Royal Doulton Stoneware - is it a rock solid investment?

An article on the collecting of Royal Doulton Stoneware from the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.

Collecting fashions come and go. Prices for certain types of collectables rise rapidly, until they become investment objects, and often enough they fall in value again. The collector then has to suffer the pain and indignity of having bought ‘at the top of the market’ and watch their prized possessions fall out of favour.

We have seen early porcelain figures, Victorian paintings, brown furniture, postage stamps and some clocks all take heavy cyclical ‘knocks’. The maxim of ‘only buying the best’, in order to escape the sickening revenge of an overpriced market, is not available to most collectors. The secret is to find a new area where a sizeable collection of beautiful objects can be built without a major investment. This can still be done.

Pair of 8 inch vases by Bessie Newbery 9 inch dia lidded pot by Vera Huggins

A pair of 8" vases by Bessie Newbery (left) and a 9in lemonade jug by Frances E Lee (right)

Buying for the criterion of rarity, such as memorabilia, does not build a collection that can be enjoyed on a daily basis. It gives the satisfaction of possession, but who wants to look at the signatures of four Beatles every day? Memorabilia collectors would be well advised to remember that the passage of time is a great demolition expert and that they might be better to forget the Beatles and remember immortal Nelson. In the long term, a collection based on beauty and design will out-perform one based solely on craftsmanship. A collection with eye-appeal can be enjoyed daily, and for most people must be contained within a relatively small space.

A marqueterie dish A mustard pot by Alice M Herepath

A very rare 6in marqueterie dish (left) A 9.5in vase by Harry Simeon (right)

And so where do we go from here? There is an area in the field of ceramics where one does not need to spend over £100 per item to buy well designed and well made objects, with fantastic eye-appeal. Those who collected Clarice Cliff, and Moorcroft, before they became so valuable have been very wise. Prices have risen so much that forgeries from the far-east, difficult to detect, are now making some collectors very cautious, and duping others. It is well worth having a good look, literally as well as metaphorically, at the Art Nouveau and the Art Deco periods of the Stoneware produced by Royal Doulton. The items above date from the first and third decades of the 20th century; for that period the design was very avant garde.

A  biscuit barrel by Bertha Evans An Art Deco vase by Florrie Jones approx 8 inch tall dating from the 1930s

A biscuit barrel by Bertha Evans (left) [A museum quality 15in vase by Francis C Pope] (right)

For a reasonable amount you can buy an object of beauty that is well made, robust, in adequate supply, and that will give great pleasure. If you want the cream of the Hannah Barlows, the Mark Marshalls and the Frank Butlers, you must pay hundreds or thousands, but there are many lovely signed vases and other objects for much less. The main decorative output of the Doulton Lambeth factories was vases, but other items made in reasonable quantities were jugs, bowls, flasks, ash-trays, teapots and occasionally chamber pots!

A 10 inch dia fruit bowl by Florence Barlow with servers

A group of Doulton Stoneware items from approx 1875 to 1930

Where can you find them? The answer is that they are all out there at auctions, antiques fairs and Ebay, just like all the other items we love to collect. Trailing around antique shops is a longwinded process as quality items are rare, and they possibly came from an auction or Ebay anyhow! For anyone interested, the literature about them is superb. Definitive works by Desmond Eyles and Louise Irvine, are comprehensive and scholarly, but never dry. There is enough data published to enable you to date the items and, frequently, to ascribe them to an artist. There are Lyle price guides by Tony Curtis for those who would rather rely on a book than their own instinctive assessment of the beauty of an object.

A pair of 7.5 inch Doulton Lambeth Silicon ware vases by Frances E Lee Some vases

A pair of 7.5in Doulton Lambeth Silicon ware vases by Frances E Lee (left) A pair of Lambeth vases by Louisa Davis (right)

Many of the Doulton artists worked there for long periods and they appear to have been very content in their employment; thirty, forty or even fifty years does not appear to be an exceptional length of service.

These lovely objects can be bought for a fraction of the cost of a Royal Worcester vase, by the likes of Stinton, Seabright or Baldwyn. Where’s the logic? The Royal Worcester vase is an object of supreme craftsmanship, great ostentation, but is it really an object of great design and beauty? It is the old chestnut of an argument as to the relative value of craftsmanship and creativity. At this moment, craftsmanship is winning, but the returns from backing an ‘outsider’ are much greater and, at this moment, creativity in ceramics is well worth backing. The illustrations will give you an idea of the enormous variety of colour, shape and decoration that is available.

It is possible to buy a perfect signed piece for about £50 to £100, and you have an item of beauty that can be cherished, displayed and admired. A fascinating collection can be put together without a major investment. As only one Doulton Stoneware artist was ever allowed to sign the surface of his work, the incised monograms under the base of all the items often need a lot of deciphering and research; and the knowledge of the vendors and their agents is sometimes limited. The joy of finding an item of great beauty, researching it, attributing it, and discovering that it is by one of the leading Doulton ceramic artists, gives great satisfaction.

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An 8 inch vase from the early 1900s by Bessie Newbery

An 8 inch vase from the early 1900s by Bessie Newbery. The bold art nouveau design was the inspiration for the Doulton4Collectors logo.