Sometimes it pays to be a ‘Wally’

By Geoff Harris

If you haven’t heard of Wally Birds, they are currently a hot topic in antiques collecting.

Essentially, these are vessels in the shape of birds named after their creator, Robert Wallace Martin, and produced with the help of his brothers. Back in the autumn, for example, one fetched £22,000 at Kingham & Orme auctioneers, easily smashing the estimate.

The birds were made to resemble leading political and industrial figures of their time and rendered in a caricature-style pioneered by the 19th-century satirical magazine Punch. These quirky creations became very popular amongst well-heeled London customers, with commissions coming from aristocrats and celebrities.

Alison Davie of AD Antiques, and an expert in Wally Birds

According to Alison Davey, founder of AD Antiques and a specialist in this field for over 20 years, “in recent years the market for the Martin brothers’ birds has increased exponentially. The fire was kindled back in the 1970s by Richard Dennis’ selling exhibitions, where he put together superb collections.”

Several other important international exhibitions then followed, attracting a steady stream of overseas buyers. “I would suggest that 80% of the birds sold ultimately roost in overseas collections,” Alison continues. “The birds have now pushed through the six-figure ceiling, tripling in price in the last 20 years. This is a significant trend for British ceramics as historically they have been undervalued against work on paper, bronze or even Oriental ceramics. Each bird is totally unique, and hand crafted by one of the founding fathers of the British Art Pottery movement.”

Robert Wallace Martin, the eccentric genius behind the sculpting of the birds, started out as an apprentice for Charles Barry on the redesign of the Palace of Westminster, where he was known to have modelled grotesques. Whilst attending the Royal Academy he attracted attention, which led to such notable commissions as the Diamond Jubilee portrait medallion of Queen Victoria.

“The work of the Martin brothers is as diverse as it is accomplished,” adds Alison. “From the formal sculpture present in their early plaques and busts to the grotesque and bizarrely expressive features of their Wally Birds and other creatures, their talent is unquestionable.The first Wally Birds, crafted between the 1870s and 1880s, were immediately celebrated.”

Charles Martin, who oversaw retail premises, was quick to encourage his brother to step up production of the birds to keep up with the demand. Creative and commercial tensions often arose between the siblings, however, as Alison explains.

“Robert Wallace, dedicated primarily to his artistry, continued to push Victorian boundaries with the birds becoming increasingly fanciful and grotesque — which Charles repeatedly cautioned against. Robert also regularly abandoned profitable commercial production for extended periods to focus on the making of a massive ceramic fountain, a personal indulgence which ultimately never sold.”

As well as revealing the unique skill and quirky genius of the Wallace brothers, the birds have an interesting cultural context.

“In the 1890s, when demand for the works of the Martin brothers was at its height, ‘special works’ were kept out of the public’s gaze and saved for the more ‘discerning”’ client,” Alison reveals. “Perhaps the appeal lay in the Victorian’s curiosity with the macabre, or maybe it was the mood of the time that was celebrating the new theories of Darwinism – plus Robert’s seamless ability to create anthromorphical creatures.”

English Photographer, (19th century) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

As with many luxury goods, fakes have emerged over recent years and collectors need to exercise caution when looking to buy. “Several years ago, I saw a ‘reproduction’ bird sell through a regional sale room for £15,000 and I am offered similar pieces on a monthly basis,” cautions Alison.

“The restoration of ceramics has become so skilled that to all but the most trained and experienced eye it is invisible. Restoration can reduce the value of a piece by over 50%. For these reasons I would recommend buying from an expert in the field where collectors will have a guarantee of authenticity and condition.”

Don’t be put off by the popularity of the birds if you don’t have very deep pockets, however. “The birds and other Martin works are potentially excellent investment pieces, even with the appreciation in the market. At prices ranging from several hundred up to a hundred thousand pounds it is still a market accessible to most.”

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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