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Why 'Grotesque' Wally Birds are loved the world over - 31/10/2017

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A triple Wally Bird and other Martinware coming up for auction on October 24.

Hansons is getting noticed – all over the world and, I’m proud to say, putting Derbyshire on the map, writes Charles Hanson. 

In the wake of the phenomenal sale of a Chinese plate found in a Derbyshire kitchen cupboard for £230,000, four hugely sought-after pieces of pottery have arrived here from New York. Collectively, they are worth £100,000.

And I could not be more excited. I have always wanted to sell a Wally Bird. You may never have heard of them but in the antiques-world they are famous. 

A Wally Bird is, of course, a bird, but one that is made out of pottery and far from ordinary. They were made by Robert Wallace Martin, hence the name Wally, in Victorian London.

Robert Wallace was way ahead of his time and wickedly talented. Look closely and you will see the birds’ faces have human expressions, often caricatures of political figures of the day. 

Along with his three brothers, Walter, Charles and Edwin, Robert Wallace launched Martinware Pottery in 1873 with a kiln in Fulham and sporadic production continued until 1923.

Their creations were eccentric – and so were the brothers. Robert Wallace modelled the figures, Walter fired the kiln, mixed the glazes and threw the pots, Edwin was chiefly the decorator while the youngest brother, Charles, ran the city shop - badly.

Wildly eccentric, even by the standards of his siblings, he hated to part with any of the wares, hid the best of them under the floorboards, and turned away many a prospective customer. Eventually, the shop burned down, the brothers lost their stock - and Charles his sanity.

 But the brothers’ eccentricity and talent got them noticed and soon buyers from Tiffany & Co in New York were knocking at the door.

 Now their Victorian art pottery is coveted across the world and four exceptional pieces have come into our Etwall saleroom.

 They include a triple Wally Bird featuring three birds and valued at £50,000. In addition, a rare frog has an estimate of £22,000, an inkwell is valued at £18,000 and ‘The Preacher’ comes in at £10,000.

 Such is their pedigree these extraordinary pieces are often bought as investments. The market has tripled in value in the last two decades.

 Triple-bird groups are among the most coveted of all Martinware Pottery so to have one here at Hansons is very special.

 In the early 1880s the first ‘Grotesque’ birds were produced by Robert Wallace. They are utterly captivating. The heads can be turned to different angles and the birds were sometimes modelled on leading political figures and influential merchants including politicians Gladstone and Disraeli.

 In 2015, an example of Disraeli sold at auction for £175,000 despite restoration. At the same auction a triple-bird group made more than £56,000.

 Martinware is Victorian art pottery at its best.

The Martin Brothers’ pottery will be sold at Hansons Auctioneers’ Decorative Arts Auction in Heage Lane, Etwall, on October 24. To find out more, email service@hansonsauctioneers.co.uk or call 01283 733988. 

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