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The History of Martin Brothers Pottery

Debbie Porter

We sell many different Martin Brothers pottery, figurines and collectibles at auction. Get in touch if you are looking for something in particular or if you are looking to sell at auction.

The Martin Brothers – Robert Wallace, Charles, Edwin and Walter – were four brothers and pottery manufacturers in London that produced distinctive stoneware pottery from the 1870s and sporadically through to 1923. The brothers were best known for their bird and unusual face sculptures, bowls, and vessels decorated with sea creatures. Their unique “Wally Birds” in particular are extremely popular and highly collectable today, achieving exceptional prices at auction.

The Pottery was first started in Fulham in 1873 by Robert Wallace, who had trained as a sculptor, until 1877 where the business was moved to Havelock Road in Middlesex and remained there until its close after Robert Wallace’s death, the last remaining brother, in 1923. Several of the brothers would ultimately go on to be buried in the cemetery along the road from the Havelock Road studio.

The eccentric design of Martin Brothers pieces pioneered the way for this unique style of pottery and inspired many others to try and replicate it, making Martinware style wares like these grotesque face jugs popular at auction. Lot 672 – left – sold for £45 at our April 2018 auction, while Lot 568 (right), a vintage double-sided grotesque face jug in the style of Martin Brothers, sold for £130 at our October 2018 Auction of 20th Century British Pottery and quality furniture

The Martin Brothers are considered to be the pioneers of transitioning England away from decorative Victorian ceramics and heralding in the 20th century studio pottery movement, although at the time Martinware was described as art pottery as the concept of studio pottery had yet to be invented. Each of the four brothers had distinct roles within their studio; Robert Wallace was the self-appointed figurehead of the factory and was principally responsible for sculpting. Charles ran the shop and gallery at High Holborn, which unfortunately closed after a fire in 1903, Edwin was the principle decorator and Walter the expert thrower.

The brothers used a salt glaze method on their stoneware to give the pottery a rough surface, which was achieved by throwing salt into the kiln during the process. This then fused with the clay and created a surface which could be glassy or matte, depending on the conditions of each firing, and gave the pieces an ‘orange-peel’ texture. They usually worked with a subdued palette of browns, greens, greys and blues, which would become distinctive of Martinware pottery. They built their own kiln and used a single high temperature when firing the ceramics, exposing the pottery to the flame. This provided them with many problems, however, as their homemade kilns often failed and their creations most of the time came out faulty. In some cases, only one piece would come out correct.

Martin Brothers Wally bird jars are by far one of the most popular and highly collectible Martinware pieces today. This Burslem Pottey (Andrew Hull) ‘Vincent the Vulture’ grotesque bird, inspired by Martin Brothers (Lot 212A – left), sold for £240 at our November 2018 Antique, Rare Pottery and Fine Art Sale. Lot 228A, right, is another Burslem Pottery piece inspired by Martin Brothers of a Queen Victoria grotesque bird, which sold for £85 also at our November 2018 sale

Some of the best known of their wares are the gothic-inspired ‘grotesques’, modelled by Robert Wallace. They include comical spoon warmers, musical imps, face jugs and the iconic Wally bird jars, which were usually inspired by the people and public figures of Victorian London. Size, species, date, colouring and condition are all important when assessing these grotesques for sale at auction, but character is often the key to the high prices paid in recent years.

Martinware has always been popular with collectors, including Queen Mary who, in 1914, ordered 60 pieces to be exhibited at the Paris Exposition. Martin Brothers pottery has been especially popular since the 1970s, however, after an exhibition in Belgravia in 1978 did much to revive interest in their wares. In 2015, a new record auction price of $196,000 was set in New York for a 14-inch Wally bird jar from 1889.

Many of the brothers’ works are now seen as national treasures and are highly sought-after collectible pieces. The prices over the years have massively increased and continue to grow in price each year. At Potteries Auctions, we have a number of iconic Martin Brothers ceramic pieces with high estimates coming up as part of our September Fine Art sale. You can view the full catalogue for our upcoming auction here.

We always find these lots attract a lot of interest, especially since we haven’t had any of these ceramics make an appearance in our saleroom in a while. Check them out below to see if any of the pieces grab your interest and be sure you don’t miss out on these weird and wonderful wares.

Lot 739 (left) is a beautiful Martin Brothers stoneware vase with an estimated sale price of £1500-£3000, while Lot 741 (right), a Martin Brothers stoneware smiling musician imp figure, is set to go under the hammer for £750-£1500 at our September Fine Art auction

Lots 742 and 743 are both Martin Brothers stoneware musician imp figures and are estimated to sell for between £600-£1200 as part of our Fine Art sale next month

If you have some Martin Brothers Pottery pieces that you would like to auction, get in touch and we can help you with a valuation.  Talk to our team of experts who will be able to give you an accurate auction estimate on animals, figures, jugs, and other Martin Brothers Pottery pieces.  You can join us at one of our valuation days, email us for an appointment or call us on +44 (0)1782 638100 Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.