First it was Springwatch, then it was a trip to Llyn Crafnant, the dramatic yet tranquil lake in Snowdonia National Park. We have caught the bird-watching bug – seeing three woodpeckers at the same time, presumably mum, dad and chick, was what clinched it.
Then these two characters turned up. According to the auctioneer, they are pre-production prototype figures modelled by Dorothy Doughty (1892-1962) and manufactured by Royal Worcester.
They were issued in limited editions: 500 Mockingbirds in 1940 and 325 Chickadees in 1938 and they fetch appreciable sums. These prototypes, which exist presumably in even smaller numbers, are expected to sell for up to £3,000 apiece.
But it’s Dorothy who interests me most. She was clearly a kindred spirit. She’s also one of the finest modellers of birds and wildlife of all time.
She was born in Italy, daughter of the explorer and poet Charles Doughty, but came to England as a girl with her father and sister Freda. She studied at
Eastbourne College of Art and became a keen naturalist and ornithologist.
Their father died in 1926 but the two girls, who never married, stayed on in the house in Sissinghurst, in Kent, Freda running a children’s art club.
The house had its own kiln and while Freda made figurines using her pupils as live models, Dorothy painted and made models of the birds she saw in the garden.
In time, they were approached by Royal Worcester to join the company as freelance modellers. Freda’s figure groups were popular, while Dorothy was handed the opportunity to excel when, in 1933, the U.S. publisher Alex Dickens suggested the firm made a series of large bone china models of American birds.
They were by modelled by Dorothy in their natural settings, her attention to the most minute detail and understanding and appreciation of ornithology paying dividends.
The first couple of attempts – Redstarts on Hemlock and American Goldfinches on Thistles – were only moderately successful, Dorothy quickly coming to the conclusion that the slip casting method of production was less than adequate to reproduce the naturalistic settings in which her birds were placed.
After many visits to the factory and talks with other modellers, she persuaded the management to build a new workshop and employ the services of flower modeller Antonio Vassalo to train a new intake of apprentices.
Lifelike models of greater intricacy
The Maltese artist-modeller Vassalo had perfected a technique of hand-moulding the delicate branches, leaves and flowers for which Worcester had become famous and the combination of the two of them proved to be the key to success.
Another significant factor was the involvement of the great Harry Davies, one of Worcester’s finest artists, who was able to reproduce the various subtle colours of the birds’ plumage and the naturalistic settings in which they were placed.
Able to produce more lifelike models of greater intricacy, Dorothy designed the next pair of birds, Bluebirds on Apple Blossom, which was received eagerly by collectors of her work, after which there was no looking back.
A further three pairs were designed before the outbreak of the war, each one considered better than the last. Editions were limited to 500 copies and despite being extremely expensive, they quickly sold out.
American museums and private individuals were equally keen to acquire the latest model and keep their set complete, with the exclusivity of only a limited number of examples being made available actually serving to enhance their appeal.
During the war many of the skilled workers joined the armed forces but production of the so-called Doughty Birds continued although in only limited numbers, the firm keen to continue to earn much needed income while concentrating on such utilitarian products as electrical resistors and spark plugs.
As her contribution to the war effort, Dorothy drove an ambulance and was also believed to have been involved in secret work in connection to aircraft building.
Wastage was high but demand remained strong
However, she developed what was thought to be tuberculosis and after the war she and Freda moved to Falmouth to a cliff-top house with a garden studio.
Her determination to continue designing more bird studies was undiminished. She lined the walls of her studio with cages containing the birds she painted and subsequently made trips to America to study birds in the field.
Armed with copious sketches and gaining more and more in confidence, Dorothy made her models ever more adventurous, to the point where it became a challenge for the factory to fire them. Wastage was high but demand remained strong.
Attempts were made by Alex Dickens to introduce simpler, cheaper models to appeal to less well-heeled customers but they were not popular and were withdrawn. They include the Indigo Bunting and White Quail, examples of which today are exceptionally rare and valuable.
Dorothy’s health was deteriorating by this time and the company drafted in another modeller, Ronald Van Ruyckevelt, to assist her. He would spend time with her in Falmouth and then visit the factory to oversee production.
She died aged 70 at a time when still more models were in the course of development. A total of 36 pairs of Doughty American birds were designed during her lifetime, some being produced to her designs six years after her death.
Doughty’s birds: Mockingbird and Peach Blossom (top) and Chickadee and Larch, each of which has an auction value of up to £3,000