The New Jersey studio of Carl Irving Burgues (or Irving Carl Burgues, depending on what reference one reads) was unusual in several respects. Born in Austria in 1906, his father insisted that he study dentistry which the young man dutifully did, obtained his license and the appellation of “doctor”…and then decided to attend art school instead, at the Eisenbear Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He and his wife Carol eventually emigrated to America in 1940, settling in Lakewood, New Jersey. During the ensuing twenty years he studied and worked in several mediums, including jewelry making, woodcarving, marble sculpting and painting but never worked in porcelain until 1960. According to an August 1975 newspaper interview it “took him five years to ‘conquer’ his new medium because there was ‘no literature’ on it.” This does sound a bit odd because at the same time there were two thriving porcelain art studios in Trenton (Cybis and Boehm), and New Jersey was pretty much the biggest center for pottery and porcelain production in the entire country. So there certainly was no dearth of knowledge about porcelain art available to anyone interested in entering that industry.
Dr. Burgues’ studio at 183 Spruce Street in Lakewood was not open to the public but by 1973 he had about 30 employees in addition to himself and his wife. An ardent conservationist, his designs often depicted endangered animals, birds and plants. He also appears to have been the first USA porcelain studio to produce only limited editions, although the Bronn USA studio would also adopt this approach several years later. Rather than produce nonlimited editions at a lower pricepoint, Burgues adjusted the edition size; in that same interview he explained “If I want to reduce the price so more people can purchase a piece, I make a larger issue.”
This pricing strategy is evident in a survey of 1973 advertisements for Burgues pieces. For example, his American Goldfinches with Morning Glories, an edition of 150, was priced at $1250; Anemone, an edition of 350, was $550; Chipmunk with Fly Amanita, an issue of 450, was $400; and the Snow Bunting, Juvenile of which 950 were made, cost $165. Of course there is also a noticeable difference in the complexity of various pieces as well, and so the theory that edition size was the primary driver of pricing was, to say the least, a tiny bit disingenuous.
This is the earliest example of a Burgues studio newspaper advertisement that I was able to find online; it appeared in the New York Times in November 1969 and boasts a surprising array of retailers in various parts of the country (including two department stores, Bonwit Teller and Marshall Field) considering that he had only launched the studio five years previously. The advertised piece was Junco on Snow, an edition of 250 selling for $600.
Burgues pieces were also unusual in the way in which they were signed; except for the trademark stamp of a red-winged blackbird on a branch, everything was handwritten and there appears to have been no mold impressions or even a copyright symbol. “Paired” bird pieces were identified as to whether they were the male or female, and the individual sculpture number was written in red. The three-digit numbers appear to have been mold or design numbers, and if accompanied by a smaller number 2 meant that the piece was one of a male/female pair. The purpose of an accompany single letter instead, such as P or M, is unclear.
The downside to hand-writing all backstamp information is the occasional all-too-human “oops”, such as this particular Young Cottontail (rabbit) whose uncrossed T’s renders it being offered for sale nowadays as a “collontail”!
The Burgues studio claimed to be the first to have made full-figure porcelain sculptures of clowns or jugglers, but without knowing the introduction years of the ones they produced this is impossible to verify. However, if their first piece was in 1979 or later, the claim is incorrect because in that year the Cybis studio introduced Rumples, the Pensive Clown.
During the 1970s Dr. Burgues also designed items for other companies to produce; for example, a series of bird pieces that were produced by Lance Hudson Pewter in Massachusetts in 1976 and 1977. A set of four small hardcover books written by John Bull were produced in conjunction with this venture, called The Burgues Birds and containing informative text and photographs of the actual bird represented: Barn Swallow, Wood Duck, Pygmy Owl or Great White Heron. A book and certificate of authenticity accompanied each pewter piece.
Dr. Burgues’ wife Carol was also an artist, and among other things designed a series of eight North American Ducks pieces that were produced overseas for the Hamilton Collection in 1987 and 1988. In 1978 she and Dr. Burgues had created oil paintings that were used for the production of several collector plate series by the Anna Perenna company; each plate design was produced in an edition of 5000 and sold for about $100 per plate.
American porcelain art sculptures were often given as Presidental gifts of state during that decade, and Burgues pieces were no exception. A November 1982 article in the Asbury Park Press relates that
Recipients of Burgues Porcelains, courtesy of the State Department, have been Queen Fabiola of Belgium, Leonid Brezhnev, and the presidents of the Dominican Republic and Argentina. Burgues penguins were a wedding gift to Trisha Nixon from the state of New Jersey. And a porcelain was presented to Schneor Zalman Shazar, president of Israel, and in the Vatican Museum, a gift from Cardinal Spellman. When vice president George Bush visited the area, Ocean County officials ordered a Burgues’ “Brown Bears” porcelain. Unfortunately, the piece was broken. “The Secret Service mishandled it,” [says Dr. Burgues]
A representative sample of Burgues pieces appears below, with original retail pricing where known.
American Goldfinches on Morning Glories, edition of 150 in 1973 at $1250; 9 3/4″ high.
Baltimore Oriole, Juvenile, an edition of 250 that sold for $550 in 1978.
Canyon Wren, edition of 250, about 8.5″ high and wide.
Carolina Wren with White Dogwood, edition of 350, 12″ high x 7″ wide, priced at $850 in 1978.
Chestnut Backed Chickadee, edition of 950 in 1977 at $160
Golden-Crested Kinglet male, edition of 450, 6.75″ x 10″ x 7″, selling for $500 in 1978.
Golden Winged Warbler on Nest, 9″ high x 14″ wide. This was an edition of 100 selling for $1100 in 1978.
This is one of the King Penguins that were issued as a family group in 1973 as an edition of 350, priced at $850 for the set. The female was cited as being 13″ high but I don’t know which gender this single piece is.
Magnolia Warbler, edition of 950 in 1975 at $145; approximately 4″ x 5″.
The Penguin Pair is not the same as the King Penguins; these were an edition of 950 (year unknown) and are 7″ high. Their signatures, etc. are shown above as the third example.
The adult Robin with Marsh Marigold (on the right) was an edition of 500 in 1973 at $550; it is 8″ high. Robin with Marsh Marigold, Juvenile was an edition of 950 the same year and sold for $150.
There was also an adult and juvenile depiction of the Snow Bunting but oddly enough the juvenile version appeared first. Snow Bunting, Juvenile (upper photo) was an edition of 950 in 1973 at $165. The adult Snow Bunting with Trumpet Honeysuckle was an edition of 500 in 1975 at $350.
The 1977 Snowy Owl was an edition of 500 at $495 and stands 10″ high.
The White Throated Sparrow was an edition of 250 selling for $800 in 1978; it is 9″ high and 10.5″ wide.
This is the Juvenile Yellow Billed Cuckoo which was an edition of 950 in 1975 for $175; it is 6″ high and 7″ wide. The adult Yellow Billed Cuckoo sculptures (male and female) were issued the same year; their edition size is unknown but were likely similar to the Robin with Marsh Marigold (500 or so). The adults were $400 each and were about 11″ high.
It’s a shame that this photo of the Yellow Warbler is so dark. Most likely an edition of 500 (this one was cited as being #475), it is 8.5″ tall and about 9.5″ wide. In 1978 it sold for $700.
Marked simply as Anemone, the flower depicted is a bicolored Anemone coronaria. It was an edition of 350 in 1973, priced at $550.
The Barrel Cactus from 1977 is 5″ high and sold at $225 for the edition of 500.
Pink Lady Slipper Orchid was an edition of 350 in the early 1970s and is 12″ high, wide, and deep. Its’ 1978 price was $800.
The Cymbidium Orchid seems to have been made in two colorways, at least for a time: lavender (shown) and yellow/orange. A 1979 price list shows them at $85 each.
The construction of this waterlily group (possibly from 1973) suggests that it may have originally fitted into a wood base. Entitled Water-lily Nymphaea ‘Fire Crest‘, the two dragonflies had become detached; they would have been originally affixed with either glue or ‘slip’ (liquid porcelain mix.) The piece is 19″ wide but only 4″ high. It was an edition of only 75 and sold for $1375 in 1979.
The Single Waterlily was an edition of 200 selling for $175 in 1978.
The Wild Rose was an edition of 150 in the very early 1970s and sold for $2500.
The Big Horn Sheep, the state animal of Nevada, is a bit of a notorious sculpture. Originally issued in 1972 as an edition of 250 at $2750, it appears in the Spring 1980 issue of the Brielle Galleries catalog at $3300. The text on the page relates (just a bit floridly) how
For days Dr. Burgues waited patiently in the wilderness of the mountains for a spectacle that few are privileged to witness. His patience was rewarded as two Big Horn Sheep, a ram and ewe, ascended to the point where he was encamped. Upon returning to his studio, he immortalized this most dramatic and fleeting moment in nature.
The sculpture is 17″ high, 16″ wide and 10″ deep. In a 1973 interview for the Asbury Park Press, Dr. Burgues said “I fired about 40 of the Big Horn Sheep group before I got a perfect one. The horns uncurled and hung down in the terrific heat, and gases were trapped inside.”
The Black Tailed Prairie Dog sold for $195 in 1974 as part of an edition of 950.
The similarly styled Whitetailed Prairie Dogs group was an edition of 350 and is probably from the mid-1970s as well. It is 8.5″ high and 13″ wide.
The sculpture at left is Chipmunk with Fly Amanita (mushroom) from 1973. An edition of 450 at $400, it is 6.5″ high and 9″ wide. The identify of the Burgues chipmunk on the right is unknown.
Burgues sculpted several cats, one of which was a Siamese in two colorways, both being an edition of 950 and standing a bit over 5″ high. The darker version with the gold collar is named Isis, and the lighter color with the blue collar is Ginger.
This charming little kitty is Mimi, measuring 2.75″ high and 6.25″ long. She was an edition of 950. Many thanks to the helpful reader who brought her to my attention and was kind enough to send photos!
The Spirit of Freedom was a special Bicentennial commemorative piece in 1976. An edition of only 50, it was introduced in 1976 at $1500 and completed in 1980 at $2900. Sculpture #1 of the edition was presented to President Gerald Ford as a gift, and the second (#2) piece was donated to the Smithsonian. It measures 12″ high and 18″ wide including the wood base.
This is the same Young Cottontail that bears the ‘typo’ signature shown above. An edition of 950, it stands 5.5″ high; year is unknown.
Another wildlife youngster is the Young Walrus, also an edition of 950; measurements are 6″ x 9″ x 7″.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the American Wild Mountain Goats was probably the most technically challenging piece that the Burgues studio ever produced. It was an edition of only ten (no surprise there!) and was cited as being 16″ x 20″ x 15″. What does surprise me is that such an ambitious – and no doubt very expensive – sculpture was not designed with an accompanying wood base. A bit of sleuthing via Google turned up a 1974 newspaper interview mentioning that Dr. Burgues “recently returned from a two-week field trip during which he made an intensive study of the wild mountain goats found in Glacier National Park in Montana. The animal will be the next subject in his current endangered-species series.” Based on the date of the article, it’s likely that the sculpture was issued at retail a few years later. The one pictured above is #3 of the edition of ten. It also would not surprise me to learn that it was the most expensive Burgues piece, because a 1979 price list shows it at $10,000. Burgues pieces are typically on the heavy side and so this one must also have been a challenge to lift!
The Young Mountain Goat was also issued as a separate edition of 950 sculptures. Many thanks to the reader who alerted me to the existence of this piece and sent me a photograph!
I have been unable to determine exactly when the Burgues studio closed, but it was definitely still operating in the mid 1980s. It seems likely that the same economic conditions that were beginning to affect the overall art porcelain market at that time would have put the most and earliest pressure on the smaller studios such as theirs, so my guess is that it would probably not have survived into the 1990s. Dr. Burgues died on June 22, 2002 at the age of 95; oddly there is no obituary available online or any notation of the disposition of the studio.
(Other posts in the ongoing “Lost Porcelain Studios” series can be found within that subcategory link.)