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Dorothy Doughty’s wonderful Worcester birds

By Christopher Proudlove ©

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 are highly sought after by collectors, particularly those in America and with names like Mockingbird and Peach Blossom and Chickadee and Larch, that’s hardly surprising.

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.

Pictures show:
Doughty’s birds: Mockingbird and Peach Blossom (top) and Chickadee and Larch, each of which has an auction value of up to £3,000

Tags: Ceramics · Worcester

26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ann Hollingsworth // Jul 29, 2009 at 3:56 am

    I have a pair of numbered bisque Doughty birds and would like to know how to establish their value.

  • 2 Lee Danielson // Sep 9, 2009 at 4:53 pm

    I 14 Doughty birds as well……now what do I do with them?

  • 3 Christopher Proudlove // Sep 9, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    That’s quite a flock, Lee. At least they don’t cost much in upkeep. Current auction value I’m told is about £200-400, depending on model. Obviously, the more grand examples are worth a little more, but moving them is never easy, particularly without their original boxes.

  • 4 sue // Sep 28, 2009 at 1:59 pm

    I have inherited 12 birds and wonder what their individual value would be and if their is more value if I sold them to a collector in a group. I have all of the original boxes and Dorothy Doughty’s book. Please advise.

  • 5 Christopher Proudlove // Sep 30, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Sue, as stated, value depends on the model in question, but generally speaking auction values are int he £200-400 range. Yes, collectors appreciate buying existing groups – the problem is locating the right buyer. The original boxes are important to retain. They are invaluable when it comes to moving the models, which are very fragile.

  • 6 K.C // Feb 20, 2010 at 6:47 pm

    I have a pair of Cactus Wrens in excellent condition, w/orignal boxes. Any idea of their value?

  • 7 Christopher Proudlove // Feb 22, 2010 at 11:43 am

    K.C. Leslie Hindman auctioneers in Chicago sold a pair – male and female – in July 2008 for $3,360 against an estimate of $1,000-2,000. However, earlier that year other US auctioneers sold pairs for $819 and $878 respectively (condition unknown). The most recent pair offered – in September last year – were estimated at $500-800 but remained unsold.

  • 8 Audrey Coupland // Mar 6, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    My friend as a pr. of redstarts sitting on yellow gorse. by Dorothy Doughty they are cover in a large glass dome,just a slight chip to the gorse on one, do you have any idea of value.regards Audrey.

  • 9 Penny // May 15, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Dear Christopher

    I have a signed birds of America book and an Elf Owl with Sagaro Cactus by Dorthy Doughty. I would like to try and sell it in an anique store. What realistic price should I ask. Thank you , Penny

  • 10 Becky // Jun 21, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Christopher,
    I have a 1952 Red-eyed Vireo. It has lost(but I have) a couple flowers. Value????
    Thank you
    Becky

  • 11 Christopher Proudlove // Jun 21, 2010 at 3:25 pm

    Becky
    The last one I could find that was sold at auction was in 2008, ctalogued as Red-Eyed Vireo Hen and Swamp Azalea Royal Worcester porcelain, circa 1952, 7 3/4″. It was estimated at $500-700 and sold for $748. However, damage can affect value, by how much depends on how bad it is.
    Regards
    Chris

  • 12 Elizabeth Hall // Jul 24, 2010 at 8:31 am

    Hello
    It appears I am about to inherit from a beloved Aunt a complete set of British Worcester birds, perfect condition, but as far as i know without their boxes. Please give me an indication of value, for the set, with and without boxes.
    Thank you

  • 13 Eric Barr // Jul 30, 2010 at 12:37 am

    I have a very important client that is considering purchacing, if possible, as complete a Dorothy Doughty collection as possible. Can you help? How can I find a honest value guide to know whether or he is paying a fair price? I am an estate jewler in Atlanta Georgia, and he would like me to represent his interest. Sounds exciting. Yours , Eric Barr

  • 14 Eric Barr // Jul 30, 2010 at 12:38 am

    Sorry about the poor spelling! Eric

  • 15 Christopher Proudlove // Jul 30, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Eric – I have emailed you.
    Chris

  • 16 Gillian Burpee // Aug 8, 2010 at 9:51 pm

    I have 16 Dorothy Doughty british birds which are professionally boxed and have been in storage for 36 years! How do I go about finding values and/or selling them?
    thanks.
    Gillian Burpee

  • 17 robin // Aug 15, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Eric:

    I have inherited 15-20 pairs of american birds. They are coincidentally in Atlanta. Please contact me. R

  • 18 Mary // Oct 14, 2010 at 4:05 am

    I have a pair of Blue Tits and pussy Willow in the orginial wooden boxes, plus a single bird that was packaged in a very think styform box,which is also orginial. Could you please help me out with the prices, They are in excellent condition. Thank You very much.

  • 19 Mary // Nov 2, 2010 at 12:14 am

    I also have a Nightingale Daulias Luscicia and Honeysuckle, plus the set of Glue Tits with Pussy Willow, the hen and the cock, for sale.

  • 20 George Spiva // Jan 4, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    Where should I try to sell a pair of the cactus wrens? Ebay? Other?

  • 21 Jan Storm // Jan 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    I have inherited 2 Dorothy Doughty Baltimore Oriole figures (probably about 1935) – on wood bases – no boxes – and very slightly damaged (e.g., broken petal, broken stamen)……just wondering if they are of interest or of value to anyone? THANKS.

  • 22 Carol Wells // Dec 6, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    Were Dorothy Doughty birds ever mounted on metal? I have a very thin delicate bone Golden Crowned Kinglet mounted on metal pine leaves with pine cones. The piece on the metal is marked with a crescent or letter C followed by a fancy script W. and the word England. Trying to figure out what this is and a general insurance value. The bird itself is not marked that I can see.

  • 23 Chris // Jan 30, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Hi, I have a full set of Dorothy Doughty bird plates with the gold edge around the plates. All plates are in original boxes & have never been displayed. Where is the best place to try & sell these as a complete set?

  • 24 Laura // Jun 1, 2012 at 2:12 am

    I inherited 6 Doughty birds recently, and I’m very interested in expanding my collection. I live in Alabama and will travel to Atlanta if anyone there still has any to sell.

  • 25 Gordon // Jul 17, 2012 at 2:44 am

    Currently in Palm Beach Gardens, FL closing out my mothers retirement home as we move her to the assisted living section. There are 29 Dorothy Doughty birds (14 pairs & the single Elf Owl). All original boxes. Would prefer to sell on-site rather than trouble of packing, shipping to my home in Baltimore – could reach mutually beneficial price since direct sals would eliminate consignment/auction etc fees. Thanks for any interest. Gordon

  • 26 Cheryl // Aug 27, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Laura if you or anyone else is still interested in expanding your Doughty bird collection I have two birds with original boxes. I am in the Warner Robins, GA area. Send me an email ASAP if interested. Thanks. Cheryl

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