When it comes to innovative design there are two sisters that instantly spring to mind, Freda and Dorothy Doughty. Between them they were not only responsible for creating some of the most spectacular ceramic figurines but also for saving one of the UK’s best loved factories – Royal Worcester. Dorothy had a passion for nature which is evident in her bird figurines but Freda’s designs of enchanting loveable children at play changed the way Royal Worcester was perceived being not only hugely successful back in the 1930s but also highly sought after by collectors today.
Born to the wife of the famous explorer and Poet, Charles Doughty, in San Marino, Italy, Freda and her sister Dorothy were brought to Kent in the UK when they were still small children. In 1926 their father passed away leaving the girls, who were unmarried, to run the family home. Dorothy was a keen naturalist and ornithologist who also had a talent for painting. She attended the Eastbourne College of Art where she excelled. Very little is known about Freda’s early life but we do know that she also had a keen interest in art and ran ceramic modelling classes for children, from the house. These children became great inspiration for Freda and she would frequently create ceramic models of them, totally unaware at the time of what impact her child figurines would have on saving one of the most reputable British ceramic factories from demise.
In 1930 the Royal Worcester factory was having financial difficulties and was on the brink of closing. Businessman, Charles Dyson Perrins saved the day by purchasing the factory and paying the workers out of his own pocket until the company was stable again. Another initiative that he introduced was a new group of modellers who were mostly women. They were responsible for helping enlighten the factory once again. One of the Directors of Royal Worcester saw Freda’s child figurines whilst staying with her cousin and so asked if Freda would submit something to the factory. This was to be the start of a flourishing career for Freda both as a modeller and designer.
The first four models were exhibited at a London Art Gallery along with offerings from the other freelance designers. In comparison to the more ‘avant-garde’ designs that were created by her colleagues, Freda’s children were very simplistic and considered to be old fashioned. However the public absolutely loved them and as a result Freda quickly became one of the most prolific and successful artists at the factory.
During her long career with Royal Worcester, Freda produced over 100 different models, most of which were produced many times over. Each piece showed children either playing in the garden, on the beach or simply enjoying their youth. ‘Grandmother’s Dress’ and ‘Boy with Parakeet’ were two of the most popular and so were created in various colourways. Other successful ranges were ‘Days of the Week’ and ‘Months of the Year’ which were also produced over a long period of time.
By 1934 Royal Worcester decided to introduce a range featuring Birds of America in order to re-establish themselves in the American market. A series of cabinet plates illustrating images from the Audubon Birds of America book were issued in limited edition sizes and proved to be a huge success. The Art Publisher of the book, Mr Dickens, then approached Royal Worcester again about the possibility of creating three dimensional bird figurines. His requirements were specific and the figurines had to have a matt finish which would help create a realistic feel. Freda was by now very popular with the public and had released many models of her children. So the Art Director, Mr Gimson approached Freda to see if she would be interested in sculpting the new range of bird figurines. Although a talented and versatile modeller she introduced Mr Gimson to her sister Dorothy who, Freda believed, would be perfect for the job. Dorothy already had a sound knowledge of birds, a fine artistic flair and also a legendary photographic memory for small details so this particular project was ideal.
There was no doubt that Dorothy was skilled in watercolour and sketching but needed to learn the art of producing models for ceramics. Freda spent time teaching her how to create plasticine models and cut them to produce the required moulds for slip casting. The first few bird figurines were produced by studying photographs but these earlier models lacked the vibrancy of her later pieces which were created by modelling from life. It became apparent to Dorothy that the method of slip casting was unsuitable for making finer details such as flowers, so a workshop was set up and Dorothy along with a team of trainees began to hand mould the details.
The bird figurines were all extremely complex to create and so were produced in limited edition sizes, a culture that was being adopted as it appealed to the public. On many occasions Freda was asked if she would like to make some limited editions of her child figurines, but she declined. She was a believer that her particular figures were to be bought and enjoyed by everyone and so be easily accessible rather than limited to just a few lucky people.
Throughout the war years much of the factory production ceased as the staff concentrated on the war effort. Dorothy still worked on some of her bird figurines but also became an ambulance driver and was involved with secret experimental work with aircraft production. Sadly she then fell very ill and so together with her sister Freda, moved to Falmouth in Cornwall although together they continued their work for the Royal Worcester factory.
By the 1950s Royal Worcester once again was experiencing financial difficulties and it is said that Freda’s child figurines especially ‘Grandmother’s Dress’ and ‘Boy with Parakeet’ were a contributing factor to the company’s survival. Dorothy continued to create her bird figurines but sadly in 1962 was taken seriously ill again and passed away aged 70. At this time some of her models were already completed and so continued to be sold until 1968.
Freda continued in good health for a further 10 years, but released her last enchanting child figurine in 1963 after her sister’s death. She passed away in 1972. Even today Freda’s work is still highly sought after, her earlier figures which have a hollow base and are signed tend to reach £100-£150 each although the later ones with the flat base alongside the Royal Worcester mark can be picked up a lot cheaper. Between them, the two sisters had created around 200 models which had been a major contributing factor to the survival of the Royal Worcester factory. Both prolific and popular artists, their passion, enthusiasm and talents have ensured that their names are carved into the Royal Worcester history books as two of the most exceptional female modellers of the 20th Century.
By Tracy Martin