Social History of Tea

Family Tea Relic: The Doulton Girls

Another Curio

I’m not fond of curios and figurines – what I consider to be the “tchotchkes” of decorative accessories. However, as I continue to sort the chattels of departed family members, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at a relic that made its way into my Mother’s possession after a cherished life with my long-departed Aunt Dorothy.

Royal Doulton "Afternoon Tea" from 1930's, originally treasured by my Aunt Dorothy and more recently enjoyed by my Mother

Royal Doulton’s Afternoon Tea, HN1747, was designed by P. Railston (not sure if this artist was man or woman) and produced from 1935 – 1988. The recent discovery of a black and white photograph from 1942 gave me an unexpected thrill when I realized that just visible, behind my two Aunts, Dorothy and Jeanne, was a fuzzy image of Afternoon Tea sitting front and centre on the mantel. It was an Antiques Roadshow moment – you know, when the expert says, “on its own at auction this might fetch $150, but with this photograph adding proof of provenance I can suggest you insure it for $2,000! ” (I don’t think it has great monetary value. I’ve seen this item frequently on ebay).

Aunt Dorothy on left and her sister in law Jeanne, displaying her engagement ring. Look at what I discovered on the mantel

When I was a child, we visited my aunt and uncle,¬†several times a year in Collingwood, Ontario. They lived in a grand house called Beachmount. Its imposing red brick exterior was entirely wrapped by a generous veranda. Aunt Dorothy had been a wealthy widow who attracted the attention of my somewhat younger and handsome, but morose uncle who served as a bomber pilot during WWII. They married sometime after the war. Interesting story: Dorothy married Don (Jeanne’s brother). Jeanne married Fred (Dorothy’s brother). It was a case of one set of brother and sister marrying the other set.

Dorothy’s buoyant personality compensated for Don’s quiet behaviour. In my younger years they had a beautiful auburn Irish Setter named Pat. Later they had a series of Boston Terriers named Butch who yapped and jumped and snorted. Her parlour was filled with highly polished furniture adorned here and there with Royal Doulton figurines, among them Afternoon Tea. I don’t particularly recall noticing as a child, this figurine in Beachmount among the other shiny bonechina creatures in sweeping skirts and wind swept bonnets.

The Doulton Story

Royal Doulton was founded in 1815 when John Doulton purchased a stoneware factory in Lambeth, London. As business progressed, the company benefited from the Victorian fervour for sanitation, producing ceramic loo accessories (toilets) that made many a Victorian matron proud.

The Lambeth Connection

In the 1870’s Doulton partnered with the Lambeth School of Art, (now The City and Guilds of London Art School), providing employment for graduates who created unique painted designs and sculptural shapes for vases and figures. The Barlow family, George Tinworth and Mark V. Marshall became recognized artist names in collecting circles. In 1901 King Edward VII awarded Doulton Royal status.

1893 watercolour by William Rowe. Interior of Doulton's Lambeth Studios. Subjects are believed to be Barlow sisters at work. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Works by Doulton's Lambeth artists. Left: Florence Barlow's 3 handled mug C1905. Right: Harry Simeon's Art Nouveau teapot C1903 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Between the wars the Pretty Lady series became hugely popular. This is when Afternoon Tea was designed. In 1968 Royal Doulton merged with Minton and in 1971 it acquired Royal Albert from a merger with Allied English Potteries. Royal Doulton is no longer owned by the Doulton family. In 2005, it became part of the Waterford Wedgwood group.

Afternoon Tea

The Doulton girls of Afternoon Tea appear to be in a languid mood. The girl on the left, who is obviously the hostess wearing an ‘at home’ style bonnet, is grazing her face with her hand while the visitor, who has removed her cloak, is reaching for her teacup. They may be sisters or perhaps they look similar because the RD painter had limited repertoire for painting faces. The intended period is probably mid-19th century (1850) Victorian, when afternoon tea became a popular light refreshment, in this case, fruit – possibly pears or figs and strawberries. Maybe they’d already finished their savouries? It is difficult to tell if the fashion is of this period, but I think it evokes the style of fashion plates from this time.

Railston was probably trying to capture the mode of this period (1840's)

Place of Honour

As I ponder this relic I wonder what it must have meant to Aunt Dorothy. In her day, Royal Doulton figurines were considered expensive and indulgent decorative accessories. I think they may also have provided some credibility to one’s status socially. Mostly, I believe they were chosen to mark birthdays and anniversaries and other of life’s milestones.

Even though I’m not sure where it will live, I will keep this relic to honour my memories of her. Aunt Dorothy always made a fuss over me, since I was the only niece. She would be waiting for us when we arrived, with joy in her eyes and bright red lipstick on her lips. She was stout as we called it back in the 50’s, so she was well-girdled. She spoke quickly and had a dominant personality. We were always straining to hear ourselves over the loud, fractious yips of Butch and her anxious commands to control him, which of course, only made things more chaotic. Uncle Don would make an appearance and then return to his den usually with an iced glass of something (I can assure you it wasn’t tea). I was always somewhat overwhelmed by the visit.

Now the memories are starting to flood in ~ the endless games of tag on the circular veranda, the massive lawn with apple trees, the fairgrounds nearby, the 1950’s beechwood coasters in my Uncle’s den, Dorothy’s printed silk frocks. She once cooked a morel for me that my Mother and I found in the woods.

Other than a few photographs, this is the only item that I have of hers. Isn’t this what really brings value to an object? I’m beginning to understand the pat answer of Antiques Road Show guests, after learning the value of their item – “It’s a family heirloom – I would never part with it.”