December 3, 2009 | Texas is full of cattlemen, but few with the style and panache of Derrill Osborn, whose "herd" was offered at the Dallas Auction Gallery in October. Best known for shaping decades of men's fashion—he headed that division at Neiman Marcus for more than twenty years—Osborn has been a "cattleman" ever since his great-grandfather whittled him a little wooden cow when he was a child. In the ensuing years he amassed a collection of bovine art that spanned centuries, continents, and mediums and included German wood carvings, nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings, Empire furniture, and Staffordshire figures and other ceramic forms decorated with cattle motifs. The appeal of cows, he says, is that they always look so content. But the collection had overrun his house, and he decided it was time to make sure his vaches found happy homes elsewhere.
Osborn's cows may have been contented, but not so all of his bulls, to judge by two Staffordshire figure groups and a spill vase with figures on the theme of bullbaiting offered at the sale. A regrettable blood sport in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in which a tethered bull was set upon by dogs, bullbaiting—occasionally called bull-beating—was abolished in Britain in 1837.
Bullbaiting figures were made in a wide range of sizes and qualities, from relatively simple ones to more elaborate examples like the so-called table-base one shown above, which had a presale estimate of between three and five thousand dollars. An even more elaborate example, with a second figure on the ground beneath the enraged bull, sold at Christie's, New York, in 2003 for more than ten thousand dollars. The table-base bullbaiting scenes are often attributed to the potter Obadiah Sherratt, but Pat Halfpenny cautions in her excellent book English Earthenware Figures, 1740- 1840 (1991) that "there seems to be no hard evidence to suggest" that he has any more claim to their production than "any of the other twenty-five or so figure makers of the 1830s." Beware, too, says collector, author, and specialist on English earthenware figures, Myrna Schkolne, of the small (about five inches wide) table-base bullbaiting figures: "I spend half my life convincing reputable auction houses and novice collectors that these small figures were not made until well into the twentieth century."
The bullbaiting figures are among the literally thousands of ornamental subjects modeled by Staffordshire potters between about 1780 and 1900. They can make for endlessly fascinating collecting. Schkolne's Web site—www.mystaffordshirefigures.com—is a great resource for collectors, as is that of the Staffordshire Figure Association, www.stafford shire.org, which includes an enormous inventory of images. An exceptional collection of nearly 250 figures—assembled by Thomas N. and A. Pat Bernard of New Orleans and donated to the Winterthur Museum in Delaware—has recently been installed in new galleries there. Leslie Grigsby, Winterthur's curator of ceramics and glass, says: "this fascinating group of saints and sinners, poets and politicians, gods and goddesses, literary figures, and more provides a visually and intellectually exciting voyage through the full range of Staffordshire figures made between 1780 and 1880 and also sheds light on how they were made and the meanings they had for their original owners." It is well worth a visit for novice and seasoned collectors alike.
Images from above: Bullbaiting group, Staffordshire, c. 1830. Glazed and enamel decorated earthenware; height 9 ½, width 13 ½, depth 5 ¼ inches. Photographs by courtesy of the Dallas Auction Gallery; Bullbaiting spill vase, Staffordshire, early nineteenth century. Glazed earthenware; height 10 ½, width 6 ½, depth 6 ½ inches; Bullbaiting group, Staffordshire, c. 1800. Glazed earthenware; height 5 ½, width 7, depth 3 ½ inches.