Monday, December 2, 2013

Morbid miniatures

Beginning in the late 18th c., potteries in the Staffordshire region of England began to create commemorative figurines. The subject of these miniatures ranged from art to sports to politics. But they soon began to illustrate what could be read about in broadsides: the lurid news of the day. It began with the depiction of French revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat being stabbed in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday in 1793 and peaked with scenes of the infamous Red Barn Murder in 1827. With the Industrial Revolution, the miniatures could be afforded not just by the well-to-do but by the middle class. Staffordshire potteries began churning out the morbid along with the mundane. Author Myrna Schkolne documents them in a new book and describes her favorite (IMAGE ABOVE):
"Well, my favorite is a figure showing a tiger or tigress mauling a woman and her baby. That sounds so wrong. The tigress is holding the baby in her mouth and the woman beneath her paws. The figure is titled 'Menagerie.' A Staffordshire menagerie is a well-known genre, but this was clearly not a normal menagerie object. The thing drove me nuts. I couldn’t work out the whys and the wherefores. Then one night at about 1:00 a.m., I came across an old broadside that led me to the Colindale newspaper archive in the U.K. A small paragraph in the Northumberland Herald for February of 1834 describes how Wombwell’s Menagerie had stopped in a town overnight, and during the night, a tigress and a lion had escaped, and they had killed a woman with a child in her arms. Usually, any sort of menagerie mishap is very well publicized, but I think in this case the owner of the menagerie, George Wombwell, was very quick to open his wallet because if word got about, people wouldn’t have wanted his menagerie in town. I felt that my research gave the piece back its history: This figure was made because this terrible thing happened in February 1834. That’s fascinating to me, being able to learn about things we have forgotten."

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