Martin Ware satisfying fin de siècle taste for the grotesque, one Wally Bird at a time.




Having recently finished a course in Ceramics, quite basic stuff, pinch pots, coil construction and a most pitiful attempt at the wheel;I am left with , aside from an alarming amount of lumpy earthenware, a very new appreciation for the ceramic arts. I have always admired porcelain, faience and majolica, but the rather garden -variety thrown vessels have left me a bit cold;I’m still not terribly fond of crunchy textured, oatmeal hued bowls, but I do admire the craft.

All that said, I am now more appreciative then ever of the incredible earthenware fantasies that came out of the Martin Brothers Studio.

The Martin Brothers

from left:

Walter Fraser Martin(1857-1912), responsible for decorating.


Robert Wallace Martin (1843-1923), founder of the company, trained as a sculptor, responsible fro throwing and modeling, most notably the bird jars known affectionately as Wally Birds.

Edwin Bruce Martin ( 1860-1910), responsible for glaze development.

Charles Douglas Martin (1846-1910) not shown, responsible for management of the studio.







Almost immediately upon immersing my hands into the pile of clay, perverse little images began to emerge: grinning priapic demons, winged dragons, winking skulls; so immediate was this emergence my friend Gina promptly dubbed my creations Evilware. As clever as that may be, I felt (hoped) my natural inclination towards more macabre expression was richer then the current dark fashions inspired by such pop culture horrors as the Twilight series. I was inclined to believe, given my own fascination with fin de siècle culture, that my inspiration was a by-product of my interest in Beardsley, the Decadent-Symbolist movements and some of the more perverse ornament of Christopher Dresser and Frank Furness. It was not until the wee hours of the course that I realized, as I was lamely trying to unearth the beauty the clay held within, that I was face to face with a Wally Bird from the famed studios of the Martin Bros., London.



Robert Wallace Martin most likely the modeller



My own, pitifully amateur creation failed to exhibit the finesse that the Martin Brothers exhibited in such shameful abundance; but through the lumpy clay mass, the unmistakable Neo-Gothic grin of my silly dragon-bird exhibited direct roots to the Wally Bird.

Jar with Cover


glazed stoneware with a wood plinth


Martin Ware Pottery was founded by the eldest brother Robert Wallace Martin  in the city of Fulham in 1873; the firm which was in operation from 1873 through 1923, moved from Fulham to its final location in Southall, Middlesex. Martinware was an industrial fixture of Southall , situated upon the Grand Junction Canal. The company enjoyed great success with a wide range of pottery items, vessels, jars and decorative tiles; their greatest success then and now was the amusing Wally Bird, said to be a caricature of then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Benjamin Disraeli



stoneware, wooden plinth


Hints of anti-Semitism aside, the Wally Bird is quite charming and beautifully wrought. The salt -glazes the firm was famous for enhanced the well-crafted details; ordinary glazes would have obscured the delicately rendered feathers and scales. The Martinware palette was in the fashionable Aesthetic Movement’s vogue for “muddled”colors, muted greys, greens, and ochre browns.

“If Martinware […has] not the transparency of porcelain nor the elaborately and costly ornamentation of Sèvres [it is] pure and honest artwork” so said the art critic Cosmo Monkhouse in 1882.  The Martin brothers were riding the wave of fashionable London with its Aesthetic craze; their art pottery, inspired (as I am) by the 16th century potter Bernard Palissy, saw stoneware as an appropriate medium for “honest” art. Robert, trained at the esteemed Lambeth School of Art was well equipped to marry his knowledge of historical derivative design with the contemporary fashion for “Art for Art’s sake”.

The Wally Birds though wildly popular, kept proud company with their Face Jugs.



maker, Robert Wallace Martin


The jugs, first thrown, then bulked up with a pad of clay were individually sculpted. The artisans, working from a rendering by Robert, created individual works of utilitarian sculpture; no two jugs are exactly alike.

The firm was capable of producing more conventionally decorative objects as this bottle illustrated  with its incised and painted decoration.



salt-glazes stoneware, incised and painted decoration (first painted with white slip, then incised and decorated) cork and metal


But upon closer inspection the viewer is exposed to the slightly sinister ornamentation that is unique to Martinware; in this instance, underwater grotesquerie.  This aquatic theme with a perverse twist was quite a speciality of the Martin Brothers; I believe from what I have read (primarily the Victoria & Albert site) that  Walter Fraser  Martin was responsible for the decoration.Whoever came up with these whimsies, kudos to you!



salt-glazed stoneware with painted decoration




salt-glazed stoneware with incised decoration



salt-glazed stoneware with incised decoration and coloured glazes




stoneware, incised with colored glazes




salt-glazed stoneware



Objects such as chess pieces,  tradition-bound to be fashioned in mock Gothic ,were well suited to the Martin Brothers oeuvre.

Chess piece


salt-glazed stoneware


In exploring Martin Ware, pottery that was once held in high esteem but now seems to be familiar to only  a limited circle of connoisseurs, has rekindled my love of mock Gothic playfulness; I look forward to further developing this aesthetic in clay (and paint), hopefully with more  competent results!

Respectfully submitted,

Babylon Baroque


4 Responses to “Martin Ware satisfying fin de siècle taste for the grotesque, one Wally Bird at a time.”

  1. At first I thought you meant Martyn Ware from Heaven 17!

    These are wonderful, though. Great post, as always!

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Well not for the first time you have introduced me to something new.
      I must confess I had to “google” Heaven 17, I liked Geisha Boys but i had never heard of them before.
      As always, thank you,

  2. Thank you for bringing this wonderful pottery to my attention. I was not familiar with it. One can also see the influence of the arts of Japan in some of their work as well. I adore the chess piece. What a marvel it would be to have a whole set!

    Best, Kelly

  3. babylonbaroque Says:

    You certainly see some distorted sort of Eastern influence, particularly with the bird-fish decorations. What I enjoy, and relate to as an artist is how far removed they actually are from the source. It is a style that seems distinctly Martin.
    As per chess sets, the V&A appears to have a full set, brown and biscuit, very handsome.
    Take care,

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