by Christopher Proudlove©
Ever eager to keep these columns current, I felt compelled to find something to do with Easter. Inspiration came following a local auction sale in which this trio of pottery Bunnykins figures were offered. In the event, they were knocked down for a staggering total of £2,810. If nothing else, the sale proved there is no upper limit to the prices some hard-bitten collectors are prepared to pay for Royal Doulton rarities.
The bunny rabbit, whose propensity for breeding is legendary, has long served as a fertility symbol for the Spring. Bunnykins figures came from the fertile imagination of a young woman whose father, Cuthbert Bailey, happened to be the managing director of Royal Doulton. As a child, Barbara Vernon Bailey had filled sketchbooks with drawings of the countryside, and of the animals kept by her four brothers and two sisters including pigs, cows, horses and ferrets, as well as the more cuddly dogs, cats and guinea-pigs. But it was the wild rabbits, brought to life by her father’s exciting and sometimes frightening bedtime stories, that really delighted her. When, in 1934, Cuthbert Bailey hit on a new line of children’s nurseryware, he turned to Barbara for illustrations rather than a professional artist.
However, by then Barbara had joined the Augustine Order and become Sister Mary Barbara in an enclosed Sussex convent. The prioress was far from happy with the idea. Fortunately, permission was granted, albeit reluctantly and on condition that no profit should be made from the project for either the artist or the convent. It was an unfortunate demand, denying the Order considerable royalties which could have been put to good use.
Nevertheless, in a scene lovingly lampooned in the figurine Sister Mary Barbara Bunnykins, Barbara worked late into the night from the light of a candle, churning out dozens of whimsical sketches drawing on her childhood memories and centred on Mr Rabbit who bore a distinct likeness to her father with his round glasses and puffing a pipe. Barbara’s illustrations of rabbits gardening, bathing, dancing and cooking were an instant success and within a year, Doulton’s Bunnykins pottery was in nurseries around the world. By the time of the Second World War, there were 66 different Bunnykins scenes decorating plates, cups, sugar bowls, jam pots and other crockery.
Barbara ceased drawing when her convent teaching duties meant she was too busy to continue and her designs had been withdrawn by1952, but other designers continued in the growing Bunnykins tradition. Doulton’s Hubert Light and later Walter Hayward adapted her drawings and then the latter began to create his own busier version of the Bunnykins world. Colin Twinn subsequently designed Bunnykins scenes from 1987 until the mid-1990s and Frank Endersby took over in 1995. Barbara Vernon died in 2003 aged 92.
Bunnykins figurines were added to the traditional tableware in 1939 with six figures being produced for a very brief time. They were modelled by Charles Noke, Doulton’s most important artist and are so rare today that only the most serious collector seeks them out. However, in 1972, soon after Doulton took over the Beswick factory, a second generation of nine Bunnykins figurines were produced and for the first 10 years, they reflected Walter Hayward’s tableware designs, ranging from Artist Bunnykins to Sleeptime Bunnykins. They were modelled by Albert Hallam. In 1980, Harry Sales, the design manager at Beswick, took over the Bunnykins range and realised the potential of appealing to the adult collector. Suddenly the bunnies were jogging, playing the guitar, blasting off for the moon and in the late 1980s various limited edition colourways and specially commissioned Bunnykins models were produced.
It is the pre-1950s Bunnykins designs, especially those that carry Barbara Vernon’s signature, that are in most demand today. Values of many of these early pieces are now in the £50 to £100 bracket, but rarer pieces such as large jugs or teapots can fetch £200 or £300 or more. The vast majority of more recent Bunnykins ware is more affordable and can be picked up at fleamarkets and car boot sales in the £10 to £35 price range. There is an international collectors’ club which offers priority notice of new issues to Royal Doulton enthusiasts.
For further reading, the definitive guide to collecting Bunnykins figures is Royal Doulton Collectables (formerly Royal Doulton Bunnykins) by Jean Dale and Louise Irvine, the fourth edition of which was published in January this year. It contains information on 36 new shape/pattern combinations which have been added to the pricing tables and 20 new pattern combinations, several in the “rare” pattern category. The guide is available from all good booksellers.
Pictures show, top:
Auction pricebusters, left to right: Mother Bunnykins, sold for £900; Reggie Bunnykins, sold for £1350 and Farmer Bunnykins, which sold for £560 despite having a broken and re-stuck right ear
Below, left to right:
Rare early Bunnykins figures produced in 1939, clockwise, top: Mother, Farmer, Mary, Reggie Freddie and Billy. The teapot in the centre of the picture is particularly rare and is worth £400-600
Sister Mary Barbara Bunnykins. Barbara worked late into the night from the light of a candle, churning out dozens of whimsical sketches drawing on her childhood memories
Recognising the gift potential of the figurines, Royal Doulton make a range of Bunnykins modeled to reflect their professions. Picture here, left to right are Plumber, Chef and Teacher