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Theatre and Dance.

The history of European theatre as we know and understand it dates back about 2,500 years to ancient Greece, in fact the word "theatre" itself is in origin a Greek word.  Athenian tragedy, the oldest surviving form of tragedy, is a type of dance-drama that formed an important part of the theatrical culture of the city state.

From these earliest times drama and dance have developed side by side, through Roman, Medieval and into the Elizabethan era where the playwright William Shakespeare was an undoubted master. 

As we enter the 18th and 19th centuries the actors themselves became household names with the likes of David Garrick (illustrated opposite playing Macbeth at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in April 1768) becoming the celebrities of the day.

It is therefore not surprising that from the very earliest days of porcelain production in Derby, subjects relating to theatre and dance featured heavily as subjects for figural production.  This tradition continues through to the present day.  Within this exhibition we look at various aspects and examples of this figural production.  (The smaller images will expand if you click on them.)

William Shakespeare.

It would seem both sensible and apt to begin this exhibition with a look at William Shakespeare and a few of his characters.  Shakespeare was, in the eyes of many, our greatest playwright and therefore it should come as no surprise that porcelain figures of both him and many of the characters in his plays have featured strongly in Derby production.  

The first figure of Shakespeare himself was produced at Derby c1756 and it is believed that this was based on the monument of Shakespeare in Poets Corner, Westminster Abbey.  This figure was reproduced at intervals right through to the early 20th century.  Below are three examples, to the left a very early Nottingham Road figure c1760-65 with patch marks (Royal Crown Derby Museum), in the centre another Nottingham Road figure but from the Bloor Derby period c1830-35, marked with a red gothic crown over D (Private Collection) and to the right a King Street figure dating to the early 20th century with a red crossed swords mark(Bamfords Auctioneers).

(For more information on the origins of this Derby figure and of his figural companion John Milton, see exhibit no. 67 in the Derby Porcelain Society exhibition catalogue, November 2017.)

Figures of Characters from Shakespearian Plays.

Richard III


Over the years the character of Richard III has been reproduced several times by Derby and we include two examples here.  The first example was of the actor David Garrick in the role which first appeared c1771 and was adapted from the mezzotint by John Dixon after a portrait by Nathaniel Dance.  The earliest examples have patch marks to the base and when the Factory List was introduced a few years later this figure was given the number 21.

To the right you can see a figure of David Garrick as Richard III, dating to c1780 (Mellors & Kirk Auctioneers) alongside a copy of the Dixon mezzotint.

Later, when the role of Richard III was taken on by Edmund Kean, Derby simply replaced the head of David Garrick with that of Kean, leaving the remainder of the model unchanged.  However as you can probably see from the image of an Edmund Kean example alongside, there is also a change to the style of decoration with the colours being more vivid and the use of a deep blue with added gilding, typical of early 19th century Derby figures.  This example dates to c1815 but it is also interesting to note the marks on the base.  The figure is incised No 21, the number originally given to the Garrick model, and also has a red crown over D, an unusual Derby mark for the period.  (Royal Crown Derby Museum)


Another Shakespearian character reproduced many times at both Nottingham Road and King Street is that of Sir John Falstaff.  The character of Falstaff actually appears in several of Shakespeare's plays, in both Henry IV parts 1 and 2 where he is a companion to Prince Hal, the future Henry V.  He also appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor where he is presented as a drunken and buffoonish suitor of two married women.

The Derby figure of Falstaff is based on a mezzotint by James McArdell after Francis Haymen of the actor James Quinn in the role with the first figure being produced c1760.  It must have been a popular figure, with examples existing from most periods of the Nottingham Road factory and continued by King Street right through to the early 20th century.  We feature two examples here from either end of the date spectrum, a very early Nottingham Road figure c1765 (Royal Crown Derby Museum) and a late King Street example c1915-35 (Bamfords Auctioneers).  Over the space of 150 years there is very little change to the model.  The early figure has patch marks, the later figure has the usual King Street crossed swords mark in puce, with two parallel lines indicating it was decorated by Harry Sampson Hancock. 


The character best known as "Puck", but also referred to as "Hobgoblin" and "Robin Goodfellow" appears in Shakespeare's comedy, A Midsummer Night's Dream.  He is a vassal of the Fairy King Oberon and is responsible for general mischief and mayhem.

This Derby Crown figure dating to c1881/2 (Private Collection) is shape number 284 and has Puck sat on the stalk of an upturned toadstool.  It is marked with the usual Derby Crown mark with date cypher below and with the incised shape number 284.  The date cypher is a little unclear and can't be read exactly and the incised number not clear on the image.

Commedia dell'Arte

This was an early form of professional theatre, originating in Italy and popular in Europe from 16th to the late 18th century.  It was a type of improvisational theatre without set dialogues but built around certain fixed types.  Usually performed outside on simple stage sets, the performances were comical, loud and colourful.  The mezzotint opposite depicts a typical scene.


Characters from these theatre groups were used as an inspiration for Derby figures though their popularity and therefore production was mainly limited to the 18th century.

Below we show two examples of these early figures, a pair of candlestick figures depicting Mr Punch as Harlequin and as a Lamplighter dating to c1752-55 and a figure group of Harlequin and Columbine dating to c1756-58.  (Both Royal Crown Derby Museum)

Other Theatrical Figures.

We showed earlier in the exhibition how many of the great theatrical figures of the day were immortalised in porcelain for their performances.  This was not just restricted to Shakespearian actors, many others who were popular at the time received the same accolade.  We're pleased to show a few of them here.

John Liston (c1776-1846).  This English comedian and actor was most famous for his character Paul Pry.  First presented in 1825 it was quickly immortalised in porcelain by Derby.  Liston/Pry is generally featured carrying an umbrella.  The Nottingham Road example we illustrate here is unusual in that he doesn't have one.  It dates to c1825-30 and has a circular Bloor Derby mark.  (Private collection)  Alongside is a King Street example with an umbrella and dating to c1915-35.  It has the usual King Street crossed swords mark in puce along with two parallel lines for Harry Sampson Hancock.  (Bamfords Auctioneers).  There are also Derby figures of Liston portraying Maw Worm and Domine Sampson, though these are rare.

Madame Vestris (1797-1856).  A contemporary of John Liston, Lucia Elizabeth "Madame" Vestris actually appeared on stage with Liston at the Haymarket theatre in London in "The Hundred Pound Note".  Attired as Bavarian women the pair sang "Buy a Broom" and the Derby model of Madame Vestris as a Broom Lady comes from this role.  The example here is marked in red with a crown over BLOOR DERBY.  (Mellors & Kirk Auctioneers)

Henry Woodward and Nancy Dawson.  It is believed that the pair of figures known as "A Sailor and his Lass" represent Woodward and Dawson in character roles from Gray's ballad "The Farewell of Sweet William to Black-Eyed Susan", first published in 1720.  This pair of figures are incised with No. 316 and date to c1780.

Another theatrical figure is Peter Pan.  The origins of this character are rather complex, but he is well known today as the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up in J. M. Barrie's work and for entertaining generations of children in both films and pantomimes.  Royal Crown Derby produced a rather lovely figure of Peter Pan in 1933, modelled by Miss M. R. Locke.  It is usually found coloured (Private Collection), though Royal Crown Derby Museum have a white example.  Both are exhibited here.

Our final theatrical figure is Anny Ahlers.  Anny was a German actress and singer who was born in Hamburg in 1907.  She looks a rather unlikely subject for a Derby figure, but she made her way to England in 1933, appearing on the London stage.  In 1933 whilst appearing there she died in rather controversial circumstances, jumping from her flat window in an apparent suicide.  Her death was blamed on a mixture of the morphine she was taking to treat her tuberculosis and the sleeping pills she took for insomnia.  However whatever the reason, Royal Crown Derby were prompted to produce a very striking figure of her based on a pose taken from her performance in "The Dubarry" which is believed to have been her final role.  The figure was produced both coloured (Private collection) and white (Royal Crown Derby Museum) and was modelled by Tom Wilkinson.  The date cypher below the coloured example is for 1933.

The Ranelagh Dancers.

Going back in time again we visit the well know pair of Derby figures, the Ranelagh Dancers. 


On the 24th May 1759, a masked ball was held in Ranelagh Gardens, Vauxhall, to celebrate the birthday of Frederick George, Prince of Wales.  The colourful and sometimes bizarre costumes worn by the guests prompted a number of engravings, two of which can be seen below.

Whilst the Chelsea factory produced quite a number of figures of guests at the ball, Derby produced just this pair which were not reproduced in later years.  Therefore all Derby figures of Ranelagh Dancers can be fairly accurately dated to c1760-65.  (Royal Crown Derby Museum).  There is a scarcer variation with the figures adapted as candlesticks.

The gallant wearing a tricorn hat, cloak and theatrical costume holds a letter inscribed "Domine Lucretia" in his outstretched hand, whilst the lady dressed in a mantle and Court dress with plumes in her hair has a cameo suspended on a ribbon from her shoulder which is believed to have been the token of admission to the festivities.

This is a quite delightful figure group of a lady and gentleman dancing a reel.

Demonstrating how the various porcelain factories of Europe followed and reproduced the work of others, this lovely couple were taken from the Etienne Falconer model called "La Danse Allemande" and first produced by the Sevres factory in 1765.  Derby produced this model group c1775-80.  It has patch marks below and is incised No. 46.  (Private collection).

Another particularly fine pair of dancers are this pair from the Bloor Derby period c1830-35.  (Private collection).  First produced in the 1780's, this pair of figures are incised No 317 (gallant) and No 318 (lady) and both are marked with the imitation Meissen mark of crossed swords in underglaze blue.

The King Street factory did not produce as many figures of dancers as the other two Derby factories, but this rare group is one example where they did.  Known as "The Polish Dancers", this brightly coloured boy and girl dance on a marbled base underneath which is the King Street crossed swords mark in red.  It should be noted that the usual two sets of three dots are missing.  The group dates to the late 19th century and is 21cm high.  (Bamfords Auctioneers.)

It is noted in the book "Old Crown Derby China Works, The King Street Factory, 1849-1935" by Blackwood and Head that a larger version in biscuit, allegedly made at King Street from a Nottingham Road mould, was offered for sale as part of the W. Winter Collection.  This sale was held in Derby on 27th June 1884.  Does anyone know its whereabouts?

Finally we have this lovely figure of a ballerina, sculpted by the very talented Miss M. R. Locke.  Titled "Conquest", the ballerina holds her pose on a round base with a bouquet of flowers at her feet.  She's marked below with the red Royal Crown Derby mark with the date cypher for 1936.  (Royal Crown Derby Museum).

Not a great deal is recorded about the life and work of Miss Locke, but it has been noted that her modelling is of an outstanding quality and we have a member researching further into her life.  Once completed an article will appear in a Society publication and members will learn more of this very talented lady.

The Society would like to acknowledge the following for help and assistance with the preparation of this exhibition -

  1. Royal Crown Derby Museum and its curator Jacqueline Smith for advice, support and the use of Museum photographs

  2. The members who have allowed us to use images of items from their collections

  3. Both Bamfords and Mellors & Kirk Fine Art Auctioneers for their continued support in allowing us to use their images both within our website and our other on-line platforms.  Both auction houses are members of the Society.

The following two books were especially helpful with information -

  1. "Derby Porcelain Figures 1750-1848" by Peter Bradshaw

  2. "Old Crown Derby China Works, The King Street Factory 1849-1935" by Robin Blackwood and Cherryl Head.

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