R. W. Martin & Brothers - Design Evening New York Thursday, December 13, 2018 | Phillips

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  • Provenance

    Sotheby & Co., London, “Nineteenth and Twentieth Century English, Continental and Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art,” June 15, 1971, lot 86
    Roy Aitken, Esq.
    Sotheby’s Belgravia, “A Large Collection of Martin Brothers Stoneware: The Property of Roy Aitken, Esq.,” April 19, 1978, lot 20
    Richard Dennis, London
    John S. M. Scott, Esq., London, 1978
    The Fine Art Society, London
    Sinai and Sons, London, 2014
    Acquired from the above

  • Exhibited

    "The Martin Brothers Potters," Sotheby's Belgravia, London, September 16–October 14, 1978
    “The John Scott Collection: Decorative Arts from the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries,” The Fine Art Society, London, June 11–20, 2014

  • Literature

    The Martin Brothers Potters, exh. cat., Sotheby's Belgravia, London, 1978, p. 5, no. 81
    Malcolm Haslam, The Martin Brothers Potters, London, 1978, illustrated p. 12
    The John Scott Collection: British Art Pottery, Volume 3, exh. cat., The Fine Art Society, London, 2014, illustrated p. 26

  • Catalogue Essay

    Diversity and Intensity
    by Malcolm Haslam

    All pieces of pottery made by the Martin brothers are distinctive, most are excellent, some outstanding. The four pieces on offer here are the crème de la crème. They all owe much of their brilliance to the genius of Robert Wallace Martin (1843-1924), the eldest of the four brothers, the founder of the pottery, and an artistic talent to rival any other Victorian sculptor. His eccentric imagination, combined with mental determination and prodigious manual skill, created an œuvre which is awesome, both in its diversity and its intensity.

    These four pieces represent a microcosm of that diversity. The clock case is architectural, a functional object, decorated with mostly flat pattern. Then there are the two birds, slyly humorous, pretending to be tobacco-jars but patently impractical as such. At several further degrees of remoteness from the utility of the clock case, comes the crab with a human face, a surreal monster which is totally non-functional, pure sculpture created to amuse but also to terrify. It is this diversity of style which has drawn in over the years so many collectors who themselves, perhaps, have only one thing in common—an aesthetic appreciation beyond the conventional.

    The intensity of Wallace's creations is revealed in each of these four pieces. A dramatic intensity is achieved not only through the sheer scale of the clock case, but also through the density of its ornament. The bird made in 1883 also impresses through its size; it wears an expression so intensely human, yet remains so irrefutably avian, that one is forced to laugh without being quite sure what one is laughing at, which is the essence of true humor. The caricature of Sir Edward Clarke regards you with such an intensely inquisitorial eye that one feels oneself quaking in the witness box before a barrage of searching questions, only able to give a series of contradictory answers.

    The crab is, quite simply, intensity itself, realized in stoneware; the reality of its intensity seems to be almost the only thing about the creature which is real. To create such a monster takes the extreme imagination that its maker possessed—or, rather, which possessed its maker.

    Between them the four pieces reveal two primary sources of influence which helped to mold Wallace's imagination. Like so many minds, then and now, his fell under the spell of Christopher Dresser's ideas. Wallace was precisely the sort of under-privileged art-worker at whom Dresser aimed his writings; Principles of Decorative Design (1873) was based on a series of lectures which Dresser had "prepared especially for those noble fellows who, through want of opportunity, have been without the advantages of education, but who have the praiseworthy courage to educate themselves in later life, when the value of knowledge has become apparent to them.” He adopted two slogans, “Knowledge is Power” and “Truth, Beauty, Power,” and his insistence on power as an important ingredient of art may well have helped to raise the level of intensity in Wallace's work. In Studies in Design (1874-1876), Dresser wrote: "The drawing of all grotesques must be vigorous and energetic. Grotesques must be expressed with such force and power as will give to them apparent reality, however impossible their formation may be." The significance of this passage to Wallace's grotesque animals and birds is clear, although his sculpted figures are very different to Dresser's two-dimensional designs, usually conceived in rational, geometrical terms.

    Alongside Dresser's tenets, Wallace's mind held another artistic creed: a Ruskinian belief in nature and the art of the Middle Ages. This too had a profound influence on his imagination. He probably read much of John Ruskin's literary output as it was issued, but when he went to work as an assistant to the sculptor Alexander Munro in 1861 he might well have come face to face with the great man himself, who was godfather to one of Munro's children and a frequent visitor at the sculptor's studio in Buckingham Palace Road. Many other visitors called at the studio; Rossetti, Lewis Carroll, and George MacDonald, the author of Phantastes (1858) were all intimate friends, and Edward Lear sometimes dropped by. How much of the medievalism and surreal humour which laced their talk was absorbed by Wallace can only be a matter of conjecture, but it was apparently enough to act as an antidote to Dresser's rationalistic formalism.

    Robert Wallace Martin's pottery is a cocktail of these and probably other theories about art held by progressive Victorian thinkers. Somehow, into this mix was poured a large measure of religious fanaticism. The magnificent results of this alchemy can be seen in the diversity and intensity of the work which remains with us today to be cherished and enjoyed.


    The Martin brothers had arrived at the site of their new works near Southall in April 1877. They had quickly built their kiln, but the first three firings had been unsuccessful. In October they had almost completely relined the kiln, and another firing had been carried out in December; this time, much better results had been achieved. So January 1878, when this clock case was made, must have been a time of jubilation for the brothers, particularly for Robert Wallace whose dream of an independent working pottery had at last been realized. The future was bright, and, he hoped, profitable.

    This clock case, 28 1/2 inches tall and decorated all over with incised and carved ornament, has a distinct air of proud celebration. It makes a statement: "We've arrived, and we're open for business!" It is formally signed on the back in a large framed panel—almost poster-like. The whole piece it seems to proclaim what the Martin brothers are capable of doing. Size? No problem; ornament, incised, carved or modeled to order; architectural features a specialty; and everything carried out to the highest technical standards and in the most up-to-date styles.

    If the piece can be read as a proud, almost boastful, manifesto, it also represents a summation of Wallace's artistic career up to that time. His first job as a stonemason working at the Palace of Westminster in the later 1850s is recalled by some of the Gothic ornament and architectural features. The clock case might be seen as a sort of curvaceous Big Ben, and perhaps childhood memories of the great clock tower rising into the sky, practically on the doorstep of the house in Bridge Street where he was born, were in his mind's eye as Wallace diligently constructed this elaborate piece. The profound influence of Christopher Dresser's theories and designs, which affected Wallace's work during the 1870s, is clearly recognizable in the profusion of geometrical ornament which covers just about every surface. Even the floral ornament on the front of the case suggests Dresser's example, although it might equally portend the new decorative style known as "canal bank" which was to characterize so much of the Martin brothers' production at Southall.

    The clock case is a transitional piece, at once a proud review and a confident forecast, an important document indeed in the history of the Martin brothers' pottery.

Property from a Private Collection


Exceptional and monumental mantel clock case

January 1878
Salt-glazed stoneware.
28 1/2 in. (72.5 cm) high
Reverse incised R Wallace Martin/Southall/Middlesex/1-1878 and 70, and interior clock face incised R W Martin/Southall/12 1878.

$30,000 - 50,000 

Contact Specialist
+1 212 940 1265

Design Evening

New York Auction 13 December 2018