|By Larry LeMasters
The four Martin Brothers (Robert, Walter, Edwin, and Charles) created some of the most original pottery ever produced. Their taste for bizarre motifs, which characterized the late 19th century salt-glazed stoneware of the brothers, has continually captured collectors’ interests for the past 100 years.
It has been said that the talented genius of the four brothers first emerged at the Royal Doulton and Lambeth Potteries where Robert and Edwin apprenticed.
They established their first studio in 1873 in Fulham, England (they later moved to Southall). The four brothers worked together effortlessly, each recognizing the talents of the other brothers. Robert Wallace became the head of the studio by virtue of the fact that he was the creative genius who was responsible for most of the Martin Brothers modeling, especially the now famous grotesques and face jugs. Edwin Martin was the principle decorator, Walter was the thrower, and Charles operated the shop and gallery at High Holborn in London.
The Martin Brothers’ unique style and creations immediately captured the public’s imagination, lasting until their factory closed in 1914. Since that time the value of their pottery has skyrocketed. Today, a salt-glazed stoneware bird-jar from the grotesque aviary series can easily bring between $30,000 and $40,000. And their least expensive pieces — their vases — bring about $2,500 on the secondary market.
Their whimsical creatures include birds and animals with human features — grinning and grimacing human features, and menacing goblins, mythical dragons, and Wally Birds.
Wally Birds are, arguably, their most popular pieces. A Wally Bird is a tobacco jar styled in the form of a grotesque bird, often resembling an oddly shaped owl or demented looking raven. Although many pottery companies produced Wally Birds, Robert Wallace Martin is widely recognized as the founding sculptor in this exciting line of ware. In fact, Wally Birds have become highly representative of Martinware.
Many English creative works (such as Gulliver’s Travels) were satirically based on leading public figures of the day. Martin Brothers Wally Birds have also been called “grotesque caricatures (an image showing the features of a subject greatly simplified or exaggerated, sometimes for insulting reasons but most often created solely for entertainment) of politicians and other famous British people. Some of the public’s interest in the “grotesque” Wally Birds was the guessing as to whom the bird was supposed to resemble.
All of their work represented the early studio pottery movement, created with mottled “orange peel” salt-glazes in muted shades of cream, gray, brown, blue, and yellow. These colors, typical of their wares, combined beautifully to create realistic effects on the incised stoneware pottery.
Some of the Martin Brothers work had utilitarian purposes, such as their vases that were inspired by the popular foliage designs of William Morris. But even these “practical” pieces stressed the aesthetic qualities of ceramics over the practical usage of the vessel.
The earliest pieces are simply signed “Martin.” Pieces created between 1882 and 1914 are nearly always incised “RW Martin & Brothers London & Southall.” Later pieces also have an incised number and date
Martin Brothers were financially successful since their unique Martinware pieces were highly collectible during their production run and later during the life of the brothers. Leading philanthropists, politicians, and merchants collected the brothers’ work and, subsequently, prices for their work has increased dramatically.
Novice collectors should be aware that Martin Brothers grotesque Wally Birds have been duplicated and reproduced by many potters. Most notably in the reproduction of Wally Birds is Burselm Pottery, a modern potter whose grotesque birds often fool unschooled collectors. Fortunately for some collectors (those who can’t afford $35,000 for a bird sculpture), Burselm Pottery grotesque Wally Birds sell in the range of $350 or 1% of the price of authentic Martinware.
While the grotesque imagery of their work created pieces that are best described as possessing “an appealing ugliness,” the monetary value of the pieces make them most attractive to collectors and investors alike.