Such a fine collection of Martinware grotesques and ‘Wally-birds’ as is offered here not only refreshes the admiration one has always felt for the brothers’ work, but provides an opportunity to re-examine the creative genius of Robert Wallace Martin. Although Walter was responsible for glazing and ring, Edwin for colouring (sometimes), and Charles for advising about customer preferences, the birds and monsters were essentially the product of Wallace’s rich imagination and prodigious skill as a modeller and carver - or, more simply, as a sculptor. For these stoneware figures are indeed sculpture.
One of the traits in Wallace’s character which has not perhaps received sufficient attention was his fiercely felt need for independence. He never wanted to be beholden to any person or to any organisation. He very quickly abandoned formal education for self-sufficiency as an errand boy. He would not allow his mother to pay for an apprenticeship to J.B. Philip, which would have bound him to the sculptor for years. It would not be until the pottery at Southall had been established that Wallace achieved his ideal. There he could model and carve his own creations in his own time, relying only on his younger brothers to manufacture and market them. That he regarded them as minions rather than partners in the enterprise is suggested by their being on the point of rebellion against his autocratic attitudes through most of their later years at Southall.
It was hardly to be expected that such an independent spirit would commit himself to a religious sect, but in 1870 Wallace joined the Plymouth Brethren, and he would attend their weekly meetings for over fifty years. The Brethren, however, include among their beliefs a Calvinistic denial of any need for priestly intercession between God and the elect; they completely reject any sort of ecclesiastical organisation. Wallace must have been gratified to have found this spiritual independence, and his attachment to the Brethren would have encouraged him in his quest for secular independence as well.
The most important contributing factor lying behind Wallace’s bird-jars and grotesque monsters has been generally deemed to have been his familiarity from an early age with Gothic carving. His work on Pugin’s Houses of Parliament, and the casts of medieval stone ornament displayed at the Architectural Museum nearby, introduced the teen-aged Wallace to both the style and technique of a wide range of Gothic sculpture. But the importance of the years that he spent working as an assistant in the studio of the sculptor Alexander Munro should not be underestimated. One of his first jobs at Munro’s was working on the ‘Boy with a Dolphin’ group. The irritation and anger on the face of the latter has been beautifully wrought by Munro with a marvelous simplicity of means.
The piece would have likely impressed Wallace who would go on to become such a master at giving birds and beasts facial features expressing the gamut of human emotions. Munro, an associate of the Pre-Raphaelites and a close friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was an affable Scot who welcomed a stream of visitors to his studio in Buckingham Palace Road. Besides Rossetti, his intimate circle included Arthur Hughes, John Ruskin, and Lewis Carroll; Ford Madox Brown and Edward Lear sometimes dropped in. Wallace would have heard about the zoo Rossetti kept in his garden, the marauding armadillos who had ravaged his Cheyne Walk neighbours’ gardens, and the racoon that Henry Trery Dunn recalled Rossetti holding up by the scruff of its neck; the beast had kicked and plunged, baring its teeth. “Does it not look like a devil?”, Rossetti remarked.
My profession is really that of a sculptor, but about 1873 I began to take an interest in pottery and eventually induced my brothers to join me.
In 1865 Wallace might well have heard talk at Munro’s about a new book written by the antiquarian Thomas Wright and entitled ‘A History of Caricature and Grotesque’; a second edition appeared ten years later, at just about the time Wallace started making his grotesque pieces. In two long chapters apportioned to the middle ages, Wright makes several points about medieval art that Wallace seems to have assimilated and applied to his own work. The author describes how medieval artists gave their demons “the ugliness of sin”, but explains that it was “a vulgar, mirthful ugliness, which makes you laugh instead of shudder”. Elsewhere, Wright declares: “Our medieval forefathers appear to have had a decided taste for monstrosities of every description, and especially for mixtures of different kinds of animals, and of animals and men”. Several examples illustrated have a striking resemblance to Wallace’s grotesques; in one of them, there appears a man who has the head of an eagle.
A further reason to suppose that Wallace studied Wright’s book is the author’s observation that “the entrance to the infernal regions was always represented pictorially as the mouth of a monstrous animal”; several examples are illustrated, some of them very close to spoon-warmers that Wallace created. For Wallace, however, probably the most telling point of Wright’s account of caricature and grotesque art in the middle ages was the author’s assertion that much of it was anti-clerical: “The popular feeling against the clergy was strong in the middle ages, and no caricature was received with more fervour than those which exposed the immorality or dishonesty of a monk or a priest.” Wallace would have found irresistible such an apparent concurrence of an idea underlying the popular art of the middle ages with a central doctrine of the Plymouth Brethren.
In these stoneware figures of birds and beasts, Robert Wallace Martin produced a fusion of the diff-erent impulses which drove him to create his own kind of sculpture, at once sinister and humourous, religious and secular, real and surreal. The pieces express his yearning for independence, and at the same time they show what he could achieve with his skill and imagination when he was his own master.