I first fell in love with USSR porcelain in the late 1960s – 1969, to be precise – when I purchased a small figurine of a badger. I loved it because it was so smooth, so tactile and was so different from the fussy, whimsical ornaments that were around at the time. Slowly, over the years, I added to my collection – birds, lion cubs, rabbits and squirrels.
Most of these items bore stamps on their bases, the letters ‘USSR’, plus a mark rather like an ornate letter ‘L’ with three noughts and a backwards ‘3’. This was the mark of the Lomonosov company, which was founded in 1744, in St Petersburg, initially to make fine porcelain for the Russian Royal Family. It supplied other European Royal families too, and underwent several changes of name before settling on its present title. In the eighteenth century, during the reign of Catherine the Great, the institution was known as The Imperial Porcelain Factory. After the Revolution, it became the State Porcelain Works, and later was named Lomonosov after the founder of the Russian Academy of Science. The range of ceramics produced over the past 267 years is tremendous and includes vases, plates, dinner services, snuff boxes and numerous figurines.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that I began to research the pieces that I owned, discovering in the process the enormous and exciting range of Russian ceramics. It was then that I found the ‘She-Bear and Cubs’. This vigorous sculpture depicts a seated, rather fierce bear, paws held protectively over a cradle containing twin cubs draped in an orange-red coverlet, and I think it must still be my favourite piece today. Unlike the other various animal pieces that I had, this animal figurine screamed ‘Russia’, from the bear subject through to the colouring. I found this piece at a local antiques centre for around £50, and I learnt that it dated from the 1950s. It now sells for three times as much. It’s a sturdy piece, not so smoothly modelled as the later items, but is full of character. I began to look for other 1950s’ pieces, and soon came across a delightful inkwell featuring two bear cubs eating a bowl of berries. One cub is greedily tipping the berries into his mouth, the other is impatiently waving a spoon as he waits for his turn. Between them is a tree-stump table, with another spoon on top. That spoon forms a handle, enabling the tabletop to be lifted off. Underneath is a small ceramic pot to hold the ink. Many of the 1950s’ USSR pieces are based on Russian folklore, such as the ‘Lion and the Hare’, the ‘Fox and the Beaver’, the ‘Goat with the Little Kids’ and the ‘Crane and the Fox’, and, of course, bears crop up quite a lot, too.
Folklore depicts them as clumsy and not very clever; the tales often involving another creature outwitting the bear in the simplest of ways. The Lomonosov ‘Crane and the Fox’ piece is an inkwell; beneath the spoon and dish is hidden a small ceramic container for ink. The tale depicted is that of the fox asking the crane to dine, but providing a shallow plate so that her beak couldn’t take up the food. In return she asked him for a meal and put the food into a tall vessel that he couldn’t get his mouth into. Another story piece, the Lomonosov ‘Lion and the Hare’ is based on a fable in which the hare gets the lion to believe its reflection in a lake is another lion. A series of Lomonosov figurines that I particularly enjoy are the Eskimo or Yakutian children, such as the small boy gazing lovingly at a samoyed dog. The boy has shiny black hair and wears a warm embroidered coat, leggings and mittens. Other Yakut figures include a young girl with a book and a flower, and a girl holding a large sturgeon. Another favourite piece of mine is a Lomonosov figurine of a young Uzbek girl with a large basket. Her face is exquisitely painted, and the original sculpt was by G. S. Stolbova, who was famed in Russia for his sculpting. She wears a bright, striped robe in purple and orange, and is seated cross-legged, with the basket across her lap.
Frequently, collectors concentrate on the Lomonosov animals as these are the easiest to obtain, and are still manufactured today. A vast menagerie can be acquired, such as dogs, birds, zebras, rabbits, cats, fish, racoons, squirrels, foxes, badgers, mammoths, chipmunks, giraffes and plenty more besides, all in that smooth, tactile, rounded flowing porcelain with soft, exquisitely-placed, naturalistic colouring. For instance, the tiger cub, five inches tall, is a warm, goldbrown, with the black stripes boldly painted, and excellent detailing of eyes, claws and muzzle spots, while the sleek, shapely wildcat, with flattened ears and narrowed eyes is a masterpiece of design. Painted warm grey, with white, black and ginger markings, he sits upright with his tail curved around his body, tip poised ready to twitch. The standing bear cub is a frequently found piece. Six inches high, he has his paws crossed in front, and his head tilted as though he is slightly apprehensive. This appealing bear is dark brown, with lighter brown highlights, and is finished in a glossy glaze. Sometimes, an older piece in a very similar pose is found. This bear cub has rounder ears, a smaller muzzle, white face and underparts, and though lacking the smooth glossy finish of the later model, has an endearing, innocent expression. Standing bears such as these can still be found for £20 or so. It’s no wonder that so many people collect Russian bears – there are so many different models, both naturalistic and humorous.
Although Lomonosov is the largest and, perhaps, best known of the Russian porcelain companies, there are many others. Pieces by Kanakova, Dulevo, Verbilki, Seesert, Kuznetsov, Kiev, Gzhel and Polonye are frequently found, and all these companies made attractive items, such as the ‘Bear on a Hoop’ from Kanakova. This brown bear has a particularly high gloss and stands on a thick yellow hoop, as though performing in a circus. Kanakova was also responsible for the ‘Three Legged Giraffe’, almost art deco in design. This giraffe was decorated in several different ways, and some types are quite rare, such as one decorated with fruit. Most commonly found is a dark yellow/orange type adorned with coloured blotches looking rather like doughnuts!. Some people concentrate solely on seeking out all the different varieties of three legged giraffes. Gzhel (pronounced ‘Jel’) is particularly famed for its cobalt-blue and white figurines, and when grouped together, a collection can look stunning. Polonye made many attractive pieces, including a particularly vivacious duo of Russian male dancers, one of them playing an accordion and sporting a particularly fetching blonde quiff!
In the 1980s, the USSR was undergoing much internal strife and so for a while the importation of Russian ceramics was erratic. Prices soared as dealers thought they were sitting on treasure-troves, and extremely common pieces appeared at antique fairs at ‘silly money’ prices. Then, suddenly, in the 1990s, the wares appeared in shops once more, but the backstamp had changed, and the animals and figurines were now marked ‘Russia’ instead of ‘USSR’. Many collectors, however, prefer to obtain items with the older USSR backstamp, Russian porcelain is still made today, and so if you are after the more collectable USSR pieces, beware. Unfortunately, as with other desirable ceramics, fakes sometimes surface. It’s possible for an unscrupulous dealer to pass a new piece off as old, because the backstamps wash off easily. Also, if the R and A are removed in the word ‘Russia’, the resulting word reads like an unclear USSR – but most dealers are honest, and providing you get a descriptive receipt when you buy, there should be no problems. If you wish to collect purely for the beauty of the pieces, then the ‘Russia’ marked items are just as lovely. They use the same moulds, and are almost identical to the originals – they still have the incredible tactile, smooth, sleek finish that invites you to touch. http://www.lomonosov.uk.com/
Collecting Post-war Soviet Porcelain by Susan Brewer (follow Sue on Twitter @bunnypussflunge)