Beatrix Potter Figurines, “Vienna Bronzes”?

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The whole family! in process item no. 6935392

Cotsen recently acquired a large collection of 62 bronze Beatrix Potter figurines.  The group was assembled over a period of years by Diana R. Tillson, whose remarkable collection of materials on the history of music education and appreciation are part of the Cotsen Children’s Library. The figures are hand painted and range in size from 1.5 to 7 centimeters in three general size categories (8 large, 32 medium, and 22 small). From Benjamin Bunny to Tom Kitten, these bronzes boast an array of familiar and beloved Beatrix Potter characters.

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The “large” figurines; the tallest of which only measures 7 centimeters high.

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the middle sized group, each around 3 to 5 centimeters high.

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the very small figurines, all around 2 centimeters high.

The whole group again, with a quarter for scale.

The whole group again, with a quarter for scale.

Bronze figurines, Potter-related and otherwise, are often found on Ebay and in auction catalogs, in gift shops and collectibles magazines. In all these various places these collectibles are almost ubiquitously referred to as “Vienna bronzes”, usually “cold painted”: an Art Deco technique in which the metal is first chemically treated then painted and then covered in a fixative. Many larger bronzes are stamped with a maker’s signature. The most familiar in the market is the cartouche of the Viennese manufacturer Franz Bergmann which often appears, unpalindromatically, as NAMGREB (with the last N dropped). But our Potter figurines, and other bronzes of similar size, are too small to bear any maker’s mark. Although these tiny figurines claim a Viennese origin, grasping at associations with those larger and verifiable pieces and with that Austrian city of art and culture, their place of manufacture is not actually noted on the objects themselves.

So while doing research for this blog post I discovered a very strange thing: namely, that the manufacturer and date of these adored collectibles is almost impossible to ascertain!

As has already been mentioned, whenever these objects appear for sale on the web or in trade catalogs, they usually don’t mention a manufacturer. Even in one very famous collection of “Vienna Bronze” Potter figurines, that of Doris Frohnsdorff (featured in the April 16th, 1997 Christie’s auction catalog of her sizable and one-of-a-kind Beatrix Potter collection), the manufacturer is not mentioned. This collection, now in the possession of the rare book dealer David Brass, was reviewed by Greta Schuster, a knowledgeable Potter collector. Of the Frohnsdorff collection (and Vienna Bronzes in general) she said “The Vienna Bronzes are a minefield, from what I can see in your pictures you have a very good selection of old ones (with whiskers), approx. 1913 – 1933… What you have to look out for are ones that were made yesterday and made to look worn and old; yes there are fake Vienna Bronzes.”

To the best of our knowledge and ability we can cautiously conclude that our collection is authentic. Our miniatures are probably contemporaneous with the Frohnsdorff collection, resembling similar quality and condition (our whiskers are intact too!). Although we can claim that our bronzes were probably made in the period between wars, we still don’t know by whom. From what I’ve been able to uncover, this isn’t an problem particular to bronzes. All kinds of collectibles (lead soldiers, pewter figures, porcelain dolls, crystal statuettes, etc.) are listed online, in hobby magazines, and trade catalogs without ever indicating a manufacturer.

Nevertheless, it seems that there are only two companies which could be responsible for the creation of authentic Vienna Bronze Beatrix Potter figurines in the early 20th Century: Franz Bergmann (sold to Karl Fuhrmann & Co. in 1960) and Fritz Bermann; firms with misleadingly similar names that were both started in or around Vienna ca. 1850. On the history page of Bermann’s website, the firm indicates that they fixed a licensing agreement with Warne (the late Potter’s publisher) to produce figurines from Potter’s stories only very recently, in 1984. So we might ostensibly count them out and conclude that only Bergmann could have made our little figurines. Yet both firms have been advertised as the manufacturer of antique Beatrix Potter pieces (though they are, of course, easy to mix up).

It still remains unclear, however, if Potter authorized any Vienna Bronzes during her lifetime. So it is always possible that these miniatures were made by different firms than the ones mentioned but are simply untraceable. We might never get a clear answer regarding the origin of Potter bronzes from this period or our Potter bronzes in particular. If we can conclude that our figurines are not piracies (if indeed they all even came from the same place), then they were most likely made by Bergmann. But given the muddled past and current market, it might be impossible to say for sure.  At the very least, we are pleased to have received a charming collection of Vienna Bronze Beatrix Potter figurines that were carefully cast, painstakingly painted, and lovingly cared for.

 


Additional links and sources:

The David Brass collection

The history of Bermann Weiner Bronzen

 

Curator’s Choice: Playing Old Maid with Hunca Munca and her Friends

When I was little, playing Old Maid with a specially designed set of cards beat a standard deck hands down.   The peculiar characters (caricatures, really) were much more satisfying than the bland flat faces of the kings, queens and jacks in the old Bicycle deck, with the cupids peddling for dear life on the red or blue backs…

It never occurred to me when my daughter was little to make her a unique deck of Old Maid cards, maybe because cards were not all that high on the list of fun things to do until Five Crowns came along.  Designing the twenty-odd pairs of characters would have a bit more than I was up to because repeated requests to draw the beautiful Chicken of the Sea mermaid strained by my artistic abilities were strained to the breaking point!

However, some children are lucky enough to know adults who draw well enough to craft toys and games for them.  Sometimes lucky curators are offered rare specimens that survived against the odds.  This little set of Schwarzer Peter cards is just one such find.  “Schwarzer Peter”—that is, “Black Peter”–is the name that Old Maid goes by in German, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Finnish.  The card with Black Peter is the hot potato that all the players try to get rid of as quickly as possible so it won’t be in their hand at the end of the game.  In this particular set, the Black Peter is depicted offensively as a black rag doll instead of the more usual chimney sweep.

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inprocess item 6541473

The set has twenty-seven, not fifty-two cards, and seems to be complete because it fits perfectly in the blue box with the illustrated title label that reads in translation: “This game of Black Peter was painted for her dear friends Ernst and Anneliese Grossenbacher in St. Gall.”  It is signed Gertrud Lendorff, who just might be the Swiss art historian from Basel (1900-1981). The title label depicts a black baby doll and Lendorff’s model might have been a Heubach bisque character doll.  She redrew the same doll on the card with the caption “Der Schwarze Peterli! Nicht der Schwarze Peter!” [The little Black Peter! Not the Black Peter!].  It is an opprobrious caricature with unnaturally bright red lips.  But unlike some Heubach black baby dolls, it wears what looks like a knitted onesie instead of some spurious form of “native dress.”

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The cards cannot be earlier than the 1930s: the pair with the Union Jack in the upper left hand corners consist of Pamela and “Margaret Rose aus England.”  Margaret Rose is a little girl in a blue coat and hat with a green scarf, who must be the late Princess Margaret (1930-2002), Queen Elizabeth II’s sister.

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For the most part, the cards depict all kinds of toys made of porcelain, clay, celluloid, and wood, such as Hansli and the matryoshka doll Tatyiana and her five daughters shown below.

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A famous character from children’s books also makes an appearance here: Beatrix Potter’s Hunca Munca from The Tale of Two Bad Mice, identified only as “nach einem Englischen Kinderbuch,” that is, “from an English children’s book.”  It’s amusing that the illustrations of Hunca Munca Lendorff redrew are the ones where this bad little mouse was behaving well relatively well.

Were the little Grossenbachers for whom Lendorff made the cards reading The Tale of Two Bad Mice in German translation?  Or was Lendorff introducing them to a childhood favorite of hers? The cards don’t provide any clues about the circumstances in which they were made or how they were received, but they are testimony to Potter’s appeal outside her homeland.

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