In praise of china figurines and ornaments

In praise of china figurines and ornaments

The word ornament has grim connotations. But don't make your dogs, birds or dancing ladies hide away, because ceramic ornaments mean a huge amount to us - and sales are on the rise

By Abby Trow
The Guest collection by star Spanish designer Jaime Hayón for Lladró

Lladró is a leading manufacturer of decorative porcelain pieces (ok, let's call them ornaments), many of which are very traditional. But back in 2008 the company hit on the idea of bringing the figurine into the 21st century and commissioned contemporary designer Jaime Hayón to design a range of products that were just the right side of weird.. He in turn asked top artists and designers - including Sir Paul Smith - to decorate his some would say rather creepy figure The Guest. The 2019 version of Mr Guest is pictured above

We don't say 'I'm going ornament shopping today' or 'boy, that mantelpiece is looking empty, we must go and get some ornaments for it'. Nor do we say 'how about getting Tina and John a lovely ornament for their wedding present'.

It's a word loaded with associations to do with grannies and pre-war mantelpieces, china ladies in very un #metoo huge Cinderalla-goes-to-the-ball dresses, unironic dogs or poorly proportioned figurines - useless objects lacking in sophistication that thankfully these days we're likely to come across only in a second-hand shop.


Come on, you've got to admit it, she's a very pretty china lady... from new brand The English Ladies Co, which is based in Stoke On Trent
Gypsy Fan-tasy, part of Thelma Madine collaboration, £195, at the English Ladies Co
For your inner princess...a lady in blue from the English Ladies Co
Figurines can be weird and modern: The Lover, figure from Fantasy collection by Jaime Hayón for Lladró, £490
New this year from Lladró, Dolphins Dance, 20x41cm, porcelain, by sculptor Francisco Catalá
Horse people like to collect china horses..Bewick Pony, 1999, by Graham Tongue, 8.25in high, £475 at
These sort of flowing white china figures are popular wedding presents.
Not very #metoo perhaps... but this is how I dreamed of looking when I was a lil'girl. £365, Lladro
Really rather and white vintage china dogs enhance a monochrome vignette.

But I'd like to speak up for the ornament, to say give one as a present or buy one for yourself because they can become very meaningful and surprisingly companionable little things - provided you don't drop them. And it's a joy to build up over time a collection of whatever floats your boat.

I say this after coming across a small wooden box when clearing out the lost which I thought I'd lost years ago. And, well, the sight of it brought a tear to my eye because in it lay my birds. A handful of little birds (mainly china) I'd collected as a child and which used to live happily on top of my chest of drawers until a horrid boyfriend threw them out of the window one day saying he hated them. I ran outside to gather them up from the lawn, put them in the box for safe keeping, put the box in a bag and the bag in a holdall... and now 25 years later I'm reunited with them and all the ensuing memories.

The one with a missing wing (thanks Tim) I bought in Elba when I was seven, the two white ones my godmother brought back for me from America when I was 10. Alas this ragbag nest of old birds are not beautiful enough to be displayed in our sitting room so I've put them on my dressing table, where I alone can commune with them each morning. And they have got me thinking about ornaments. In particular why does no one buy them any more?

Mal Pashley, marketing director at Stoke On Trent-based The English Ladies Co, begs to differ and says people most certainly do buy them and sales of figurines (she tends to avoid the word ornament) have been increasing following a period of stagnating sales from around 2000 to 2010.

'I think there are several reasons why they fell out of favour. Firstly, around the time of the new millennium there was an over-supply of figurines and they stopped holding their value. That in turn led to a big drop in manufacturing. 

'And do you remember that Ikea ad that urged us all to chuck out our chintz.. that made us feel guilty about owning decorative stuff, that it wasn't we all felt embarrassed into getting rid of our nick-nacks and the pretty things we might have collected.

'But the point about china figurines is that we develop an emotional connection to them, they are very personal to us,' says Pashley. 'When people see and touch products like ours, they have an emotional response to them. I mean, when you see our dancing ladies in their big swishy dresses, what you sense is a huge amount of movement - which is a special quality they have, given they're totally static things!'


Sir Paul Smith with the Guest figurines he decorated for Jaime Hayón and Lladró
And this is a scene you probably imagine should you ever think about china dogs. But they're actually rather lovely..and if you like them, keep collecting and displaying them!
Set of four Royal Doulton figurines. The company has been making ceramic ornaments since the 1890s
Collectors' delight - Franklin Mint Maku porcelain figure by Caroline Young - find similar on eBay
Vintage china spaniels..they're usually bought in pairs. Again, they can look rather splendid..source them on eBay or at antiques fairs
Mother's Day Figurine, Cherished Moment, £135, by Royal Dolton which produces an Annual Figurines collection

To illustrate the point let's bring in Kate and Nigel Grose from Caldicot in South Wales. They were burgled 10 years ago and a lot of their personal belongings were stolen. Kate Grose says the one thing they've never forgotten and would love to be returned to them over everything else is a 1930s' figurine of a lady in a flowing black gown. 'She lived on the piano and she was very beautiful. We grew to love her and we miss her still... sounds sentimental, I know, but it's true.'

The English Ladies Co was founded in 2010 because manufacturing of unabashedly femine figurines had all but fallen off a cliff. 'But we felt the draw to these pieces was still there. People love to give them as a gift on a special occasion, perhaps to celebrate a birth or a wedding or a 21st birthday, and then there are people who might have collected them in the past and want to do so again.We find our customers cross span all ages  - they don't just hold appeal for girly girls.' (Pashley notes that some gay couples in the States are becoming serious collectors...).
The company's annual turnover has risen to over £3 million, with most product being sold in the UK and Ireland, while the US and Russia are growing markets. The china ladies cost around the £200 mark, which is quite a lot of money but it's not unaffordable and you are buying a piece that can last for, well, ever.

'I think it's been a neglected business, which explains why we're finding success now,' says Pashley. 

Is it art? Is it sculpture? And do china ladies reinforce gender stereotypes?

The art world and the world of high end interior design are dismissive of traditional figurines, whether depictions of ladies, lovers, mothers and babies, horses, dogs or birds ('oh good heavens, they're the epitome of bad taste, why are these things still being made?' asks one very posh interior designer who wishes to remain nameless). But while they're not fine art - they can be mass producted - they are made by highly skilled artists and if you look closely at a figurine, particularly a dancing lady in a frothy dress, the level of detail and accuracy is astonishing.

Mal Pashley explains that the English Ladies Co products are designed and prototyped in Stoke on Trent and manufactured at a factory in Thailand for cost reasons, then hand-painted in Stoke. Each figure requires up to 10 moulds for particular parts, so they are very labour intensive to make, and designs are produced in limited edition batches, which is also a way of ensuring there isn't over supply and there is a second-hand market.

Does the company come in for flack at its depiction of womanhood in what is an idealised ultra feminine form? - with their tiny waists, gorgeous dresses and flowing tresses, these ladies certainly aren't gender neutral, gender fluid or non-binary...

Well no, because these figurines are made for people who want this style of piece. 'Of course they appeal to girly-girls, they are very feminine and romantic,' says Pashley. 'Many women still hold that dream of the perfect wedding dress ... interestingly when we started, we had figurines in slim dresses but they didn't sell well, so we put them in the big flowing gowns and people love them.' (A collaboration with Liverpool wedding dress maker Thelma Madine of Channel 4's My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has proved a great success...)

Now for the weird and wonderful...Jamie Hayón for Lladró

If Cinderalla ballgowns don't do it for you, take a look at the Jaime Hayón Fantasy collection of figurines for Spanish porcelain company Lladró, a world leader in porcelain ornaments. He launched the collection in '08 and has added new pieces over the years. You could say they're figurines for men and non-girly girls, for those who like a touch of irony in their ornaments, for people wanting something tastefully weird or a bit creepy on their shelves. Pieces are intriguing, beautifully made, the product of an extraordinary imagination and well worth collecting if you can afford them. Prices start at £160 and rise to around £1600. 

Close up of one of Hayón's The Guest figurines
The Lover's Garden, limited edition of 100, by Jaime Hayó for Lladró

So, in short, don't listen to anyone who says ornaments are naff! If you like china animals or pretty ladies in swooshy frocks, then collect away and display them proudly. 

From a design point of view, they work best when you have a number of pieces on a shelf or across a shelving unit because they have impact and tell a story. 

And from an environmental perspective, ceramic is good stuff because it has the potential to last for hundreds of years without degrading and while it won't biodegrade, it is inert in landfill.