Lost Porcelain Studios: Cybis, Part Three (Human Figures, and The Studio’s Fate)

The porcelain sculptures depicting people (human figures) were the area in which the Cybis studio typically bested not only their cross-town rival, Boehm, but the other USA studios as well. A case can be made for Ispanky but, after all: Laszlo Ispanky was at the Cybis studio before he decided to launch his own. In fact, there are so many similarities between the early 1960s Cybis figures and the ones that Ispanky released on his own a few years later, that it can be hard to tell them apart without a scorecard!

For the sake of organization, I’m subdividing the human-figure genre into three categories: Religious, Children, and Adults.

Cybis Religious Figures (1960 – early 2000s)

Most of the post-1957 Cybis religious figures were females. There were no saints, or even any representation of Jesus other than as a baby. In the 1970s, Cybis began assigning their retail pieces to various categories which they called Collections. The Biblical Collection contained madonnas, angels, nativity figures, and Old Testament characters.

One of the rare Cybis religious “oldies” that remained in the line until the mid-1960s was the House of Gold, with her decoration slightly modified over time. All of the pre-1957 examples were glazed. The baby mold, the crown, and the Madonna’s bust were later used for various other sculptures; such ‘body-parts snatching’ was fairly common. The original piece was designed by freelance artist Harry Burger.

All of the new Cybis madonna pieces introduced after 1956 were busts or torsos, other than the Mary figure in the 1982 nativity series, and the 1983 Mother of Love.

Only 13 male religious figures ever entered the modern studio’s retail line. The full-figure retail studies included King David, Noah, King Solomon, and the six males within the 1980s nativity series. Three of the modern Cybis males were busts: Moses in 1963, Pope John Paul II in 1988, and a rather odd 1960 piece designed by Ispanky and titled The Prophet. It was assigned to the Biblical category although I’ve no idea who he is supposed to represent (and I suspect most other people don’t either; the bust reminds me of Mr. Spock from Star Trek but of course that would be…illogical.)

Angels were far less in evidence within the Cybis line after 1960. Other than five angel-head holiday ornaments, they were full figures – almost all of which were nativity-related.
The three angels shown above were all part of the 1980s nativity series. However, only the first one (Nativity Angel I) was a truly new piece. The subsequent two Nativity angels were cobbled together from parts of previously-used angel editions. The Cybis angel introduced in 2002 as Guardian Angel was the final Cybis religious-genre piece. It is such an atypical (and IMHO, unattractive) design that I won’t show it here, although it can be seen in the Angels post on my Archive site if you are curious.

Child Studies by Cybis

Portrayals of children were done by Cybis as full figures or busts (which were almost always mounted on a wood base.) Except for their early-1950s glazed ‘child angels’ and one known glazed little-girl piece, this genre didn’t appear until Marylin Chorlton took over the studio in 1957.

Thumbelina was one of the Cybis’ first two bisque ‘child’ pieces, released in 1957. She is four inches high and remained part of the Cybis retail line until 1972. The other 1957 child piece was Wendy, from Peter Pan. This convention (fairy tale children) would continue through the 1960s with such pieces as Pandora, Hansel, Gretel, and Peter Pan.

The first child busts were the Head of Boy and Head of Girl, in 1963. They sold for $85 each and are just about 10” high overall. These were not, however, original Cybis designs; the molds were obtained from a local firm, Holland Mold Company, although eventually Cybis bought the rights to use this VERY slightly modified version of it. Holland sold these molds to other companies as well as to ceramics hobbyists, which is why you can see so many cringeworthy versions for sale regularly on eBay.

Rebecca (1964-1972) and Pollyanna (1971-1975) show the typical characteristics of the ‘golden age’ Cybis child studies, including graceful, expressive hands and sweet expressions. These are both approximately 7” high. All of the Cybis child pieces were open (non-limited) editions except for Mary, Mary in 1974. She is the only child piece that is neither a bust nor a full figure: The sculpture terminates at just about hip level, and she is not mounted on a base.

The first original-design child portrait busts from Cybis were the Baby Boy Head and Baby Girl Head in 1967 but they were made for only a single year. Also released in 1967 was the Baby Bust which exploded in the kiln so often that it was scrapped after a year also. There were no other child busts until the 1970s.
The 1972 Eskimo Child Head was followed by the Indian Boy Head and Indian Girl Head in 1975, and Child Clown Head ‘Funny Face’ in 1976. The original version is shown on the right in this photo. It was followed by a holiday version in 1978, as well as specially-decorated retailer and special-commission versions during the 1980s. The original and With-Holly busts remained available from the studio until it closed during the 2000s, making it the longest-running child portrait bust. All of the Cybis child portrait busts can be seen here.

These are typical examples of post-1960s Cybis child figures. The studio assigned all of their child studies to a category called Children to Cherish. The upper photo shows Christopher, the Sea Listener (1979 introduction) and Rusty and Johnny ‘Playing Marbles’ (1977), both about 6” high. The lower photo illustrates the decline in design and workmanship between the 1970s and the 1990s. On the left is Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair from 1979; the other is Girl Picking Daisies from 1991.

The 1980s saw a series of ‘sports children’ such as the Baseball Player, Football Player, and Swimmer. There was also a soccer player, a gymnast, and a little girl with her fishing pole. These were simple, easy-to-produce pieces between eight and ten inches high, requiring no hand-formed elements. They sold for about $200 each.

The final child piece from Cybis was Andy, Boy Reading in 1993. The studio did offer two Holiday Child pieces that year, but those were simply decorative variations of the same pieces that had originally been introduced ten years previously. There was a 1990 introduction called Little Cowboy whose face bears a remarkable resemblance to John Wayne! He is in the Children to Cherish overview on my Archive site.

Cybis Adults, and ‘Portraits in Porcelain’

Almost all of the Cybis portrayals of adults were limited editions, the exceptions being the religious and some of the wedding items. The majority of the adults were assigned to the studio’s ‘Portraits in Porcelain’ category although – as one of my Archive posts discusses – those categories were extremely fluid and eventually became far too much of a good thing. All but four of the non-religious adult depictions are full figures. Three of the four busts were by Ispanky in the early 1960s when he was the studio’s Art Director.

Mythological characters included Persephone (left) and Aphrodite, a 1983 edition of 750 that is 8.5″ tall. The original version of Persephone, shown here, is 14.5” high and was a limited edition of 200 introduced in 1982. Two replica editions were made during the 1990s; the molds were downsized and the decoration details are different. Persephone was created by William Pae, and Aphrodite by Lynn Klockner Brown; both were in-house Cybis artists.  All of the Cybis mythological pieces can be seen here.

Here are Bathsheba (a 1984 edition of 500) and King David (a 1985 edition of 500 that was later reduced to 350 because he didn’t sell as well as she did; never underestimate the marketing power of a scantily-clad female.) They were in the Old Testament category, reviewed here.

Depictions of historical personages included that famous trio from British history: Eleanor of Aquitaine, Berengaria, and Richard the Lionheart. Eleanor, who was modelled on Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal in The Lion in Winter, came first as an edition of 750 in 1971 and is one of only two Cybis pieces made to resemble a specific real person; the other is the Pope bust. Eleanor was followed by Berengaria (edition of 500 in 1979) and then Richard (edition of 350 in 1982.) Most of the Cybis ‘Portraits in Porcelain’ are between 12” and 14” tall. All of the historical subjects, ranging from ancient to Regency times, can be seen here.

Characters from literature were a favorite subject for Cybis artists. Examples shown here are Hamlet (edition of 500 in 1965) and Juliet (edition of 800 in 1965); Oberon (edition of 750 in 1985) and his fairy queen Titania (edition of 750 in 1977); and Camille (edition of 500 in 1983) bedecked with porcelain lace, ribbons, and flowers. Other literature portraits included Beatrice, Scarlett, Jane Eyre, and two depictions of King Arthur’s queen, Guinevere.

At the end of the 1960s, Cybis launched their North American Indians series. Because the intent was to portray members of various tribes, the sculptures were named using a tribe/title/subject format rather than their usual subject/title convention…at least, for the initial series which was introduced in 1969 with Blackfeet, ‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man and two others.

Dakota, ‘Laughing Water’ Minnehaha was one of the 1969 issues. It is 11” high on the base, the porcelain itself being 9” high. This was an edition of 350 that initially sold for $1500. The other piece shown is Crow Dancer ‘Great Thunder’, an edition of 200 from 1977 that is 19” high overall. His issue price was $3875.

There were 17 pieces ultimately assigned to this series. The tribes depicted are Blackfoot, Dakota, Onandaga, Shoshone, Cree, Iroquois, Apache, Crow, Sioux, Mohawk, Choctaw, Pueblo, and Yaqui. The other four pieces do not represent any tribe; three of them are from the 1990s and are much more simplistic in design. The first tranche of sculptures, from the late 1960s/early 1970s, were designed by freelance Canadian sculptor Helen Granger Young.  The entire series can be viewed here.

Adult figures also appeared in such themed collections as circus, wedding, music/opera, and patriotic. Shown above are the Bride Commemorative, Madame Butterfly, and the original edition of Liberty. All of these were limited editions from the mid-1980s.

My Archive site has a Visual Index showing clickable thumbnail images of the Cybis human figures; it’s a valuable identification aid because, unlike many other studios, Cybis never put the name of the sculpture onto the figure itself.

The Ultimate Fate of the Cybis Studio

Although I delve into this topic in detail on my Archive site, the factors contributing to the demise of the Cybis studio were essentially three: loss of artistic focus, financial mismanagement, and unwillingness to adapt to changing market conditions.

Loss of artistic focus: During the 1960s and 1970s the Cybis studio was run by Marylin Chorlton. Her dedication to artistic quality and camaraderie with the artisans resulted in a close-knit ‘family’ atmosphere and work ethic. After her death in 1977, her husband Joseph Chorlton became emotionally rudderless; not an artist himself, he now gave priority to personal matters rather than the business. By the early 1980s, internal issues began to arise, often caused by Joe’s activities that affected the existing personnel. People were hired not based on artistic skill or experience, but on their personal relationship with the owner, and given positions that enabled them to dictate the artistic output of the studio. Slowly but surely, the artists who had made the studio so successful during the prior two decades no longer felt valued or comfortable under these new conditions, and began to leave.

Financial mismanagement: In the 1980s, more of the studio’s funds were diverted to the personal use of the owner and management than had previously been done. Production shortcuts (less expensive paint, fewer firings, airbrush instead of hand painting in order to save time) became common. Corners were cut elsewhere too; employee benefits were eliminated, causing even more veterans to depart. One of the ‘new people’ in the front office was discovered to have embezzled a significant amount of money from the studio accounts. An alert employee also discovered that the studio’s promised matching of employee contributions to the pension fund had ceased without notice, and there was also less in the fund overall than there should have been. By the mid-1980s the studio’s finances were in dire straits. It became so bad that the studio shut itself down at the end of 1989, laying off all of its employees with a pink slip instead of a holiday bonus at the end of December. It never reopened on quite the same footing again.

Changing market conditions: As I outlined in my Life and Death of the Art Porcelain Market post last year, the changes in the 1990s buyer market affected every porcelain studio to some degree. But instead of scaling back and re-focusing on having fewer (but higher quality) offerings, Cybis continued to focus on quantity rather than design quality. Of the 44 “new introductions” offered in 1993, thirty-two (!) of them are either replicas, very slight decorative variants, or resurrections of previously-issued Cybis pieces. There was little that was truly new from Cybis after 1989.

One thing they did do in the 1990s was to open the studio up to direct-to-collector sales and the factory-tour craze, which were things that had not been done by them before. It was a smart move but did not make up for the loss of the solid retailer network that had done regular local and/or national advertising of Cybis. Most of those retailers had either closed, or were steeply discounting their remaining Cybis stock after severing ties with the studio. And that was the other problem Cybis had: Their pricing structure.

After eBay appeared in 1995, porcelain collectors and secondary-market sellers suddenly had a brand-new and very large sandbox to play in.  Competition was now the order of the day, but Cybis never adjusted its pricing strategy to reflect that reality. The owners kept insisting that (for example) the Funny Face child clown head that was $595 from them was somehow ‘better’ than the exact same piece that could be had in mint condition for less than $100 from a half dozen sellers on eBay. Buyers with even an ounce of common sense knew better. Even Replacements.com, which had prices higher than anyone else online, didn’t have the you-know-whats to charge nearly as much as the Cybis studio was asking for the same sculpture.

Cybis did not have a website until 1999. It was a DIY affair, built with Microsoft Frontpage, that broke all the rules of effective online commerce. Poorly-designed pages had scant content and far too much white space, there was no useful background information about the studio, the images were of mediocre quality, and worst of all: a ‘shopping cart’ that really wasn’t because there was no ability to actually purchase anything online. A buyer had to print out an order form, fill it in, and either mail a check or fax it to Cybis with their credit card information. The available-sculptures entries contained only a single, usually grainy, image scanned from a Cybis brochure and sometimes even that was missing or of the wrong item. Overall, it looked amateurish and unprofessional; certainly not a site that would tempt a potential new collector to spend thousands or even hundreds of dollars without a qualm. The studio’s brief foray onto eBay in the early 2000s fared no better; a spate of complaints about non-delivery led to the Cybis storefront’s demise.

I will say that when we last visited the studio (in 1992 and 1993) there was no public-facing hint of the problems that existed beneath the surface. As the 1990s went on, things went from bad to worse. My conversations with people who had ongoing frustrations and problems with their purchases during the late 1990s and early 2000s have made that abundantly clear.

The final ‘new’ Cybis piece (the Carousel Reindeer) was offered on their website in late 2008. The site was never updated after that, and disappeared entirely in 2019 which was the same year that the 1-acre property itself (studio building, warehouse building, and parking lot) was listed for sale in April, asking $795,000. Photos of the incredibly poor interior condition can be seen in my Archive post. Theresa Chorlton consigned hundreds of items of back-stock to a Pennsylvania auction house who listed them in several sales during 2019 and 2020. The actual sale of the property did not take place until 2021; the final price was $495,000. The new owner has now listed the studio building only (not the warehouse building or the parking lot) for two million dollars. Yeah, good luck with that.

One of the saddest things about the demise of the Cybis studio is the loss of historical records. Other than the auction house consignments and two original Cybis oil paintings from the 1930s, the contents of the buildings were simply tossed into dumpsters during 2019 and 2020 and carted away to a landfill. There had been rows of filing cabinets full of documents, advertising, sales records, photographs and even home movies taken at the Cybis family home and studio during the 1940s. The loss of all that archival material is enough to make a researcher weep!

All known information about the Cybis porcelain studio can now be found on my Cybis Archive website, so if you would like to see more or to explore any other aspects of this lost porcelain studio’s history and work, that’s the place to go. It is the ‘encyclopedia’ that the Cybis studio itself never created.

Lost Porcelain Studios: Cybis 1940s and 1950s pieces, and Animals
Lost Porcelain Studios: Cybis Birds, Flowers, and Decorative Accessories

Browse the entire Lost Porcelain Studios series

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