Martin Brothers Pottery
Walter, Robert and Edwin Martin (left to right)
The four Martin brothers, Robert, Walter, Edwin and Charles, were early pioneers in the production of studio pottery. They became well known for their grotesquely modelled “Wally Birds”, sculpted face jugs, vases and other items reminiscent of art and architecture of the Middle Ages. Some beautifully formed and expertly decorated and some eccentric. They produced a distinctive type of salt-glazed stoneware – a strong, non-porous pottery with a distinctive 'orange-peel' texture.
The Pottery was started by the eldest brother, Robert Wallace Martin in Fulham, London in 1873. Robert had been under apprenticeship with the architectural sculptor J. B. Phillips of Vauxhall Bridge Road and took drawing classes at the nearby Lambeth School of Art. By the late 1860s he had set up his first workshop, initially making terracotta sculpture. By 1873 he had turned his hand to producing pottery. Walter and Edwin had also studied at the Lambeth School of Art, and both worked for a time at Doulton's Pottery in Lambeth. By 1877 the brothers had joined forces and the business was moved to a disused soap-works on Havelock Road in the London suburb of Southall, where it remained.
Eldest brother Robert Wallace Martin (1843-1923) modelled the figures and also decorated vases, jugs and other items in his distinctive style; Walter Fraser Martin (1857-1912) supplied the technical expertise, specialising in coloured glazes and became their specialist on the wheel; Edwin Bruce Martin (1860-1915) was the decorator whose work included most of the fish and flower designs; and Charles Douglas Martin (1846 - 1910) managed the shop. This was opened in 1878 at 16 Brownlow St, High Holborn – but closed after a fire in 1903. Wildly eccentric, even by the standards of his siblings, Charles hated to part with any of the wares, hid the best of them under the floorboards and turned away many a prospective customer. When the shop burned down, the brothers lost their stock and Charles his sanity.
The Brothers worked mainly with salt-glazed stoneware – fired at a high temperature with salt thrown into the kiln during firing to create the ceramic glaze, which fused with the clay and gave a surface which could be glassy or matt depending on the conditions of each firing. A single high-temperature kiln was fired just once a year without protective saggars which meant every pot was in direct contact with the flames. The result was a very unpredictable output (on one occasion, only one good pot emerged from an entire year’s work) but the pieces that did emerge were often Victorian art pottery at its best – a vast range of beautifully formed and decorated domestic and decorative wares, sometimes whimsical, sometimes comical, sometimes dark.
Whereas many stoneware glazes are coloured and obscure the body underneath, the salt-glaze method served to highlight the impressed and incised decoration on the surface of their pots. The colours included browns, greens, greys, and blues – this subdued palette being distinctive of Martinware. The brothers regarded themselves as artists and each piece of their work was unique. Popular with collectors, the Brothers themselves collected a number of wealthy patrons.
Today pieces made by the Martin Brothers remain extremely collectable. Robert Wallace Martin’s most coveted creations are his Gothic-inspired creatures – particularly the anthropomorphic bird jars, glazed in the subdued palette so distinctive of Martinware. These characters from Victorian London (the earliest is dated 1880) were professional types, public figures and local waifs and strays modelled in avian form and have become iconic objects in the history of British decorative arts. But it is not all about the birds - Martinware collecting can itself be split into a number of niche markets with some collectors focusing on the less familiar but equally evocative grotesques (the face jugs, the musical imps and the wonderful spoon warmers), the beautiful thrown and incised vessels or the appealing range of miniatures and gourds.
"Wally Bird" by Robert Martin
Edwin Martin jar and cover with aquatic decoration 1896
We have given a brief history of the Martin Brothers Pottery here. Best recommended source for further reading would be "The Martin Brothers, Potters" by Malcolm Haslam.