Charles Noke’s was born into the pottery industry and from a young age, he showed a keen interest in the design and manufacture of the porcelain.
In 1899, he joined Royal Doulton and he was to become their premier modeller and designer. He took up the position of Art Director which he held for many years. During his time there, he was able to use his enormous talent in innovative and creative ways. It was under his directorship that the Doulton series, new glazes and limited editions were introduced.
His team produced a vast range of figurines, jugs, vases and other porcelain pieces, and many of these have become prized collector’s pieces
Charles Noke was born in the English town of Worcester, not far from the Royal Worcester Works. His father was an antique dealer of good repute. So he was introduced into the pottery and porcelain environment from his earliest years.
His father’s shop must have been intriguing for the boy and he spent many hours exploring the contents. He showed a special interest in his father’s private collection of figurines and antique vases, which his father had acquired from many of the premier porcelain works.
One of his father’s friends was R. W. Binns, who was the art director of the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company. And Mr. Binns noticed the youngster’s interest in ceramic art and allowed him to wander in the Worcester factory. The young Charles would watch the artists working, ask them a few questions, and over time absorb the atmosphere of the famous porcelain works. This was to influence his whole working life.
The James Hadley Influence
His special interest lay with the work of James Hadley, a well-respected modeller, and he usually ended up in his studio. Hadley had exhibited work in London and Vienna and was also a friend of his fathers. He gave Charles some modelling clay to take home and Charles returned with models of an elephant and a court jester – which showed promise of a rising talent.
It followed quite naturally that when Charles was 15 years old, he became an apprentice under Hadley and Binns, and enrolled as a student at the Worcester college of design. He was still an apprentice when he set up on his own as an independent designer.
He continued his apprenticeship, and he also was often asked to help James Hadley in his own independent workshop, most of which work was bought by the Royal Worcester. Noke’s own work shows the powerful influence of Hadley, especially in his earlier works. But he built up his own reputation as a stylish modeller of figurines and vases, showing his pieces at national exhibitions. In fact, he took over much of the in-house design which James Hadley had previously done.
His work caught the eye of John Slater, who was the director of the Royal Doulton works in Burslem, and Charles was offered a post in the company. So after 16 years with Royal Worcester, Charles joined the Royal Doulton company at Burslem, as a chief designer in 1889.
At Royal Doulton’s, Charles had the opportunity to exhibit his work around the world, notably the extensive Doulton display at the Chicago world fair in 1893, which helped to establish his reputation.
Perhaps the most well-known examples of his work are the figurines.
But the earliest figurines Charles Nokes produced were not that popular. The design was much influenced by James Hadley and they were produced in a hard ivory parian body, then glazed in light green and pink.
It was in 1909 that Charles once more became engrossed in figure modelling. He discussed his ideas with Henry Doulton, persuaded Henry Doulton that he could design figurines that would sell. And he did.
He put together a small design team of skilled artists and sculptors and they set to work on a series of figurines. The first set took three years to develop and was originally called the “Bedtime series”, first shown in 1913. It happened that King George and his queen paid a visit to the factory during the first run of the series – and when Queen Mary saw one of the figures she exclaimed “Isn’t he a darling!” and the series became known as the Darling series (It was Charles Vyse who modelled that particular piece). She ordered several copies and her patronage made them much sought after. From these beginnings, the huge range of Doulton figurines developed.
Yet, at that time, the sale of figurines was declining and the production of figurines was seen as a rather risky business, with years of economic depression and the possibility of war.
Nokes produced the “Cobbler” in 1935-1969’. Also well-known is his “Jester” and his “Potter” as well as his colourful “Eastern” characters. He also launched the HN figurines (named after Harry Nixon, the artist responsible for figure painting at Doulton’s) and this name series is still in use today.
Nokes wanted Staffordshire to regain its former reputation as the main area for the production of high-quality porcelain, and his figurines certainly helped to do that.
Nokes was interested in how the pots were made and he experimented with various techniques. The results helped to establish Royal Doulton as a world leader in the manufacture of pottery. As Art Director, he had enormous influence on the styles and manufacture of the pottery.
Royal Doulton was the ideal place for his inventive mind to be allowed to work. Unusually, here, the workers were actively encouraged to work as they themselves wished, which enables skilled workers to produce exciting and new products. The idea behind this freedom of expression was that the artist should not be restricted to a set of rules to which he or she must conform, thus restricting their creative skills.
Nokes (together with Bernard Moore) created a range of glazed wares of very high quality. They include the famous flambes the Titanian, Sung, Chinese Jade, Chang, and Crystalline glazes. These were highly influential in the pottery field.
One of these new glazes produced was the Kingsware. This was rich glossy brown, especially used for whiskey flasks. His first flambe wares with the fiery red colouring were displayed at the Saint Louis Exhibition, Missouri in 1904. This, together with the Chang ware and Chinese Jade, are still valuable collector’s items.
Nokes was also responsible for the idea of “series ware”. This is where different items such as vases, plates, dishes are decorated with the same theme. His series of Dickens characters was a popular example.
While Nokes and his team created a numerous variety of figures – human and animal over the next years, including historic events and people, sports personalities, characters from Dickens and more, which lead to a steady stream of sales. In 1913, Royal Doulton launched the famous HN figurines, including Noke’s well known “Jester” figure, produced in many diverse colour schemes. Many of his works reflect his fascination with the theatre.
But, World War One was looming and it was a difficult time for the arts in general. Then when war broke out, many of the workers disappeared off to fight. This made the number of pieces produced drop – and their rarity does give them extra value for the collector of today.
The character Jugs were a variety of Toby jugs featuring only the head and shoulders of the character, and the colours were brighter than in previous Toby jugs – the first of these was Noke’s “John Barleycorn” in 1934, and then “Old Charley” and “Mephistopheles” – double-faced and very impressive. Collectors are keen to acquire his character jugs today.
It wasn’t until 1930 that the first limited editions were introduced by Nokes for the Royal Doulton. These were jugs and loving cups, modelled with events from history, royal occasions, and social settings.
A recent sale was of the Royal Doulton Charles Noke Captain Cook Loving Cup. This shows the captain and the first Australian landing by HMB Endeavour, which was part of a limited edition (No: 309 of 350). This piece has his signature incised into it and a certificate signed by Charles J Noke. It fetched around $5000.
Another limited-edition Charles Noke’s “Shakespear” Jug fetched about $600.
His Later Years
Charles Nokes retired from his position as Art Director for Royal Doulton in 1936 at the age of 78, but he went on working until he died in 1941. His last model was a jug depicting Winston Churchill, his wartime hero.
He was succeeded by his son, Cecil, as Art Director at Royal Doulton.