During the nineteenth century, various authors such as John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Love Peacock transformed Robin Hood into a morally safe figure; a respectable outlaw hero with whom the Victorian middle classes could identify.
It was not purely in literary texts that Robin Hood’s respectable status was exhibited, however, but also in material culture. During the nineteenth century Staffordshire emerged as one of the foremost regions in the UK for the production of ceramics and pottery. The figurines produced by Staffordshire included ‘royalty, historical personalities, characters from fiction and the stage, and sporting heroes.’ The subjects of a recent article by Simon Morgan were figurines of political personalities, whilst Rosalind Crone briefly discussed the figurines of murderers which were produced during the 1820s and 1840s. However, Robin Hood as a Staffordshire figurine does not fit easily into the scope of either Crone’s or Morgan’s research: he is not – by the nineteenth century at least – a murderer but a historical figure, and could not therefore have provided a substitute for the contemporary vogue among members of the public for visiting crime scenes. Neither is Robin Hood an overtly political figure, in the same way that a figurine of William Gladstone could be. Hence the outlaw’s figure could not be used as ‘a prop in collective rituals of [political] belonging.’
Staffordshire figurines were made specifically so that they could be displayed in the home, evident by their ‘flatback’ design, and the figurine of Robin Hood and Little John is of this design. The technique for this type of ‘flatback’ emerged in the 1830s through the use of press moulding. A ‘master copy’ could then be produced which would provide a mould for subsequent products. Their cost seems to have been quite reasonable, and within the reach of those of the working classes who had a little money to spare, although there is debate about what type of people actually bought them. Crone places purchasers of these figurines squarely within the working classes, saying that the ‘figurines and models were […] part of the expanding pictorial world of the lower classes.’ On the other hand, Morgan says that while ‘they were within reach of the pockets of manual workers, with wholesale prices of between 7s. and 10s. per dozen for single figures […] anecdotal evidence suggests they were mainly purchased by a more affluent clientele.’ Similarly, K. Theodore Hoppen links Staffordshire figurines to a middle-class clientele, and it is as a middle-class consumer product that the figurine of Robin Hood is viewed. After all, he is already a feature of domesticated ‘moral and instructive’ works which were presumably read in the drawing room, and he had by the middle of the nineteenth century become a hero whom the middle classes could admire. In the Staffordshire figurine Robin Hood could be admired on the mantelpiece, which as Rohan McWilliam comments was one of the most precious places in the Victorian middle-class home:
We need to take seriously the mental and emotional world of the mantelpiece – a space for memory and pleasure (though there were other sites within the domestic interior for the display of objects such as windows or even the tops of upright pianos). They were museums in miniature. The fragility of pottery meant that the mantelpiece was a space defined as being out of harm’s way.
Arguably, Robin Hood, represented in a three-dimensional Staffordshire figurine is a manifestation of the qualities which he had gradually been imbued with since the days of Joseph Ritson and Walter Scott. He was, as McWilliam comments about another piece of Staffordshire Pottery, ‘a nod to the cosiness of the domestic sphere.’ The outlaw hero had indeed become a ‘domesticated’ hero, evident in his appearance in Victorian moralist works such as Historical Tales for the Instruction of Youth (1859). A speciality of the Staffordshire potters was patriotic figures, and as seen in the novel, Ivanhoe, Robin Hood was a patriotic figure, a man who gave his all in the service of the nation. The beauty about owning a figure of Robin Hood, however, is that he is a relatively un-political figure unlike, say, the Duke of Wellington who later became a Tory MP. Robin Hood was also a moral patriotic figure, unlike Admiral Nelson who, while he may have won the Battle of Trafalgar, was guilty of some indiscretion with Emma Hamilton. Moreover, Robin Hood and Little John are depicted as leaning against a tree; it is almost nostalgic, much like Keats’ poem, Robin Hood: To a Friend. Whilst Simon Morgan argues that people bought Staffordshire figurines of certain radical politicians as a means of proclaiming their identification with a particular cause, with Robin Hood purchasers did not have to make a political statement. The outlaw was, to borrow a phrase from A. J. Pollard, ‘all things to all men;’ provided, of course, that they could afford the Staffordshire figurine, and had their own ‘museum in miniature’ in which to display it.
Crone, R. Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press).
Hoppen, K. T. The Mid-Victorian Generation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
McWilliam, R. ‘The Theatricality of the Staffordshire Figurine’. Journal of Victorian Culture 10: 1 (2005).
Morgan, S. J. ‘Material Culture and the Politics of Personality in Early Victorian England’. Journal of Victorian Culture, 17: 2 (2012).
Stoke Museums ‘Staffordshire Portrait Figures: A description of the Pugh Collection of Victorian Staffordshire Figures in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery’ [Internet <http://www.stokemuseums.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/sm-info_staff-figures.pdf> Accessed 26/02/2015].
Categories: 19th Century, History, Material Culture, Robin Hood