Highlights from The Ellison Collection

David Rago discusses the remarkably charming, creative, yet functional pottery of the English Martin Brothers, featuring lots 129 and 131.

My daydreams and my nightly visions teem with Gothic...through loopholes which barely disturbed the gloom within, I have seen strings of sleeping bats and in darksome chambers found quaint carvings never intended to see the light.

Robert Wallace Martin

Martin Brothers Pottery

As the Martin Brothers, Robert Wallace, Walter, Charles, and Edwin Martin produced distinctive stoneware pottery in London from 1873 to 1923, and may be considered frontrunners of the 20th century studio pottery movement. They were especially known for their whimsical approach to subject matter including birds and sea creatures, with works that evidenced both humor and tremendous skill in their medium. The company was founded by the eldest Martin brother, Robert Wallace, who acted as figurehead, while Walter was thrower, Edwin was principal decorator, and Charles ran the shop.

Robert Wallace founded the studio in London’s Fulham neighborhood after studying at the Lambeth School of Art (where brothers Walter and Edwin also attended) and the Royal Academy School. In 1877, the pottery would move to the London suburb of Southhall, Middlesex. Unlike the Victorian trend of decoration, the Martin Brothers approached their craft as an intellectual endeavor. They became especially well-known for their so-called “Wally Birds,” bird-form jars with expressive faces that were said to sometimes be modeled from political figures. The Wally Birds are an example of the Brothers’ “grotesques,” detailed sculptural works that alternately depicted monsters, reptiles, and unidentified creatures. As The Magazine of Art wrote, referencing Lewis Carroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark: “We have a hundred young sculptors who will model you a Venus or an Adonis as soon as look at you; but who save Mr. Martin could give you a Boojum or a Snark in the round.”

Martinware was certainly popular and collectible in its time—indeed in 1914 Queen Mary ordered 60 pieces to be exhibited at the Paris Exposition. Production of Martinware definitively ended in 1923 upon the death of Robert Wallace. In the 1970s, Martinware experienced a revival in popularity and today is held in the collections of major institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Auction Results Martin Brothers Pottery