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Assoc. Prof. Hasan Başkırkan Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Fine Arts Faculty, Ceramic and Glass Department, Istanbul., ORCID: 0000-0001-6052-8518


A research made on the history and properties of potter figurines the ceramicists depict their profession with their material clay, in various geographies and various cultures. Research was conducted with potter themed figurines reached as a result of comprehensive studies carried out in museums, collections, books, journals, thesis and internet. First examples of potter figurines were come across made of limestone in 25th-26th centuries B.C. and of terra-cotta in 6th-8th centuries B.C. In the 18th century and later, potter figurines mostly made of porcelain material were come across especially in Europe and Asia. When the historical process is followed up, it’s not common for craftsmen, designers and artists who work with ceramic materials to depict their profession with their main material, clay. For reasons of few numbers of genuine examples and potter being the subject, these figurines are considered worth to be researched on. Along with museums and special collections, there were come across figurines considered to have art historical value mainly in antique dealers and auction web sites. These figurines sold for substantial amounts of money in auctions, are believed to have an artistic object value of an antique.

Keywords: Ceramic, Clay, Porcelain, Potter, Figurine.


Ceramic have yet to started to be produced as late as the days after the fire is invented and begun to be used. For many years, the first primitive human being named the “Peking Man” who lived about 500 thousand years ago was known to be the first human to use the fire consciously; but evidences found in 1981 in Kenya and in 1988 in South Africa, has proven that first primitive human beings called “Hominids” were using the fire controlled 1,42 million years ago. Again not long ago, it was known that the first ceramic was produced 11.000-12.000 years ago in Japan in Jomon period. But in an excavation made in 2012 in North China, examples from Xianrendong and Yuchanyan caves belonging to a transitional period from Upper Paleolithic Era to Neolithic ages have proven that first ceramics were produced nearly about 18.000-20.000 years ago. The pottery as a work area on the other hand, was happened to be started in the Early Neolithic period where nomad tribes have begun to pass to settled life. This period has witnessed the beginning of agriculture, stockbreeding, textile hence the trading, in brief the history of civilization. Developments in agriculture and trade have increased the need for pots and pans and started the pottery.

With the starting of pottery as a work area, there happened significant development sin that area. Although it wasn’t a common thing to encounter potters producing pots and pans, they have chosen to depict themselves also with the materials they use. Back in those periods potter figurines have sometimes been an instrument of expression and sometimes become an ornament. Figurines are called, for instance “figur” in German, “figurina” in Italian and “figurilla” in Spanish and many more similar in different languages. As for Turkish the word “trinket” is come across to describe these products. In TLA (Turkish Language Association) vocabulary this word is identified as “trinket: elegant, small ornament such as sculpture, vase etc. made of various materials.” The figurines mentioned in here are come across in museums and special collections apart from just being ornaments so it’s thought that they carry an art historical value and this description does not fully reflect their properties. The word "figurine" does not take place in TLA vocabulary but the word "figure: the shape of entities in paint and sculpture arts." In art dictionaries the word is identified as "figurine: three-dimensional small art creation depicting living beings in general and which can be easily carried and made of every kind of materials such as stone, wood, metal, terra-cotta etc., statuette." Although it's not in TLA vocabulary, the description in art dictionaries is thought to involves the objects in subject here so the word "figurine" is chosen to be used under this study.

In the research made, there have been come across examples made of limestone but not terra-cotta, depicting the potter while working, taken out from a Mastaba (flat-roofed small chamber founded right on top of the tomb for the memory of deceased ones buried under the soil in Ancient Egypt) in Giza Pyramid Sakkara Cemetery from the 5th Dynasty Period, Egypt Old Kingdom, which are dated back to 25th-26th century B.C. (2565-2420 B.C.). Two of these are the 13,2 cm height figurines known to be the oldest ones included in the Chicago East Institute Collection, depicting a male potter. There's shown a scene where a potter is crouching down in front of a short turn operated with hand and shaping a big sized bowl in Ancient Egypt (Visual 1). This example is one of the 25 figurines of different profession groups inside the tomb of a graveyard officer, Ny-kau-Inpu. With the thought that they would need to use pans and pots forever in their life beyond, these potter figurines were placed in wealthy families' graves. This way to take whatever important for them to the afterlife, it's believed that this potter can continuously produce pans and pots for the deceased one. His profession's toughness shows itself from the countable ribs on his back, tightly wrapped skin on his face and his open forehead because of lackness of hair and the figurine depicted as naked reflects the difficulty the pooters were experiencing back in those days. Despite potters have played a key role in Ancient Egypt they worked at the lowest level of social order.

Visual 1. A limestone figurine depicting and Egyptian male potter shaping a bowl on turn.

The other example known to be the oldest depicting a potter and included in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; is the figurine made of limestone and painted and again taken out from a Mastaba in Giza Pyramid Sakkara Cemetery from the 5th Dynasty Period, Egypt Old Kingdom, which is dated back to 24th-25th century B.C. (2494-2345 B.C.), where a male potter is represented crouched down on floor and modelling a clay. It's remarkable how details such as hands, feet, face, hair etc. are depicted skillfully thin, muscular and naked and that he's not using a turn for shaping. (Visual 2).

Visual 2. A limestone figurine depicting a potter modelling a clay in his hands.

Another example known to be the oldest depicting a potter and included in United Kingdom Courtesy of Petrie Museum collection; is the figurine made of limestone and painted at sizes of 10,5x9,5x3,5 cm and again dated back to Egypt New Kingdom Era 11th-16th century B.C. (1549-1068 B.C.) where a female potter is depicted sitting on a chair and adding a handle on a jug. Details such as her long curly hair, nose, mouth, lips etc. are given skillfully (Visual 3).

Visual 3. A limestone figurine depicting an Egyptian female potter adding a handle on a jug.

Two limestone male figurines included in England, London British Museum collection, are depicting potters working in their workshop. the 11,3 cm figurine in Visual 4a, produced in Cyprus between 475-300 B.C.; is depicted in a position half-crouched and arms stretched between legs, probably kneading a clay mass on a cushion shaped support and both hands joined on the clay being kneaded. The figurine has a flat forehead, triangular face, messy hair, beard and mustache and its' head is treated in more detail compared to other figurines produced in Cyprus-Classic Era. But its' body is expressed with no details, in a natural way. It's possible to see clear stylet traces on the surface and red paint traces on lips. The 11,5 cm figurine produced between 450-400 B.C. Cyprus-Classic era in Visual 4b; is depicting a potter turning wheel possibly with feet and shaping a pot with hands. It's portrayed leaning forward with its’ geometrically anatomical body, sitting on a chair at low height, holding the clay mass being worked on a turner. The figurine is depicted without hair and clothes with a triangular face, sharp beard, almond shaped eyes in their deep sockets and a big nose and has no paint traces encountered today. It's thought that these missing elements might have been made with paints when it was produced back then.

Visual 4. Limestone male potter figurines depicted while working in their workshop.

The figurine included in Paris Louvre Museum collection, thought to be made in late 6th century B.C. in an Ancient Greek City known as Elaious the “Olive City” located between the area where Canakkale Martyrs’' Memorial is now located and the small gulf (Morto Port) at the west of it, depicting a female potter shaping a big pot with her hands, is among the first known terra-cotta examples (Visual 5). The figurine being taken out of a grave indicates that it symbolizes the life after death. It's thought that the figurine represents a fair and happy life for its' shaping being made in an easiness with less detail, giving only the movement of her arms.

Visual 5. Terra-cotta female potter figurine depicted while shaping a pot with her hands.

The figurine included in Israel Museum collection in Jerusalem, produced in Achziv region in 8th-6th century B.C. where a potter is depicted, was made of terra-cotta at sizes of 5x5x12 cm. The figurine is standing on feet with its' body leaning forward and it's portrayed as shaping a high pot with his hands. It's seen that the depiction is chosen to be less detailed especially on body and geometrically natural. (Visual 6).

Visual 6. Terra-cotta male potter figurine depicted while shaping a pot with his hands.

The first hard porcelain factory of Germany was founded in 1710 in Dresden with the name "Saxonia Royal Factory of Porcelain" at the helm of Böttger. With the most important modelist of European porcelains, German sculptor and ceramic user artist Johann Joachim Kändler coming to Meissen by 1731, the "figurine era" has started in Royal Manufacturing of Porcelain between 1731-63. Among the figurine varieties there are also very realistically depicted figurines of craftsmen from Paris, London and other cities. The porcelain potter figurine from the craftsmen series modelled by J. J. Kändler in Meissen Porcelain Factory in Germany and produced in 1750s, is one of the most interesting examples of its' kind (Visual 7). The figurine is depicted with a workshop attire combined with a hat, white shirt, button-front vest and pants at under-knee size. The figurine is compositioned as turning the potter lathe with the naked left foot on a platform and with this momentary frame given, it's shaped so skillfully in a way to impress the audience like it's alive. It's remarkable that it's shaped with a ware about to be finished shaping on his lathe. Compositioned on a rock platform with rococo acanthus leaf pattern, the figurine is colored with on-glaze decor technique. The 19cm height figurine's vivid colors are remarkable. There are also on-glaze gold decoration influences observed on it. Across sword logo is made on the bottom of the porcelain-made figurine with blue paint and transparent glaze is applied on it.

Visual 7. Male potter figurine designed by J. J. Kändler and produced in Meissen Ceramic Factory.

In a region near Fuente del Ángel Caído in Buen Retiro town of Madrid, Spain, "Buen Retiro Porcelain Factory" has begun manufacturing in 1760 with the attempts of King of Spain Carlos the III's wife Maria Amalia. In 1803, the factory has been passed to the management of Spain born Bartolomé Sureda y Miserol from Italian board of directors and with this from soft porcelain to hard porcelain. Along with dinner sets, vases and similar decorative products, the manufactures have taken place focusing especially on classical themed figurines. The potter figurine produced by one of the most famous hard porcelain factories of Spain, the "Sureda" company, is one of the rarest examples produced by the company (Visual 8). Sureda has always been attentive to produce limited availability products for the superior quality of its' porcelains and figurines. The figurine is depicted with a hat on head and naked upper body with a dark green short pants and a yellow apron on top of it. The figurine portrays the male potter shaping the vase with naked feet on a lathe turned by foot. Painted with vivid colors by on-glaze decor technique, the figurine at sizes of 13x10x26 cm, has the blue logo of Sureda Porcelain Factory pressed under-glaze.

Visual 8. Male potter figurine produced in Sureda company.

"Martin Brothers" company is a business founded by four brothers in 1873 in London, England. From 1873 to 1914, they have produced in a style according the format named studio pottery today. 17 cm height, salt-glazed, blue hardened china figurine painted in fallow and light green colors and showing a thin long vase being formed on a potter lathe, called the "lather" produced in 1885 by one of the four brothers Robert Wallace Martin (1863-1915), is included in England, London British Museum collection (Visual 9). It's said that R. W. Martin used his own portrait in this work of him called the "lather" and that this work is a part of a trilogy which the other two are works called the "male bench servant" and the "male lathe servant". Complete trilogy is included in Victoria & Albert Museum collection and it's known to be produced in December 1879.

Visual 9. Male potter figurine produced by R. W. Martin in Martin Brothers company.

Royal Doulton is the British ceramic and house ware manufacturer founded in 1815 and still continuing manufacturing today. With a much variable product diversity, the company has been influenced by the figurine trend produced in other porcelain factories of Europe back in the days and produced similar shaped figurines. Among these the figurine called the "potter", was designed by Charles John Noke in the first half of 1800s (Visual 10). Bone china figurine is depicted as sitting cross-legged on floor, decorating the vase held at right hand with the brush held at left hand. The figurine wears a traditional brown surcoat, surrounded by a group of hand-decorated products, nearly at sizes of 18x17x13 cm and has a stamp at the bottom.

Visual 10. C. Male potter figurine designed by J. Noke and produced in Royal Doulton company.

Gille Jeune is the French ceramic artist lived between 1798-1868. He founded the "Gille Jeune Porcelain Factory" in Paris in 1836. He has attended various exhibitions in 19th century, in Paris and London and won awards with his works. Today his works are included in significant collections and museums all around the world. The factory has produced biscuit porcelain figurines in Tanagra style. Tanagra figurines are die-casting type Greek terra-cotta products produced late 4th century B.C. in Boeotian town, Tanagra. They are seen coated with a white primer before firing and decorated with natural colors sometimes under watercolor influences. they were exported widely in Ancient Greek World. The female figurine included in Berlin Decorative Arts Museum, produced in Gille Jeune Porcelain Factory and decorated by Charles Baury, is depicted in much detail (Visual 11). Compositioned as sitting on a chair in her workshop looking at the child on her lap, the female porcelain painter looks like Renaissance Era paintings and depicted as holding a vase with her hands-on top of her right knee and decorating with the materials such as paint and brush on the table in front of her. Designed in much detail with an extraordinary realism, the figurine is a biscuit porcelain and finished by decorating with synthetic paints after firing.

Visual 11. Female porcelain painter figurine decorated by Charles Baury and produced in Gille Jeune Factory.

Known also as Kuznetsova porcelain, the "Tver Porcelain Factory" has been started by Matvey Kuznetsov when he bought a porcelain factory in 1870 in seek of his dream of gathering many of the porcelain businesses in Russia under his wings. It has suffered from great changes Russia has experienced in its' history and tried to resist these problems. Among the productions of the factory were tea and coffee wares and various special products made of porcelain. Between 1880-1890 the factory's products have reached an impressive level of recognition and begun to be sold in many regions throughout Russia. In 1924 the name of the factory has been changed to "Tver Porcelain and Tile Factory". In the mids of 1950s when the interest on decorative arts has roused up again and the purchasing power of the population has increased, its' recognition has once again made it to the top. Producing also porcelain figurines, the company has produced a 12 cm height male potter in 1950s (Visual 12). Depicted as wearing a petrol green t-shirt and a beige pants under with a white apron on top of them, with his long straight hair, long beard and mustache, shaping a pot on a short table, the potter's feet are naked. Just beside his right foot there is a clay mass. Standing out with excellent details like hand, face, foot, cloth curves, the figurine bears the company's seal at the bottom.

Visual 12. Male potter figurine produced in Tver Porcelain Factory.

CMD Sylvan China Factory's center was in New York. Imported by the factory from Japan, thought to be produced between 1900-1904, a pair of potter figurine, one male one female wearing green clothes, sitting on a brick bench and decorating on the amphora at their hands, are at sizes of nearly 20,5x16,5x11,5 cm and they bear the logos at their bottoms (Visual 13). Depicted with puffy leaves, unplastered bricks and 5 pieces of ceramic products placed around the figures on their pedestals, the figurines have extraordinary details. Shown decorating the amphoras at their hands with gold, the figurines are in a rare production group. While the male figure decorating fully concentrated the female figure is guised like she's having a talk. There are the logos of CMD Sylvan China and Continental mdse co. inc companies at the bottom of these products.

Visual 13. Paired potter figurines imported from Japan by CMD Sylvan China company.

The company known as Napco Company or National Potteries Corporation, is located in Bedford, Ohio and started porcelain and glass manufacturing in 1938. Ceramic products merchandised by Napco (National Potteries Corporation) are in exceptional quality. Since their high-quality production from 1950s and 1960s, Napco has succeeded to draw collectors’ attention because it has designed all of its' products with consistency and very successfully. The company has also added the porcelain figurines being made produced in Japan to its' collection (Visual 14). The details are remarkable on the pair of porcelain potter figurines consisted of an Asian male and female over the middle age, depicted while sitting on the floor and decorating the vases at their hands. Portrayed with traditional dresses, the figurines seem to be happy with the job they do from the gestures on their faces. It gives a feeling to the audience that they're like having a talk while working. there are logos and writings at the bottom showing that they're imported from Japan and hand painted.

Visual 14. Asian pair potter figurines imported from Japan by Napco company.

Dmitrovsky Porcelain Factory located just a few kilometers away from the Verbilki village of Russia, was founded at the beginning of the 18th century. While the main production of the factory was on dinner sets, it later began to produce porcelain figurines. Today, the factory is mainly doing porcelain figurine manufacturing. Porcelain male potter figurine is among the factory's most valuable group of works with the aesthetical values it has. Shaped from hard porcelain with such an elegant craftsmanship by artist Borkin Vasily Vasilievich (1896-1974) between 1930-1931, the potter is a lyrical and inspiring craftsmanship figurine (Visual 15). The figurine represents the USSR era pots and pans tradition and culture. It's depicted while making a vase of white colored clay, moving professionally and clearly on his work in his workshop. The potter is portrayed wearing a white shirt with small red dots, a beige pants, giving the opening of his vase its' last shape with his hands and turning the lower platform of his lathe with his naked feet. Without doubt confirmed to be a work of art, this figurine is observed to be decorated with colors of choice like beige, grey, brown, red, yellow etc. to emphasize its' aesthetics and genuineness.

Visual 15. Male potter figurine designed by Vasilievich and produced in Dmitrovsky Porcelain Factory.

The history of Russian Gzhel Porcelains has begun by private manufacturers spread around this region with rich clay deposits, beginning to produce porcelain products in early 18th century. All products of Gzhel Porcelains are hand-made, and it’s seen that some products were designed and signed by the artists. Gzhel porcelains are among the product groups which many collectors are seeking for today. The male potter figurine with hand decoration produced in Gzhel Porcelain Factory in Russia by late 1980s early 1990s, is depicted while sitting and shaping a vase on potter lathe (Visual 16). Decorated using the porcelains own color white and only blue obtained with cobalt, it’s observed that the figurine is clothed with a polka-dotted t-shirt, an upright striped pants and a white apron on top of them. Portrayed with an open forehead, long beard and mustache, the figurine is at sizes of 8x4 cm and bears the factory’s seal at the bottom.

Visual 16. Male potter figurine produced in Gzhel Porcelain Factory.

"Steinzeug" (stoneware) products produced especially in Ren region of Germany and un-pored by firing at high temperatures, were served to use by being glazed with slat-glazing method. As well as their high technical qualities, these products had also a high aesthetical level. Stonewares used in areas such as houses and as kitchen wares in the beginning, was the mostly produced ceramic kind before porcelain. It has come from European countries to Germany in the 11th century and to England in the 17th-18th centuries. Glazed with traditional salt-glaze, oldest of these wares are come across in Höhr-Grenzhausen city of Germany. The production traditions of bowls, jars, mugs, vases (even though in lesser amounts) are still to be maintained even today.

Westerwälder pots are known to be the salt-glazed products made in Westerwaldkreis province and Ransbach-Baumbach town of Rheinland-Pfalz and Höhr-Grenzhausen cities of Germany. The male potter figurine produced in the "Keramik Westerwälder Steinzeug" company located in this region and not known exactly when it was produced (Visual 17) is about at 25,5 cm height, 9 cm width, 11,5 cm depth and created with salt-glaze method. Depicted as sitting on a bench with flower-decorated carrier legs, shaping a vase, the potter's hand, face, hair and clothing details are processed delicately. The figure with a dominant salt-glaze effect, is decorated with cobalt blue.

Visual 17. Male potter figurine produced in Westerwälder Keramik factory.


In different geographies and different cultures, along a course beginning with limestone in 25th-26th centuries B.C and continues with terra-cotta in the 6th century B.C. and with porcelain in the 18th century, it's determined that it's not a common issue to come across with craftsmen, designers and artists working with ceramic material, depicting their profession with their main material, clay. Reasons such as the small number of examples, them being unique and potter being the subject, make these figurines important and special. With the discovery of porcelain and taking action for manufacturing it in the 18th century, apart from functional production such as dinner wares, interest on figurine production also has been a remarkable matter. gaining a valuable place in world plastic material history by means of design, craft and art, potter figurines are observed to carry the features unique to the style of the country and even more the business they're manufactured in. In the 18th century and later, it's seen that potter figurines are predominantly produced in European countries such as Germany, France, England, Spain. But there are also figurines come across in Asian countries such as Russia, Japan, India and in America. These figurines of which a very little number of are included in museum collections and sold for substantial amounts of money at auctions, are believed to bear an art object quality esteemed as antiques. In the research, the fact has been faced that figurines are not well taken inventory of and not well archived especially by the businesses making their productions. Believed to have art historical value today and thought to take place at museums, the products are mostly come across in shopping sites making sales by auction in internet and this emerges the opinion that there have to be a serious attempt to be taken on this issue.

It was determined that male figurines are more subjected than female figurines. It was observed that males are usually depicted while sitting and producing pot on lathe and females while making decorations requiring precision.

These figurines which has gained quite interest back in those days they were produced, thought to have inspired in the past, are inspiring now and will continue to inspire in future the artists-designers-craftsmen who are the ceramic material users of the past, today and future. And for these reasons, it won't be a misapproach to believe that the figurines will succeed to preserve their actuality by means of art history. In conclusion, in accordance with the information set forth, it's thought that these rare potter figurines created with ceramic material, have made a huge contribution to the world plastic art and are very valuable treasures to be carried to future generations.


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Visual References

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