I’m all for buying cheap collectibles and seeing them rise in value. That’s why last week’s column was all about Wade Whimsies. So, continuing in the same vein, this week’s missive is all about another kind of whimsical figure: the durable “stoneware” models of cute little rabbits made by a company called PenDelfin.
Love them or hate them, the little things are everywhere and again like Whimsies, children love them.
Actually, although PenDelfin is best known for its rabbits, it’s the rare earlier wares made by the company that are most sought after by today’s collectors. But we’ll come to them in a moment.
The story of how PenDelfin came into existence is a romantic one. The company was formed in 1953 in the shadow of Pendle Hill, just outside Burnley, in Lancashire.
Its founders were Jeannie Todd and Jean Walmsley Heap, who first met at an exhibition of paintings being staged by Burnley Artists’ Society. The two worked together at a building society in Burnley. They became close friends and decided to go into business.
Pendle is perhaps best known for its famous witches. The historians among us will know that King James I, who hated witches, wrote a book about how dangerous witchcraft was and stirred up hatred among the populace to the point where no one was safe.
In Pendle, a young beggar woman accused of witchcraft had done nothing more than ask for some pins from the pedlar. He refused and she cursed him, whereupon sometime later he fell ill.
He later accused the woman of bewitching him and the ensuing investigation brought 19 more suspected witches to the courts. One was found innocent, the rest were hanged and Pendle passed into history.
The first piece made by Jeannie and Jean was a deep relief wall plaque, called the Pendle Witch, suitably modelled as an old hag complete with cat on her shoulder riding a flying broom stick across a full moon. She became the company logo.
PenDelfin was born, the name coming from Pendle and the elfin-like figures the company produced, and the two women never looked back.
Each contributed £5 as working capital and with the garden shed as company HQ, the entrepreneurs began by making Christmas gifts for friends. Jean modelled the figures from clay and Jeannie boiled rubber on the kitchen cooker to make moulds.
Soon the hobby became a full-time business. In 1954, Doreen Noel Roberts joined the company and the foundations of the design team – JWH and DNR – were in place.
The family of mischievous rabbits first appeared the following year. Father Rabbit was first and production continues to the present day creating a steady stream of attractive and highly collectable creations that were soon sitting on mantelshelves and in bedrooms around the world.
As more and more rabbits were introduced to the family, and demand increased, the company bought Cameron Mill, in Burnley, where production continues today.
The models are made from a durable stone-based compound which is the ideal medium for reproducing the sharply detailed features of the various characters.
Each rabbit figure is produced entirely by hand by skilled workers and each is hand-painted by specially trained artists capable of the shading, tinting and highlighting demanded by the designers.
A final coat of varnish is applied and only after strict quality control are the models packaged in their familiar turquoise and black boxes and dispatched internationally, more than a thousand flying out of the door every week.
Of course, it is those models that have ceased production which today’s collectors crave. For example, if you can find one, the Pendle Witch plaque changes hands today for £800 or more.
Rare, early wares included nursery rhyme characters, ducks, Romeo and Juliet plaques (one of these has sold for as much as £2,200) and Manx kittens.
Interestingly, the kittens started life with a tail and were in production between 1956 and 1958. However, the tails were prone to been broken off, so the moulds were altered and the Manx kitten was created instead.
The kittens were made in only a short production run and only small numbers survive. An example coming up for auction today would have an estimate of £1,500 to £2,000.
Another rarity is the Aunt Agatha figure, produced for only two years between 1963 and 1965, which is also worth more than £1,000.
However, it is the PenDelfin rabbits that melt collectors’ hearts most. Father Rabbit appeared in 1955 and today is worth between £700 and £1,000.
He stands about eight inches in height and has large ears and the bottom to match. He wears dungarees and as a result, collectors refer to him as Dungaree Father.
His wife, Mother Rabbit, appeared in 1956 and the two began to breed, well, like rabbits! Children Robert, Margot and Midge appeared within a year but it was all too much for Dungaree Father.
He had a tendency to fall over because of his large bottom, so in 1960, he was remodelled and took the name of Kipper Tie Father. Not surprisingly, this was the result of his particularly eye-catching neckwear.
Kipper Tie Father was “retired” in 1970 and the Father figure was not seen again for another seven years. A third version of Father followed, the figure wearing a frill shirt and carrying a walking cane. He is worth up to £400 today.
Car boot sale collectors should also keep their eyes out for Cha Cha, introduced in 1959 and retired in 1961, and Aunt Agatha, introduced in 1963 and retired in 1965. Both of these can fetch £700 or more.
It is these retired, or withdrawn from production, figures that make them potential investments. The same could be said for the figures painted in varying colourways.
Like Royal Doulton collectors, buyers of PenDelfin bunnies set great store by seeking out the different and the unusual. Uncle Soames, for example, is among the most collectable of rabbits because of the numerous ways in which his outfits are painted.
In the earlier examples, his cravat and waistcoat were in brown and black respectively, but when the ladies who hand-painted him were given a free hand, he was turned out in all sorts of bright colours and various designs.
The diligent collector might enjoy searching out all the various combinations, but since he remained in production from 1959 until 1985, it might take him or her many years.
At auction, he can fetch anywhere from £80 to £250 depending on the colourway. Find an example with brown trousers and he could be an early example worth up to £500.
Megan the Harp (1961-67) and Squeezy (1960-70) are also worth picking up, given that they can fetch £100 or more.
Not surprisingly, there is an international collectors’ club devoted to the figures. The so-called PenDelfin Family Circle was founded in 1992. Membership costs £20 a year and includes a free exclusive members’ model and three issues of PenDelfin Times.
Few auction houses hold sales devoted entirely to PenDelfin products. One exception is Potteries Specialist Auctions who are based at 271 Waterloo Road, Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffs (01782-286622).