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Piggies can fly

By Christopher Proudlove ©

In this, the last in a trilogy of columns about collecting Scottish antiques, I though I’d try to discover why these two pot pigs sold recently for £34,800 – each!.

It surprised even the auctioneers, who were expecting winning bids of around £10,000, not a new world record auction price. Interestingly enough, I once watched one sell for £90. Who told you antiques weren’t a good investment?

That said, you should probably not buy this stuff to make money.

Fashion being what it is, the gaudy, cabbage rose-bedecked pottery made from the late 19th century onwards at the Fife Pottery in the Gallatown district of Kirkcaldy is most definitely an acquired taste.

Buy it by all means, but only if you love it. There is no guarantee the price spiral it has enjoyed in recent years can continue.

The pottery is known as Wemyss Ware (say it like Weems) and the late Queen Mother was among a great number of collectors whose eagerness to own examples of it sent prices skyward.

There was a time when little was known about Wemyss Ware but the fact that there are a handful of original Fife Pottery employees still alive has aided research and fuelled interest yet higher.

The Fife Pottery was established in 1817, largely with the aid of a substantial loan from a Glasgow bank.

Output was simple domestic pottery for the home market that had very little to commend it, apart, perhaps, from the fact that it was cheap.

Cheap (and better) pottery could be obtained from a hundred other sources, though, and saddled with crippling interest charges on the bank loan, the business went bankrupt after only 10 years.

The pottery changed hands in 1827, the new owner taking on the debts with his acquisition and it was not until 58 years later that the original loan was repaid.

The turnaround was achieved by Robert Heron, grandson of the new owner, who steered the company away from cheap dross for the domestic market, towards more stylish and sophisticated wares decorated by hand rather than uninspiring transfer printing.

He produced teapots, cheese dishes, milk jugs and other tableware intended for exactly the same market as before, but at prices that provided greater profit margins and the chance to extend the product range.

Wemyss Ware was Heron’s inspiration. Early in the 1880s, he imported Bohemian immigrant ceramic painters to Kirkcaldy, enticing them to the cold and bleak Highlands with handsome salaries.

Few stayed long, with the exception of one Karel Nekola, a gifted ceramic artist with a vivid talent and an exceptional creative talent.

Fortunately for Heron, Nekola took a shine to his boss’s cook and the couple married and settled in the area.

Nekola’s unique painting skills made their mark in the factory’s decorating shop immediately and soon, the local decorators working there began to follow his style.

Outsize flowers, fruit and farmyard animals all painted in the strongest colours began to appear on everything produced by the factory, to be snapped up by an eager public keen to own something new and different.

Meanwhile, Heron began to take stock of the product range, axing anything that was difficult or costly to produce.

Instead, he concentrated on simple bedroom and domestic ware such as inkwells, candlesticks, jug and basin sets, early morning tea sets, biscuit and jam jars.

It is exactly these objects that today’s collectors covet most and prices have risen many fold over the last decade or so.

Unfortunately, what Heron failed to correct was the ability to successfully fuse brilliant coloured glazes on to hard-fired earthenware.

The high temperatures required for tough earthenware pots caused the underglaze colours to burn and fade.

Heron responded in the only way he knew how: by reducing the heat and firing the Wemyss Ware in the coldest areas of the kilns.

This resulted in pottery with an underfired, easily damaged body that was simply unable to stand up to the rigours of domestic life.

It was a risk calculated to be offset by the appeal of the strong, fresh colours and designs Nekola and his fellow painters could achieve in the decorating shop.

This has proved to be a double-edged sword for today’s collectors.

Pieces survive with colours still as brilliant as the day they were potted. However damage such as rim chips, broken handles and hairline cracks is rife, and restoration is both costly and tricky.

Consequently, prices for perfect examples of Wemyss have spiralled faster and higher than they might if the ware had been made in harder, stronger body that might have permitted more pieces to survive intact.

Robert Heron died in 1907. Wemyss Ware had its heyday from about 1885-1914, the Great War and increased sophistication among customers sounding its twin death knells.

Improved plumbing meant jugs and bowls were no longer needed in bedrooms; electricity killed off the need for candlesticks in every room and servants to carrying up the morning tea became a thing of the past.

Coupled to this was the dawning of the Art Deco era in which pretty Wemyss had no place, while Wemyss could not compete with a flood of cheap china imported from overseas.

The General Strike of 1926 marked the beginning of the end for the Fife Pottery which finally closed in 1930.

Renewed interest in antiques and collecting over the last 20 or so years has seen a staggering rise in the value of Wemyss Ware.

There was a time when pieces could be picked up in jumble sales and junk shops for a few shillings apiece.

Nowadays, international fine art auctioneers stage sales devoted solely to the ware and a number of dealers specialise in it to the exclusion of everything else.

And the more outrageous the designs and colour schemes, the more valuable the pieces become.

The sleeping pig decorated with roses, shamrock or clover leaves, is arguably the rarest and, for well-heeled, collectors most desirable of all Wemyss ware pieces.

She was produced for the nursery, sometimes with a slot in her back as a money box, and bigger ones as doorstops, while others were made to order and personalised with a child’s name and birthdate.

More scarce are sleeping piglets intended as paper weights, while families of cats, spotted, tabby or others up to their necks in the same cabbage roses that decorate other Wemyss pots are also highly sought after.

Wemyss Ware was named after the nearby cliff top castle home of the Wemyss family. It is rare today owing to its extreme fragility, the result of being fired at extremely low temperatures. This was necessary to produce a ‘biscuit’ body that would absorb the vibrant colours applied by the most delicate of brush strokes. After decoration, it was dipped into soft lead glaze and fired again, also at low temperatures, to further enhance the brilliant colours.

antiques@chris-prouldove.co.uk

Pictures show:

The rare early 20th century sleeping pigs, one decorated with cabbage roses, the other with two apples on a branch, which each sold for a world record £34,800.

When the Wemyss factory closed in 1930, the rights and moulds were purchased by the Bovey Tracey Pottery in Devon who employed Nekola’s son, Joseph, to continue to paint traditional Wemyss Ware until his death from diabetes in 1952. This rare seated cat, with its manic grin and green glass eyes, was painted by Joe Nekola and is worth £2,500-3,500

A trio of Wemyss bowls and jugs dating from the turn of the century and each worth around £1,000 (Photos: Sotheby’s)

Tags: Ceramics · Decorative Arts · Pottery · Scotland

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 paul // Apr 8, 2012 at 8:18 am

    I have over the last several years became a wemyss fan and mainly collect plichta cats of witch i have a number. I also have to very old pieces witch i believe to be extremely old wemyss one large transfer painted pig and one unusual cat can you give me some advice on how i can contact to verify my feelings

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