Martin Brothers bird-form vessels (often referred to as “Wally Birds” after their creator Robert Wallace) are, for most of us, aspirational items. Largely made to resemble leading political and industrial figures of their time and rendered in the manner of caricature pioneered by the 19th-century English satirical magazine Punch, these whimsical works were eagerly sought-after by London’s “chattering classes,” with commissions for their production coming from aristocrats including Lord Faringdon and Sir William Drake.
Robert Wallace Martin, the artist genius behind the sculpting of the birds, began his career as an apprentice for Charles Barry on the redesign of the Palace of Westminster, where he was known to have modelled grotesques. Thereafter, he rose to some acclaim whilst attending the Royal Academy, which led to such notable commissions as the Diamond Jubilee portrait medallion of Queen Victoria (intended for the entrance to London’s V&A Museum, Robert’s design was, to his immense dismay, never used).
The work of the Martin Brothers is as diverse as it is accomplished. 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. Then as now, the Birds win the principal appeal. The first Wally Birds, crafted between the 1870s and 1880s, were immediately celebrated.
Robert Wallace’s mastery over the modelling of anthropomorphic features in caricature caught the imagination of audiences and media of the day. 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. Robert Wallace, dedicated primarily to his artistry, continued to push Victorian boundaries with Birds increasingly fanciful and grotesque — which Charles repeatedly cautioned against. Robert Wallace also regularly abandoned profitable commercial production for extended periods to focus on the making of a massive ceramic fountain, a personal indulgence and private passion which ultimately never sold.
It is the passion that links the artist and the collector. It is found in the creative drive, in the visions and fantasies that inspire the creation of objects, and in the compulsion to acquire and the restless pursuit of more. It is no simple thing to define the motivation that drives the collector, but for collectors of Robert Wallace Martin’s works, the need for insight into the inspiration of this prodigy sculptor and the ability to feel the imprint of the potter’s hands are among the prime components.
In the 1890s when demand for the works of the Martin Brothers was at its height, “special works” were kept out of the publics gaze from within their retail premises in Holborn and saved for the more “discerning” client. 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 and Robert’s seamless ability to create anthromorphical creatures. The story of the Brothers makes for compelling reading; work kept under floorboards, fires, insanity, and untimely deaths. Then, as now the appeal, whilst not ubiquitous, is insatiable to those in the know!
Alison Davey, the Founder and Director of AD antiques has been a specialist in this field for over 20 years and has been a contributor to the growing market in that time, having hosted Selling exhibitions and curated Single owner sales. She observes
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 of the Brothers work. Relatively easy to source back then as the fashion in the preceding decades had been to discard the old world in favour of the "Ideal Home”, however it was Mr Dennis who revived the aesthetic and commercial interest in the factory and following this came several other important international exhibitions. During this time the appeal of the Birds moves beyond the domestic market and anecdotally I would suggest that 80% of the Birds sold end ultimately roost in overseas collections. 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 one totally unique and hand crafted by one of the founding fathers of the British Art Pottery Movement and indeed a major contributor to the Arts and Crafts Movement; each bird an important piece of British Art history in clay.
As with many luxury goods, fakes have emerged over recent years and collectors are advised 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. Furthermore 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. The work of the Martin Brothers Birds are potentially excellent investment pieces even with the appreciation in the market and at prices ranging from several hundred up to a hundred thousand pounds it is still a market accessible to most.