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All the fun of the fairing

They might seem typically English, but fairings - the small, humorous china ornaments that were given away as prizes at travelling fairs in the late 19th century - were actually manufactured in Germany, writes Susan Campbell.

The firm of Conta & Boehme, operating in the town of Poessneck in Thuringia, fine-tuned the mass manufacturing process of the fairing to such perfection that the British companies were unable to compete. The German company produced more than 400 different varieties, with each of them depicting a lighthearted scene commenting on English life: courtship, marriage, parenthood, children, politics and even war. Most of the fairings displayed a caption written in black script to the base of the figure.

At the height of their fairing production between the 1850s and the 1870s, Conta & Boehme employed more than 800 workers to assemble and paint the figures by hand, exporting their goods to England, Europe and the United States.

The earliest fairings, dating from the first ten years of production from 1850, are thought to have been inspired in part by a five-piece series of ornaments made by the Royal Vienna Factory in the mid-19th century. Uncaptioned and never intended for the fairground market, the Royal Vienna figures are similar in size and theme to the fairings that followed them. The first fairings were unmarked and larger than those produced after the first ten years, with the latter usually measuring around 7.5cm to about 12cm. The Conta & Boehme mark of a bent arm holding a dagger within a shield was added from around 1860, when identification numbers were also introduced.

The most common fairing of all

The fairing that is most often seen is the one with the caption, The last in bed to put out the light. It depicts a couple getting into bed, with a candle in a candleholder at the end of the bed. Because it was considered lucky to snap the end of the candle when the victorious player had been presented with the fairing as his or her spoils at the funfair, it is often found with damage. Other bedroom and marriage scenes that crop up regularly include Shall we sleep first or how (a man and woman sitting in bed); When a man's married his troubles begin, which depicts a man nursing a crying baby; reception at three o'clock in the morning (a wife hitting the husband with a slipper); and one o'clock in the morning, which shows a husband being reprimanded by his wife.

Other pieces were inspired by song sheets that were popular at the time. Hence we have Champagne Charlie is my name - a George Leybourne song - as well as Pluck and The decided smash, both of which come from the song sheet Full Cry Gallop. Open your mouth and shut your eyes, which is often thought to be something to do with medicine, was actually inspired by a song called Shut your eyes tightly and open your mouth, by Charles A. Gardiner, in which a candle is being put into a boy's mouth by a prankster pretending to feed him cherries.

Some of the fairings were inspired by political events of the time. The long-running dispute between farmers and huntsmen in the 1870s inspired the ornament captioned In chancery, which shows a farmer pulling the horns of a cow and a huntsman pulling the tail, while the person actually milking the animal is a solicitor - a comment on who was benefitting from the situation! After the Corrupt Practices Bill was submitted to Parliament in 1881, a fairing was produced called Free and independent elector. It was modelled in two variations, one showing a politician slipping a bribe to a constituent, the other showing the constituent slipping the bribe to the politician.

The scandalous affair of Lady Eleanor Butler and Lady Sarah Ponsonby, who ran away in 1778 and spent the rest of their lives together, was depicted in the fairing captioned Ladies of Llangollan, and after the largest metal water wheel in the world was installed on the Isle of Man in 1854 to pump water form the mineshafts, a fairing captioned The Model of Laxey was produced in commemoration.

Some fairings were made as pairs, and are identifiable as such because they are single figures as opposed to the more usual grouping. The fairing Before marriage shows a thin couple, with After marriage showing them both overweight. Although they were made as a pair, Before marriage is less common - and has a higher value - than After marriage.

A question of quality

Original fairings will often have a mellow look to the china and muted colours, thanks to around 100 years of grime and dirt! Some also show small brown flecks in the china. Although this is quite normal, being the result of sand that found its way into the manufacturing process or sometimes due to the use of poor china, the presence of the flecks should cause a reduction in price.

Around 1890, several other factories in Germany and one factory in Japan began making fairings. The quality was not as good as those made by Conta & Boehme, but the price was cheaper. Conta & Boehme moved into the subsidiary markets of posy holders, match strikers and other ornaments, with the factory closing in 1931.

Reproductions and repairs

Turn an original 19th century fairing upside down, and you're likely to see the impressed mark of Conta & Boehme - a bent arm holding a dagger, and encased in a shield. There is also usually, although not always, an impressed four-digit number. The earliest figures were numbered 2850 to 2899, with the later series being 3301 to 3380s. If the figure also has 'Made in Germany' printed on the base, it dates from 1891 onwards.

Conta & Boehme always captioned their fairings in upper and lower case script. The reproductions that have been found on the market in the UK have all had the captions in capital letters, an indication that they are not authentic. They are also marked with a series of numbers that begins with the 1880s, another giveaway as Conta & Boehme began their series numbering with 2800. The fakes often have the same number on two or more designs, whereas as the Conta & Boehme fairings had a number exclusive to each design. Although the reproductions display a passable rendition of the Conta & Boehme mark, they are often lightly impressed and then overglazed to make the mark appear authentic.

The original fairings will often have air holes to the base, but they were no larger than 3mm. Reproductions almost always have holes much larger than this, and are usually more crudely modelled and lack detail. Their colours are also far more garish than the originals.

Unless it's of a very rare subject, a repaired fairing should have a significant price reduction, and if an entire figure has been replaced it will render the ornament virtually worthless. Repairs to small areas such as hands, cups, bottles and fences are generally accepted, but the defect should still be reflected in a lower price.

Reference and recommended reading:

Victorian China Fairings: The Collector's Guide by Derek H. Jordan, published by the Antique Collectors' Club, Suffolk, UK.

All images supplied courtesy Kellerton Ceramics in the UK. www.kellerton.com, or email us at: nash@kellerton.com.

This information first appeared in the Autumn 2012 issue of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.