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How Victorians Celebrated Celebrity in Ceramics

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The exhibition Cultural Icons at Hove Museum earlier this year provided an opportunity to display some of the flatback ceramics from the Decorative Arts Collection.

Previously housed in one of our stores, these historic flatback figures offer a glimpse of the stars and icons of a former age. Some are still recognisable and well-known, others forgotten, casualties of tim. They provide a snapshot of celebrity culture before social media.

‘Cultural Icons’ displayed works created by six figurative ceramic artists inspired by the forms and subjects of Victorian flatbacks. Whilst the contemporary works took centre stage, the display of historic flatbacks alongside their modern counterparts added additional compelling visual narrative. So much so, that when the exhibition closed, rather than returning them to their nobody or ‘has been’ status in stores, we decided instead to continue to let them enjoy their celebrity life as heroes and icons on display in Hove Museum.

What is a Victorian Flatback?

The design emerged in the late 1830s and 1840s and is basically a ceramic with a flat back. As you can see from the image of this small rather stylized object, it is modelled as a house at the front but the back has been left unmodelled and flat.

Previously ceramic figures had been modelled in the round, with both the back and front intricately painted as shown in the images below. Whilst the front no doubt provided a more pleasing viewpoint, it was still perfectly possible to enjoy a charming view of their behinds.

As ornaments for the home, flatback ceramics were perfectly suited to stand on a mantelpiece against a chimney breast, hence their other name ‘chimney ornaments’. The hearth, the centre of the home, provided an ideal space for the flatback as a conversation piece inspiring discussion and notoriety among family and visitors alike.

The flatback design emerged in response primarily to an increased demand for cheaper ornaments by the lower and middle classes. Besides involving limited decoration, the method of flat-back production was economical. Figures were typically press moulded, generally from a three-piece mould – the front, the back and the base. Subsidiary parts also tended to be moulded rather than hand-made.

They weren’t highly designed objects. The originals would mostly have been modelled by an anonymous artisan than a named artist. They aimed for a likeness but were based on sources such as engravings from the Illustrated London News and popular prints. To speed production and make it even cheaper, potters often used the same moulds but altered designs from one person to another – maybe just the title on the base, a painted facial feature or items of clothing.

Flatbacks were made of the celebrities of the day, the iconic events, anything that captured the public imagination. Although royalty provided the most popular subjects for nineteenth century flat-backs, figures were also made of military and naval leaders, popular politicians, notorious criminals, celebrated musicians, singers, writers, actors, sporting heroes as well as significant historical or cultural events.

Potters knew these figures would sell and they did. People purchased them from itinerant hawkers travelling from village to village, at stalls in travelling fairs, from local hawker stalls and the new china retail shops springing up in towns. People wanted them in their homes to look at and hero-worship, talk about, show off, identify with. After all these were the Princes Williams and Harrys of their day, the David Beckhams, Adeles, Daniel Craigs, Ant and Decs!

Follow our Cultural Icons series as we explore some of these fascinating flatbacks and discover of these early celebrities.

Cecilia Kendall, Curator, Collections Projects