Dorothy Doughty (1892-1962) and Freda Doughty (1895-1972)
Charles Doughty, English explorer and writer, lived up to his name. “Doughty” means hardy and resolute. He wrote the book “Arabia Deserta” and was the inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia.
In 1892, he and his wife were living in San Remo, Italy, when a daughter, Dorothy, was born to them. Three years later, her sister Freda joined the family and soon afterwards the family moved to Sissinghurst, Kent, England. These little girls were not to know that they would be instrumental in saving a major porcelain company from closure.
Charles Doughty died in 1926 and the Doughty sisters, neither of whom had married, carried on living in the same house by themselves.
But they were not alone.
Cheerful Children and Local Birds
Freda, who had a keen interest in art and modelling, ran modelling classes for children from their home.
The house was always full of bright, hopeful and cheerful children who were an inspiration to Freda. She would frequently use them as live models for the ceramic figurines that she fired in her own kiln. She had no idea that her child figurines would one day have a huge impact in saving one of the most reputable British potteries from economic ruin.
Dorothy, too, had a passion for nature and enjoyed painting – for which she had a talent. She attended the Eastbourne College of Art where she excelled. Here, she painted plasticine models of local birdlife.
Hard Times for Royal Worcester
The late 1920s were not a good time for the Royal Worcester Company. the company was on the brink of ruin. Indeed, the whole country was suffering from depression, following a temporary euphoria after the end of the 1914-1918 war.
A certain Charles Dyson Perrin bought up the company. He supplemented the workers’ wages from his own pocket and gave Worcester Ceramics a temporary reprieve.
To try to reverse their financial difficulties, the company decided to invest its efforts in the production of a brand-new range of figurine and animal studies. They bought in a group of new modellers (mostly women).
“Experts” can be wrong
At this time, one of the directors of Royal Worcester was staying with a cousin of the Doughty sisters. He happened to see some of Freda’s models of children. He was impressed and suggested she make some to show the company – which she did. And so started a long and fruitful working relationship.
An exhibition at the London Art Gallery showed off the new team’s works. And here, the “experts” were proved wrong! They thought that Freda’s four models of children were old-fashioned, out of date – but the public loved them. While many of the more modern-looking pieces remained unsold, Freda’s simpler models of children sold well.
In fact, Freda’s children were an enormous boost for business and the Royal Worcester entered the “affordable” figurine mass market. She was soon to become one of the most successful artists at Royal Worcester – and she produced over 100 pieces over her long career. Many of her models were duplicated many times. They were happy-looking models of children. No doubt they brought a little life and joy into the lives of those who bought them.
One very popular series was the days of the week – one boy and one girl for each day. These came out in 1938 and with a short gap, stayed in production till 2004 with some changes, including a late cheap version which was made abroad. (The stamp shows the country).
Dorothy and Her Birds
In 1934, Royal Worcester wanted to re-enter the lucrative American market. They issued a limited edition of cabinet pates illustrating images from the book “Audubon Birds of America”. They were so successful that the Royal Worcester was asked if they could produce 3D models of the birds.
By now, Freda was well established as a successful and popular artist in the Royal Worcester. They asked her whether she would be interested in producing this series of models of American birds. She specialised in children but thought the idea might interest her sister, Dorothy. The birds were to display a matt finish, unusual but thought to enhance their realistic appearance.
Freda introduced Mr. Gimson, the director of the company to Dorothy. Freda explained that Dorothy would suit the work better, as she had a special interest in birds. She also had the artistic skills necessary, and a fantastic memory for fine details. This would make her perfect for the job.
So, Dorothy started work at the Royal Worcester with a series of realistic American birds designed to help re-establish the Royal Worcester in the American market.
Dorothy Faces a Steep Learning Curve
But Dorothy faced a steep learning curve. The method used to produce ceramic production was new to her. Her sister showed her the way her own models were prepared. The plasticine models had to be cut into pieces for making moulds for slip-casting. These were later reassembled.
Dorothy worked from photographs at first. These early models of “Redstarts on Hemlock” were less vibrant than her later works when she modelled real live birds. Only 66 pairs were made. (A pair are offered on eBay at present for 1,500 USD = 2068.13 AUD)
But she improved. 250 pairs were made of her next pair of birds, “American Goldfinches on Thistle”. Following this, she was asked to continue the series.
Problems for the Flowers
But the method of slip casting, while fine for the birds, was not ideal for the delicate flowers that were part of her designs. She watched and listened to other artists.
Antonio Vassalo, from Malta, showed her how he made the delicate flowers by hand moulding.
Royal Worcester set up a workshop with a team of trainees. They learned the way to make the fine work needed for the flowers and gave Dorothy the freedom to use her imagination to a greater extent. The pieces needed special colour combinations. Harry Davis, a highly skilled artist, came up with the right way to find these.
The models became more complex, needing a range of talents to produce them.
And the birds were very detailed and involved a great deal of skilled work. They offered the birds as limited editions – an idea that was popular with those members of the public who could afford them.
Indeed, the birds were costly, and they were expensive and time-consuming to produce. But maybe the cost helps to make them exclusive. They were a valuable asset to the company. Four more pairs of birds were brought out before the onset of World War Two.
The American Natural History Museums gradually acquired complete sets of her works. The Stark Museum of Art has a complete collection – even the unpainted ones
World War Two – 1939-1945
The war changed the way Royal Worcester was working. Many of the staff left to fight. Much of the work then went into utilitarian products, including spark plugs and resistors. Yet still, Dorothy’s birds still flew to America – as part of the war effort.
Dorothy herself became an ambulance driver. She also worked in some experimental aircraft production war work as well as continuing to make the model birds. In addition, she made four model standards for British birds which didn’t come out till the war ended.
But Dorothy became very sick and the sisters moved to live near Falmouth in Cornwall. They continued their association with the Royal Worcester. Dorothy, despite being so ill, had a garden studio lined with cages for the birds and continued her work.
After the War
Freda was often asked if she, too, would like to make some limited editions. But she held fast to her wish to make relatively simple models that appealed to the mass market and that were affordable.
Her series of 12 figures for the months of the year bought out in 1947-49 were still being produced in 1983.
And so popular was a little girl in a long dress called ‘Grandmother’s Dress’ and her partner ‘Boy with a Parakeet’ that it was said they kept the factory open almost alone in the difficult years of the 1950s. They were produced in several different colourways.
Dorothy, however, travelled to America to study at firsthand the birds she modelled. Apparently, she came back with some funny stories to amuse her fellow workers at the pottery. She seemed to challenge both herself and other craftsmen in making her birds ever more complex, needing new techniques.
The Magnolia Warblers Fell to Pieces
One particular model, Magnolia Warblers, was much bigger than usual and presented great problems in the firing. The pieces just fell to bits in the kiln. They were about to give up when Bob Bradley, master mould-maker, decided on one last effort. He cut numerous holes in the bigger chunks. This lets the air, which expanded on heating, escape without fragmenting the pieces.
The Feisty Sisters Lived up to Their Name
The sisters seem to have been a feisty pair. Freda refusing to make limited editions and now Dorothy put her foot down. She had been asked to make a series of game birds targeting the hunting community. She put little baby birds with the hen birds – and who wants to kill baby birds? They were not a success!
But they are beautiful pieces – and very rare.
The Children’s Marks and Dating
Usually, the early models have the name of the model handwritten on the base in lilac or pink, together with the black standard Royal Worcester marks. But the date codes were discontinued after 1956. Instead, a letter R in a circle may be seen. In the 1970s, the name of the model was printed under the factory mark in black. It can be hard to date models from the 1960-1980s.
In 1983, smaller and simpler versions of the original figurines of the children were brought out. They came in 8-10 different pale pastel colourways and with the name, possibly changed, printed in black on the bottom. These were not a success and production stopped in 1985. These later inferior models are usually cheaper than the original series.
Freda’s genuine earlier pieces can fetch 180 – 270 AUD each. You can tell the early works by the hollow base, her later models are flat-based, and they are generally cheaper and easier to find.
In contrast, the works of Dorothy fetch rather more.
Examples can to be found on eBay – “the Redstarts” are offered for US $1,500.00 (2068.13 AUD), apparently in mint condition and the Doughty Lark Sparrow – Circa 1966 which is offered for $306.99 (423.26 AUD).
The Doughty Sisters’ Impact
In 1962, Dorothy became ill again and died at the age of 70. Some of her models were hardly complete and continued to be sold for another 6 years.
Freda remained well but she stopped working after her sister died and her last figurine was released in 1963. She died in 1972.
Together, the sisters had a huge impact on the survival of the Royal Worcester Company. Both with Freda’s children in the early 1930s, a little later, with Dorothy’s limited editions of birds for the American market. And then again, in the 1950s when the company was again on the brink of collapse.
Yet, it must have been a happy and fulfilling life with the garden, the birds and the children. They have left us around 200 pieces of delicate and extravagant birds and also many happy children. Different in tastes, different in what they produced, the sisters were united in a love of art and nature.