In America, the great horned owl and the barred owl, sometimes called the hoot owl, produce the most recognizable hooting calls to establish territory and attract mates.

The tawny owl in Britain has a distinctive double hoot which is a call and response between a male and female. The haunting call of these owls has long been associated with bad omens and even death

Owls effectively hunt small mammals in the dark with their brilliant directional hearing. The long-eared, short-eared, and horned species are named after the ear-like feather tufts on top of their heads which stand up when the owl is alarmed. However, these plumicorns, as they are known, are not the owl’s ears which are hidden by feathers.

A Wisdom of Owls

 The ‘wise old owl’ has been depicted in art since prehistoric times and gained its reputation for being wise from Greek mythology. Associated with Athene, the goddess of wisdom, the owl would often be portrayed with a stack of books beside her. The rare wise owl perched on a book at WMODA was made by the Zsolnay porcelain factory in Hungary and is decorated with their distinctive Eosin iridescent glaze.

The wise owl is an attribute of the legendary German prankster Owlglass, which is an anglicization of Till Eulenspiegel. The Meissen and Rosenthal figures both have owls perched on their shoulders. An owl is also the companion of Royal Doulton’s Wizard as he reads from his book of spells. Because of the owl’s stealthy nocturnal behavior and ability to see in the dark, the creature has often been linked with sorcery and witchcraft.

In Royal Doulton’s Land of Nod figure, the child is accompanied by an owl to symbolize night-time. Perhaps the most comical owl in the Royal Doulton figure collection is the wise old Granny Owl wrapped in a shawl by Doulton’s Art Director, Charles Noke. Interestingly, the first piece purchased by Arthur Wiener, the founder of WMODA, was a Royal Doulton character jug of Merlin the Magician with an owl handle.

Fée Halsted, the creative director of Ardmore Ceramic Art in South Africa, encouraged her artists to study the humorous owls made by Royal Doulton and the Martin Brothers and they came up with their own quirky owl jars and figures. They also included an owl in their new Camp Critters fabric range which can be seen at WMODA.

At WMODA, we also love Ollie the Owl in the Tripadvisor logo which has become very important to us. The wise old owl winks on the Traveler’s Choice Award which we have won for six years in a row. We are proud to be in the top 10% of attractions worldwide thanks to all the 5-star reviews from our visitors. Tripadvisor has been sharing advice with travelers for over 20 years and Ollie has appeared on TV wearing a bathrobe for the Little Wiser advertising campaign. The distinctive logo was updated recently to give him a stronger personality and identity. Look out for him at WMODA!

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The Art of Royal Doulton Figurines
Ardmore Design