One of the lesser-known design genres from Connoisseur of Malvern was their human studies. Both Richard Sefton and Robert Russell created incredibly realistic porcelain portraits based on dance, literature, and international cultures.
Bugaku stands 20” tall on his cherry wood base and was a limited edition of 25 issued in 1983, designed by Richard Sefton. The highly detailed porcelain mask is removeable. This study came with a recessed cherry wood base as shown; any that may be offered for sale without the base are not in original condition. Bugaku is the name of a traditional Japanese dance form noted for its precise movements performed at a slow tempo. The word bugaku actually refers to the dance itself; another word, gagaku, refers to the music that accompanies it.
The bugaku costume was often specific to the dance being performed. The costume shown in this sculpture was used for the Ryo-o (“King Lion”) dance. Each part of the costume had a specific name; for instance, this mask is called the ryooh no men. The elaborate piece covering the chest and abdomen is the ryoto, the belt is the kintai no o, and the long train/panel in back is the ho no kyo. The ‘King Lion’ dance and costume date from the Heian Period (784-1185), so named after the then-capital city of Japan which was Heian-kyo; we know it today as Kyoto. During this period the Buddhist influence in Japan was very strong. This is not the only Connoisseur sculpture to reference the Heian period; another was the horse and rider study Child of the East. Additional details about that sculpture can be found in the Horses & Equestrian post.
The Thai Dancer stands about 20” tall. This was an issue of 50 in 1987, also by Sefton. She is shown in one of the traditional theatre dance costumes of Thailand and wearing the magnificent crown headdress known as chada.
Khon is the male counterpart to the Thai Dancer; he is slightly shorter due to his crouched stance. Also an edition of 50 designed by Sefton, he made his appearance two years later (1989.) The example above has several areas of damage, including missing sections of fringe on his costume.
Black Watch Piper, from 1988, is an issue of 25. It is 21.5” high and was probably by Richard Sefton although this is not confirmed. The activities of the real Black Watch date back to 1725 but the official forming of the four companies took place in 1739. Their original uniforms included a twelve-yard-long length of tartan. The “black” part of the name refers to the dark color of that tartan, and the “watch” to the companies’ duty – i.e., to watch over the Highlands.
The Last Warrior, also from 1988, by Richard Sefton. Like the Piper, he is 21” high and an edition of 25. The narrow, almost Roman-like, feather headdress is called a roach or porcupine headdress. They were made of stiff animal hair such as porcupine, moose, or deer tail. Much more common than the popular conception of “war bonnets”, these headdresses were worn by Native American warriors. (It is likely that this study originally came on a wood base, which is missing from the example shown above.)
‘Brothers’ Evenki Child on Reindeer measures 19” high x 15” wide on its walnut plinth, and was an edition of 25 in 1984. The Evenk is an ethnic group native to Siberia which includes two separate cultures: the farmers who live mostly in Mongolia and northeastern China, and the hunters of the boreal forests who also breed reindeer. Connoisseur’s sculpture clearly portrays a young boy from the latter group. Interestingly, the widely used descriptive “shaman” is actually an Evenki word.
A complex Richard Sefton study of an Eskimo with a sled dog team was released in 1988 as Hard Lesson. It was an edition of 15 pieces. Unfortunately the seller did not photograph it sitting on its original wood base.
The title refers to the dog resting in the sled with a bandaged front leg. The overall size of the porcelain component is 16″ high, 38″ wide, and 9″ deep.
This graceful geisha by Sefton is named Flower Song and was issued in two colorways. The red version came first, in 1988 as an edition of 50 according to the backstamp. She stands 17” high on her wood base. This one appears to be in mint condition.
In 1989 a second colorway (pink/peach with a lavender obi) was issued, again as an edition of 50. In all respects except color scheme these are the same. Unfortunately, the example above is missing her fan and the lower part of her wisteria hair ornament is broken off.
This charming group is called Happiness and is 11” high on its walnut base. This was an edition of only 50, issued in 1985.
The faery sculpture Fantasia was an edition of only 10 in 1985. She is 18″ high and 13″wide and deep. The Connoisseur catalog photo caption mentions a recessed cherry plinth although it is not shown in their photograph.
Tai Pan is a 1984 Sefton portrait based on the James Clavell novel of the same name and depicts the main character, Dirk Straun. A limited edition of only 10, he is approximately 22” high and was sold only at Brielle Galleries in New Jersey. The stamp on the underside includes a reproduction of James Clavell’s signature and also the word “taipan” in Chinese, meaning the owner or head of a foreign business. The photo above shows only the upper part of the very heavy crystal-and-walnut base that accompanied this sculpture; for some reason this base seems to always be missing when the occasional example is offered for sale nowadays!
Richard Sefton and an unidentified young lady, with the maquette for Tai Pan which is also shown in its partially painted state in the second photo.
Fans of James Clavell’s work will also be familiar with his 1986 children’s story Thrump-O-Moto (The Little Samurai), but may not know that Connoisseur produced studies based on the book and the George Sharp illustrations within it. The main characters are Patricia, a young Australian girl with a physical disability, and her adventures with a small almost elf-like trainee wizard/samurai named Thrump-O-Moto who appears one day in her world and – rather like E.T. – needs her help in order to return home. Patricia accompanies him, and in gratitude he decides to find a way to return the favor, with the help of family and some unexpected friends. Connoisseur portrayed two of the characters in porcelain.
Thrump-O-Moto is 7.5” high and was an edition of 200 designed by Richard Sefton, issued in 1986. He follows the George Sharp illustration both in decoration and pose; there is a wonderful sense of imminent motion as he prepares to wield his weapon against the evil monster Nurk-U who threatens his new friend Patricia.
This improbable fellow is named Charley Rednosebeeerdrinker (for obvious reasons!) and was designed by J.R. Roberts. He too was an edition of 200, from 1986, and is 7” high. The book describes Charley as a
…rotund little man [who] came out from under a fallen tree, a beer mug in his hand, his long coat and tight trousers were patched and not very clean at all and his top hat was bent and busted and perched on his head. His eyes were twinkling eyes and his nose big and very red.
The yellow flowers are the magical ‘sunset primroses’ whose essence is needed for the potion that will be the means of putting Patricia on the road to recovery.
There was a special event at Brielle Galleries to introduce the series. The Asbury Park Press sent a reporter to cover the Brielle event, which was attended by the directors of the Connoisseur studio as well as James Clavell’s daughter (Mr. Clavell could not attend due to pressures of work.) According to the subsequent article,
“James was emotionally taken when he saw the piece,” Mr. Lewis said. “It’s exciting for any author to see his characters become three-dimensional.” But it was Clavell’s idea to do the characters from his children’s story. “He told us ahead of time he was doing a children’s book, and he said it would be a good idea to do those characters. Our figurines help promote the book and the book helps promote the figurines.” Miss Clavell added, “It’s not his policy to have his characters reproduced like that but he made an exception in this case.”
These are the only two characters that Connoisseur created from the story, but it would have been delightful to also have a study of Patricia, of Thrump-O-Moto’s elegant and serene mother Ka-chan, or his wise Grandfather Ten.
Among the Connoisseur of Malvern human studies genre is a sub-category of ballet sculptures, most (but not all) designed by Richard Sefton. They all date from the early to mid-1980s. I have found images of, or reference to, seven of these but suspect there were probably a few more.
Dance Fantastic may have been the studio’s first ballet study, in 1981 as an issue of 15. The flower is – aptly – Camellia japonica ‘Ballet Dancer’, an American hybrid from 1960. The sculpture measures 19″ high and 17” wide; it came with a recessed cypress wood plinth as shown.
Arabesque is taken from the dream sequence of The Nutcracker and was issued in 1982. This was an edition of 15 designed by Richard Sefton and is 24″ high and 19″ wide. The rose in this study is ‘Jeanne Lajoie’, a double pink miniature climber that blooms repeatedly through the season.
Michelle was an edition of 25, standing 15″ high. It was an exclusive design for Brielle Galleries. The designer is unknown but was probably either Richard Sefton or Robert Russell.
This study is named Romeo and Juliet…The Dance and was an edition of 15 in 1984. It is an impressive yet consummately graceful piece at 24″ high, 14″ wide and 12.5″ deep on its accompanying cherry plinth.
Bob Russell designed The Dream, an issue of 100 in 1986. It is 16″ high overall and the base has an intricate parquet design. The underside of the wood base has an opening through which the backstamp can be viewed.
Issued the same year (1986) and also by Bob Russell is Finale. It too was an edition of 100 and has a realistic ‘inlaid floor’ wood base. There is a small dowel extending up from the center of the base, onto which the ballerina is placed; the backstamp is viewed from the underside as in The Dream. Measurements are 8″ high and 14” wide.
La Demoiselle du Lac (subtitled Lady of the Lake ballerina with Swan Lake Roses) was an edition of 50, possibly introduced in 1989. Her posture brings her to 17″ high; although the photo angle makes the lower section seem compact, it actually measures 12″ x 7.5″. Unlike the other ballet studies, this did not come with a wood base — at least not in the Connoisseur of Malvern brochure in which this photo appeared. The rose hybrid ‘Swan Lake’ is a repeat-blooming climber from the late 1960s.
Edna Hibel Designs
In 1989, Connoisseur produced three known editions based on the art of Edna Hibel for Brielle Galleries, which opened a dedicated Hibel display area in May 1989.
This 7.5” high figure of a boy picking flowers is titled Robbie and was an edition of 250.
A very large Hibel/Connoisseur piece is one that I was told was made but have never seen a photo. It is titled Lady Anne and Children. Supposedly it is 31” high, and only three were made. If the porcelain itself is indeed that large, it would be the tallest Connoisseur piece of porcelain that I know of.
Celestial Bridge, an edition of 150, is approximately 14” high and 9” wide. This was introduced by the original Connoisseur studio late 1989 or early 1990.
The sculpture is based on the 1987 Hibel limited-edition lithograph Vega Crossing the Bridge of Birds to Her Lover. There are two interpretations of the Vega legend, both of which begin with the story of a young weaver, Vega, who fell in love with Altair, a shepherd or cow-herder. However, due to the machinations of the gods, they were forever parted except for the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. On this day a flock of magpies comes together form a bridge between the lovers, and on that day you can see the stars Vega and Altair in the same section of the Milky Way.
Another version of the story says that originally the bridge was constructed of stars but there were not enough in the sky to complete it. Vega then prayed to a celestial being for help. This celestial lady took pity on her and called together all the doves in the world to fly up and finish the bridge.
This edition’s backstamp requires some explanation because the 1989 exhibition referenced there did not take place. It was scheduled to, but the Tianamen Square massacre in April and May of that year forced its cancellation. (The Edna Hibel ‘Golden Bridge’ exhibit in China had taken place in 1986.) Because the Celestial Bridge piece was created in late 1988 for a planned 1989 release, some had already been fired with the backstamp decals as shown.
An example of this alternate colorway appeared at auction recently, but I do not know if it is an actual 1980s original studio piece or a reproduction done in the 2000s by a subsequent owner of the Connoisseur operation. A photo of the backstamp was not provided. Just in case this colorway does happen to be from the late 1980s/early 1990s, I am including this image. If someone owns one in this colorway, I would love a photo of the underside in order to settle the question. There is a contact form on the About the Chatsworth Lady page.
(A dozen ‘equestrian’ sculptures shown in the Horses & Equestrian post also contain a human figure: Sefton, Shogun, Child of the East, Khan, Chigo, Guardian Spirit, Bellerophon & Pegasus, Fiesta, Win Place and Show, and three studies depicting members of the Royal Household Cavalry.)