Wally bird owl

© Plymouth City Council (Arts and Heritage)

We have some weird and wonderful creatures in our permanent collections – although you’d probably expect to find them in the natural history department rather than the art department!

This stoneware ‘Wally Bird’ is part of our decorative art collection and is one of over 100 pieces made by acclaimed Victorian ‘art-potters’, The Martin Brothers.

Charles, Walter, Wallace and Edwin opened their first pottery in their family home in Fulham in 1873. Four years later, in 1877, they moved to a larger factory in Southall.

Brotherly love was not always evident throughout their careers. They struggled with each other over finances and argued regularly about the factory’s artistic direction.

Their differing personalities and opinions also had a positive side though and meant that their work reflected a variety of styles.

They were particularly influenced by Gothic Revival and the Arts and Crafts movement. This took its inspiration from Medieval and Renaissance designs and had a particular focus on nature.

At the time they moved to Southall the area was still quite rural. Their factory looked out onto the Grand Junction Canal which was home to a range of wildlife. Insects, fish and birds began to appear in their work. Some people even describe this as the Martin Brothers’ ‘Canal Bank Period’.

Wallace Martin started to make tobacco jars, which became known as ‘Wally Birds’, from around 1880.

The birds usually had human characteristics to make them look funny. He often created them to look like barristers or judges. He even made birds based on Prime Ministers William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.

This large owl-shaped jar dates from 1893 and is one of my favourite pieces of ‘Martinware’. Its head acts as a lid while its hand-modelled features have been salt glazed with a mottled beige and brown.

Owls have appeared regularly in traditional English pottery. With this one, Wallace Martin’s imagination and sense of humour are evident. The way the eyes are positioned, in particular, makes it look comical as well as very stern and life-like.

You may think it’s strange that, despite the beautiful animals they must have seen, the Martin Brothers chose to create objects that are unattractive.

However, in the 1800s stuffed animals set in human poses or engaged in human activities were very common. The Victorians were also fascinated by the ‘grotesque’ or ‘the other’. You can see how a ‘Wally Bird’ would have contributed to these popular styles.

Perhaps the Martin Brothers were also challenging the common idea of beauty?

Whatever their motivations, they certainly had a talent for turning the mundane into something more unique – and for transforming lumps of clay into objects that looked as if they were almost living and breathing.

Visit our Martin Brothers online catalogue to see more in this collection.

Jo Clarke, Marketing and Programme Development. This article was first published on 29 April 2014.