Studio Szeiler



Most people recognise pieces of Szeiler – even if they don’t know what they are. A contradiction in terms? Maybe, but any visit to an antiques centre or collectables fair will result in the sighting of several of these charming pieces nestling quietly amongst brighter ceramic figures, waiting for their subtle appeal to be noticed. And once you’ve noticed, you’re hooked! Many people must have fallen for one of these attractive sculptures without even reading the backstamp, and only later seen the oval Szeiler logo. A typical Szeiler piece will be a small animal, such as a cat, dog or donkey, modelled in a slightly stylised pose with smooth contours which entice you to touch, and probably it will be decorated in light beige, white, or the palest of blue.

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Joseph Szeiler was born in Hungary in 1924. Though his original ambition was to become a veterinary surgeon, he was forced to give up his studies at Budapest University because the country was in such turmoil. After fleeing to Austria, he arrived in Britain in 1948, and worked at various potteries in the Midlands, including Wade Heath, where he was employed as a caster. Joseph obviously enjoyed the work because he decided to study ceramics and learn all he could about modelling, until finally he was skilled enough to have his own business. He went to work for an esteemed freelance modeller, C S Lancaster of Burslem, who taught him the various processes involved, including mould making and casting. Joseph also attended evening classes at Burslem School of Art.

By 1951 he was in business, working from a small rented room in Hanley, but as he had no kiln he had to carry the heavy boxes of greenware for a mile to the local tile factory which fired the pieces for him. He modelled small creatures, decorating and glazing them himself, and his love of animals is evident in his work. Four years later he had earned enough money to open his own factory at Burslem where he produced not only animals, but also tableware, vases and other small pieces, and employed six people, including two of his fellow countrymen. One of Joseph’s most popular lines was the sad-eyed dog. These melancholy sitting spaniels with ultra-large heads came in a variety of sizes, and are still favourites with today’s collectors, who attempt to get the full range – more difficult than it sounds, as new sizes are still being discovered. It seems that much of the ware hasn’t been fully researched or listed, and though collectors are doing their best by noting everything they find, unknown pieces are still coming to light.

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Many of the creatures have a ‘cartoon-type’ sweet appearance, such as the spaniels mentioned earlier, and a range of cats (actually referred to as Bighead cats in an early Szeiler catalogue), which came in various colours such as tabby, grey, black or Siamese, and stood two-and-a-half inches tall. A ‘Nightie’ cat was a Bighead standing, wearing a long nightdress, and a Puffy cat was plump and round, and decorated with coloured spots! Another charming model featured a kitten with a drum, demonstrating to perfection Szeiler’s classic beige/ white/blue colouring. Bears included a range of adorable chunky cubs, about four inches tall, sitting upright with their forepaws casually resting on their hindpaws. Another played peek-a-boo by peeping cheekily through his legs.

Donkeys must have been in demand, too, judging by the variety produced by the company. Many of them had ultra-long ears, vulnerable to breakage so always check before you buy to make sure they haven’t been repaired. As with the dogs, donkeys can be found in many sizes in both sitting and standing poses. Donkeys pulling carts were also made, once again showing off that attractive colour scheme. The enormous variety of creatures produced by the factory included foxes, zebras, pigs, deer, goats, chimpanzees, kingfishers, penguins and lambs. Giraffes were particularly attractive with caricature type faces and the distinctive beige and blue colouring. Horses, too, were popular and were featured in several poses including grazing, standing, lying and rearing on their hind legs. As well as the sad-eyed character spaniels, numerous realistic models of dogs were made such as corgis, poodles and collies. The catalogue also lists ‘Tubby dog’ and ‘Podgy dog’!

A popular piece in the 1960s was a scared mouse inside a brandy glass, with an inquisitive cat attempting to climb inside, and one wonders how many homes still contain those Szeiler-made cat and mice. Some of the animal ranges were fancifully decorated with a floral design, and these could form a super collection on their own. Floral elephants, cows, pigs and, perhaps nicest of all, yawning hippos, would bring a smile to any ceramics display. The Nationality Series was an intriguing range featuring a collection of dogs dressed to resemble various countries. Each little dog was mounted on a base bearing its name written in script, and was modelled with great humour. George was an English bulldog wielding a cricket bat, Ping a Chinese pekinese with a conical straw hat, Gwen a Welsh corgi in traditional tall black hat, Jock a kilted Highland terrier and Pierre, a beretwearing French poodle clutching a baguette.

Studio Szeiler also produced an enormous range of tiny white oval vases, edged in gold, each bearing a transfer print. These vases must have been sold in every souvenir shop across the country, judging from the huge amount around today – and they were still being produced in the late 1970s, as they could be obtained commemorating the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Though lacking the charm of the skilfully moulded animals, they would form an inexpensive collection, and, as with the figures, look best when they are grouped. They measure three inches in height (though some are slightly taller), and would only have held a very tiny posy. The tremendous range of subjects included dogs, cats, owls, butterflies, flowers and birds – it seems that any transfer available was used for these small containers. Today they cost from £5 at collectors fairs, but can still be found in charity shops and at boot sales for less. Prices for the animals vary, and are rising as more and more people discover the charms of these exquisite pieces.

However, it’s still possible to obtain the more common, small pieces for around £10, though some of the larger models are much dearer, with prices such as £35 for a zebra or an unusual goat with kid. Rarest are figurines, such as that of a sleeping hobo, which sold recently for £45 on eBay. Szeiler pieces usually bear a backstamp on the base, either the words ‘Szeiler England’, or the later ‘Studio Szeiler England’ in a brown oval around a stylised ‘S’. Sometimes the marks are impressed rather than printed. Studio Szeiler ceramics are appealing; they are in the Wade style but have a character all of their own. The cool beige and blue colouring blends in well with modern décor, while their whimsical expressions, so typical of the 1950s and 60s, add a sense of fun.

Joseph Szeiler died in 1987, and soon after the factory was bought by Moorland Pottery, who make their own highly individual wares. I understand that they still have the Szeiler moulds in storage.

Studio Szeiler by Susan Brewer (follow Sue on Twitter @bunnypussflunge)

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