Although we’ve already examined many of the felines and birds that were produced so beautifully by Connoisseur, there are yet more animals to explore. They range in habitat from the wilds of Africa, to the ice floes of the Arctic, to a cozy corner of a typical home.
They are arranged here in chronological order by introduction year, followed by two special series. (Connoisseur’s equine and equestrian pieces will appear in the next post.)
The charming Harvest Mice was a limited issue of 250 that appeared sometime between 1981 and 1983. It is 7.5″ high. An alternate version may have been issued as ‘Field Mice’ but this is unconfirmed.
Dormice was an edition of 200 by Richard Sefton, from the same time period as the Harvest Mice. This study stands 7.5” high.
A mid-1980s text-only Connoisseur price list mentions a Chipmunk but made no mention of whether it was an open edition or a limited edition.
Kodiak, an issue of 25 in 1985, was designed by Christopher Ashenden. It measures 22″ high x 11.5” wide.
An article in the Summer 1988 issue of Collector Editions magazine mentioned this limited-edition Impala at 17” high, as a 1987 introduction. My guess as to the designer would be Christopher Ashenden. The issue was limited to 100 pieces.
The Cape Buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is native to Africa and is unrelated to the water buffalo of Asia. These are massive animals that can attain almost 2000 lbs. at adulthood. Connoisseur’s study includes the white Cattle Egrets and the tickbirds who have a symbiotic relationship with the buffalo by eating the ticks that would otherwise infest the buffalo’s skin and undermine its health. The egrets consume insects that are stirred up into flight as animal passes. Designed by Chris Ashenden and an edition of 25, this 1987 group is 18″ high on its accompanying wood base.
Ice Monarch dates from 1988, measures 17” high x 19” long and was an edition of 25 by Ashenden. Note the tasty-looking salmon on the base!
Richard Sefton sculpted the Double Sailfish in 1989, introduced as an edition of 50. It is 13” high and as wide.
Connoisseur also produced an Elephant standing almost three feet tall on its solid wood base. The sculpture’s name is not known but the designer was Christopher Ashenden. However, the piece pictured above is not the one produced by the original studio, because I have so far failed to find any photo of that one. The one in the photo is a circa-2000s reproduction, using the original 1980s closed-edition molds and given a new name (something the third owner of the studio did a number of times, sad to say.) These ca-2000s re-issues/replicas/reproductions were often painted in a different color from the original as well, and so the actual original 1980s edition may have been something other than this grey. Normally I never show photos of those 2000s-studio items but am doing so here in order to show the form of the original 1980s Connoisseur piece. The Lewis studio only ever made this one elephant design.
The Rainforest Foundation Series
These frogs were all part of a series of open-edition sculptures released in 1990 in conjunction with the Rainforest Foundation.
The Poison Dart Frog, like all of the frogs in this series, was sculpted by Christopher Ashenden; it measures 1.5” high and 6” long. The species is the appropriately-named “blue jeans” variant of Oomphaga pumilio, the Strawberry Poison Dart Frog, which is only about 1” in life. There are many species of poison dart frogs but in all of them the toxin is contained in the skin. The “dart” in the common name refers to the practice by some indigenous tribes of coating their hunting darts (or arrows, which is why these are sometimes also called poison-arrow frogs) with these frogs’ secretions. Like monarch butterflies which are also brilliantly colored and toxic, their gorgeous colors and patterns serve as a warning to predators to “think twice before eating me!” But among the 100+ species of poison dart frogs, only two or three are deadly to humans; in fact, some — like this species — are quite prized as pets.
The Golden Toad is just over 1” tall and about 5” long. The Monteverde Golden Toad (Incilius periglenes) once inhabited the area around the Costa Rican town of the same name, but is now declared extinct; the last one was sighted there in May 1989 and none have been found since. These toads were quite tiny, being barely 2” long and so it appears that the Connoisseur frog itself is probably life-size or very close to it.
The Red Eyed Tree Frog depicts a familiar species widely distributed across Mexico, Central America and South America. The sculpture is 1.25” high and also shows a frog and foliage but with a difference: Rather than posing it on a single large leaf, Ashenden sculpted it poised on a stem between two small ones. This unusual pose – rather like someone using water-wings! – gives a strong sense of imminent motion. In the wild these frogs (Agalychnis callidryas) are nocturnal and eat moths, crickets and flies. They have evolved a special survival technique called “startle coloration”: If disturbed, they instantly flash their huge red eyes and display their large vivid orange feet. This unexpected burst of color from a seemingly-innocuous green frog often surprises a predator so much that they pause for just the tiniest moment that may allow the frog to jump to safety.
The Arrow Poison Frog, Dendrobates leucomelas, is also called the “bumblebee poison frog” because of its coloration. The non-black portions can vary from yellow to yellow-orange to true orange. Despite its name, this frog is often kept as a pet because the toxin it produces is dependent upon its’ natural diet of ants in the wild; eliminate the ants, and the toxin likewise disappears. In fact, some research has shown the skin, sans any toxins, to be helpful in biomedical research.
Here all four Rainforest Foundation frogs are shown together. Also shown is an example of the backstamp which combines the Rainforest Foundation logo with Connoisseur’s normal authentic markings. There apparently are a few frogs in circulation that do not have the sculpture name on them, via unknown circumstances, but otherwise the marks on those are genuine.
The Thisledown Collection/Whimsical Mice
Connoisseur produced a series of whimsical mouse studies that were issued both in the UK and USA in 1989 and 1990. In the USA this range was sold exclusively by Brielle Galleries in New Jersey. For the American market, the series was designated as the Thisledown Collection and had a special backstamp like the one below.
Although the Thisledown pieces were introduced to the USA in 1990, certain designs were available in the UK a year earlier. This is why one sometimes finds the same sculpture but with differing backstamps, as in the “One Mouse Open Sleigh” example below.
The circumstances surrounding how Connoisseur came to produce this series were unusual, and explain why these are so different from any other line (other than the Disney pieces) that they produced. These pieces are actually based on sculptures that were designed by sculptor Brian Ormerod in 1985 and made by his Bronn of America studio in New Jersey. That studio was owned by Brielle Galleries and the series, dubbed the Thistledown Collection, was sold there. However, by the end of the 1980s the Bronn studio was cutting back severely and an arrangement was made for Connoisseur of Malvern to take over production of the line.
In connection with the production shift, Richard Sefton used the existing Bronn pieces as the template for his models for the Connoisseur-branded ones. Some of the sculpture names were altered but others remained the same. The name of the series was very slightly altered (by eliminating the second T) from “Thistledown” to “Thisledown.”
This production shift is why you may occasionally see what may appear to be a “copy” of one or the other, but in fact it all was done via an arrangement between the parties, all legal and aboveboard. The Bronn studio ceased all production in the early 1990s and Brielle Galleries closed their retail business about five years later.
The name of the corresponding Bronn piece is given in parentheses where known.
One Mouse Open Sleigh is 4.25” high and all are marked as an edition of 100. However, here is a case of ‘dueling backstamps’ as to the introduction year.
This backstamp shows the introduction year as 1989 and the designer named as Richard Sefton.
This backstamp has an issue year of 1990, does not display Mr. Sefton’s name, but does include the Thisledown/Brielle designation. This lends support to a “UK first, USA after” issue-year theory. Keep in mind that for these pieces the edition size pertains only to that specific release; in other words, there were 100 of One Mouse Open Sleigh made for the American market with the Thisledown stamp, and also a separate edition of 100 available outside the USA. (Bronn precursor: ‘Christmas Deliveries’)
Slot Machine is 5.5” high and is another of the dual issues in which some backstamps are Thisledown and others are not. However, on all of the examples I have found thus far, the issue year is shown as 1990 and the issue size as 100, regardless of backstamp type. (Bronn precursor: Title unknown, but the lady mouse stands in front of a grape arbor instead.)
I Thee Wed is 6” high, an issue of 100 in 1990. (Bronn precursor: title unknown, but the bride mouse holds a small bouquet of tulips and wears a lace cap.)
At least one of these contains a typo in the backstamp decal. The typesetter forgot the second E in “THEE”, so the decal erroneously reads “I The Wed”. It’s not known if all of them were done this way, or if the error was caught and the other sculptures’ names painted by hand instead!
Here is Lullaby which is 4.75” high and another example of the USA/non-USA editions. The sculpture above was sold at auction in 2007 as ‘Lullaby’, issued in 1990 and #7 of an edition of 100. No backstamp photo is available but the auctioneer’s description specifically stated “Thisledown Collection” as well as the edition size and sculpture number, and so this piece definitely has that particular backstamp.
However, an archived but no-longer-illustrated 2012 eBay listing offered the same sculpture with this description: “Marked on the bottom CONNOISSEUR OF MALVERN, FINE BONE CHINA, MADE IN ENGLAND. Year of Issue 1990 – No 7 in a limited issue of 100. It seems unlikely that the eBay seller would have omitted such a relevant part of the backstamp as “Thisledown Collection, a Brielle Galleries exclusive” if it was there. Thus, it seems there was the improbable but not impossible coincidence of two studies with the same sculpture number but each part of two separate editions of 100. If so, that means Lullaby’s issue year was the same on both sides of The Pond.
Further confusion is engendered by an August 2017 listing on eBay showing the exact same colorway (lavender dress, pink baby bunting) but the name on that sculpture is Lullaby Pink. It had a 1989 issue date and no Thisledown stamp.
This differing colorway of Lullaby was sold at auction in 2007 lacking a backstamp, which normally indicates a non-original-studio piece. Here the mother mouse is wearing pink and the baby bunting is blue. Given the existence of a legitimate piece marked “Lullaby Pink”, it’s reasonable to assume that the original studio did offer two colorways based on whether the baby mouse was a girl or a boy – even though not all of the backstamps included the bunting colorway in the name. If so, this color option was probably Lullaby Blue.
This example of Maestro is the only one I have found thus far. It is stamped as part of the Thisledown Collection with an issue year of 1990. Dimensions were not provided but it is likely to be at least 6″ high. This design’s Bronn precursor is unknown.
The sculptures shown below all did have photos of the backstamp and did not include the Thisledown Collection designation on any of them. If any reader happens to have examples of these pieces that are marked ‘Thisledown’, please let me know and I’ll add that information to the descriptions. There is a contact form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.
Hickory Dickory Dock is approximately 11” tall; the backstamp on this one shows it as a 1989 release by Richard Sefton and was a limited edition of 100. It is not a Thisledown/USA piece; it’s not known whether this design was also part of that series. Bronn precursor unknown.
Fore is another 1989 edition example that includes Richard Sefton’s name on the backstamp. It is 6” high and about 5” wide and like the others was an edition of 100. Bronn precursor unknown
Noel was issued in 1990 as an edition of 100. The example’s backstamp does not include the Sefton name, nor is it marked as Thisledown. It is 5.75” high and about 4” wide. Bronn precursor unknown
This example of Comfy and Cosy Mice was marked as a Sefton piece although the seller did not mention its issue year (probably 1989 or 1990). It was an edition of 100 measuring 9” high and 10” wide (Bronn precursor: ‘Comfy and Cosy’)
Labyrinth was marked as a 1989 edition of 100 by Richard Sefton. Dimensions are 2.25″ high and 5” long, with the widest part of the cheese being 4″. Bronn precursor unknown.
Two other pieces were also sold at auction in 2007 with no backstamps but merely handwritten notations in black marker saying “Connoisseur” and the names “Hat Shop” and “Toy Shop” respectively. Those were not original-studio pieces and so I’m not including photos here, but you can see their Bronn precursors, named “Wishing” and “Holiday Mice”, in my post about Bronn.
The discovery that the Connoisseur pieces are adaptations of a previous design explains the difference in style of these versus the typical Connoisseur “look.” The production takeover was done at the express request of Brielle who, as the major USA retailer for both studios, needed to find a way for the line to continue for at least a few more years than it otherwise would have done.