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Victorian Celebrities Immortalised in Ceramic

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Welcome back to our Cultural Icons series exploring the fascinating stories behind the people commemorated in flatback ornaments in the Willett Collection of Popular Pottery in the Brighton Museum.

Many of these Victorian souvenirs, which are only decorated on the front so they can sit on a mantelpiece were on display at Hove Museum this year..

They were usually of famous and sometimes infamous people in the Victoria era who we would now call stars or celebrities. The hearth, the centre of the home, provided an ideal space for the flatback as a conversation piece inspiring discussion and fascination among family and visitors alike.

The romantic life of Lord Byron remembered

A demure figure is that of Lord Byron (1788-1824), the English poet and leading figure of the Romantic Movement. He sits calmly, holding a book of poetry, observing life, belying his scandalous private life and adventurous travels abroad. The piece was created shortly after Bryon died of fever at Missolonghi, Greece having gone there to support the Greeks in their fight for independence from Turkish rule.

Stand and deliver

Dick Turpin (1705-1739), the famous British highwayman also makes an appearance as a flatback, c1850, reflecting a time of increased popularity for the legend amongst Victorians. He wears his distinctive bright red jacket (probably not the best clothing for camouflage) and carries a pistol harking back to a romantic age of highway robberies and forest outlaws.

Anti-slavery hero in china

However it wasn’t just solely British people and events that captured and held the public imagination. One figure group in our collection depicts John Brown (1800-1859), a leading figure in the American Abolitionist movement in pre-Civil War United States. Although slavery had been abolished in England in 1807 and slaves in British colonies were granted emancipation in 1834, it continued in the United States for another 30 years.

John Brown became increasingly militant in the abolitionist movement during the 1850s, leading raids to free slaves. In 1859 he led a group of twenty two men, including several freed slaves, attacking slaveholders and capturing a United States Armoury at Harper’s Ferry. Defeated eventually by a contingent of ninety US marines, John Brown was found guilty of treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia and hanged. The figure group was made in 1860 shortly after John Brown’s execution and shows him holding the hands of two black children, possibly freed slaves.

These are just a few of the celebrities finally back in the public eye.

Discover More

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

Cecilia Kendall, Curator, Collections Projects