PARIAN BUSTS, STATUES & FIGURES
Parian, a fine soft-paste porcelain introduced in the middle of the 19th century, was a popular medium for the busts and statues that decorated many middle-class homes.
Middle-class Victorian households took great pride in their cultural pursuits. It was quite possible for a single household to boast a library, study and music room, and it was important for a family to be seen to be cultured. Guests and visitors were given gentle hints.
The library would have busts of great writers, historical figures and perhaps one or two reproductions of Greek or Roman statues. Learned clerics, scholars and scientists might peer down from niches in the study, while a great composer would occupy pride of place on the music-room piano.
Wealthier households could afford genuine marble statuary, but most made do with imitations. Busts made of plaster of Paris were a popular choice, but a new, fine-grained and unglazed type of porcelain, Parian, which had a slight sheen, was
considered much classier.
The new material was introduced in the 1840s by the firm of Copeland and Garrett, closely followed by Minton. Parian had a creamy, off-white surface with a delicacy reminiscent of marble from the Greek island, Paros, hence the name, which was coined by Minton. Many other firms made Parian, the most prolific being Robinson & Leadbeater.
Parian was used for vases, flower holders, brooches, inkstands, butter dishes and fruit comports, but was mainly seen in the form of statues, busts and figure groups, many of them the work of famous sculptors and artists.
Parian figures were usually copies of something, though not necessarily of statues or busts. They could well be representations of a detail of a famous painting or frieze. Excellent, scaled-down copies of original works were made by using an ingenious machine developed by James Watt and perfected for commercial use by Benjamin Cheverton, whose name appears on a number of Parian pieces.
The fine, crisp detail seen in Parian ware is produced by the enormous shrinkage the material went through when it was fired. The best Parian paste was made of feldspar, china clay and a glassy frit. On occasions, the frit was left out of the paste, but this made it unsuitable for statues, although it was fine for tableware. Sometimes the pastes were tinted with blue, green or terracotta slip. The ground of Wedgwood's famous Jasper ware is basically coloured Parian.
A Parian bust of a famous composer was de rigeur in the music room of any Victorian family that wished to impress visitors with its cultural gravitas.
It's a good idea to get used to the look and feel of good pieces of Parian ware before you begin to collect it. They should be smooth, with a good, even colour and fine detail.
It's hard to find statues in perfect condition as they were quite fragile. Busts were sturdier. Auctions, antiques fairs and specialist ceramics dealers are your most likely sources.
Minton and Copeland pieces tend to be rare and very pricey if in good condition. Wedgwood is easier to find, but still expensive. It will pay you to look out for other Parian manufacturers, such as Robinson & Leadbeater, T & R Boote of Burslem, Coalport, Turner &Wood and Kerr & Binns, who ran the Worcester works in the 1850s.
Other factories produced porcelain that was Parian in all but name, including the very collectable Irish factory, Belleek. Some Belleek ware has a special, lustrous glaze, resembling mother-of-pearl. W H Goss also made fine pieces,
often enhanced with touches of gilding.
Good Parian pieces usually have marks on the base. Sometimes the sculptor's name appears, as well as the name of the piece and the maker's mark. However, you shouldn't pay for the name of a famous pottery if the modelling isn't good enough, while a sculptor's name is no guarantee of quality.
FLAWS AND IMPERFECTIONS
Some busts may have the odd chip and this is acceptable because the appearance of the piece is unlikely to be totally ruined by it. Missing limbs, damaged costumes and disfigured features will, however, completely alter the look of a classical statue. Skilful restoration by an expert is fine as long as this is reflected in the price.
If a piece is stained, check to see if it is simply a build-up of dirt or something more permanent. Dirt can be removed with tepid water and washing-up liquid - a toothbrush will help to clean out crevices - but seek expert advice before attempting anything more adventurous, as Parian is slightly porous and is affected by some chemicals.