The History of Storybook Characters

Mr Toad as Washerwoman



For over a century, the Royal Doulton Studios have entertained us with storybook characters, particularly animals endowed with human personalities.  In Victorian times, a group of frogs enacting a well-known fable raised a smile in much the same way as the antics of the Brambly Hedge mice amuse us today.


The tales of Beatrix Potter with lots of different animals acting and conversing as if they were human, are as popular now as when they were first written in the early 1900’s.  Obviously the idea of a creature simultaneously human and animal is deep rooted in our literary culture and it is interesting to trace when it first became apparent in the Doulton world.


The Doulton factory was founded in London in 1815, but for the first 50 years production was confined to practical pottery.  In the late 1860’s Sir Henry Doulton established an art studio, employing students from the Lambeth School of Art to decorate vases, jugs and plaques in fashionable Victorian styles.  Some artists specialised in figurative sculpture, notably George Tinworth, who was the first to glean inspiration from well-known stories.  The Bible provided him with most of his subject matter, but he also enjoyed reading the fables of Aesop and La Fontaine.  These moralistic tales feature foxes, mice, lions and other creatures exemplifying human traits, and they fascinated the Victorians.  Tinworth modelled several fables groups in the 1880’s, including “The Fox and the Ape”. “The Cat and the Cheese” and “The Ox and the Frogs”.  Later he produced mice and frog subjects, based on his own observations of human nature, which reflect his perceptive sense of humour.


The potential for dressed-up animals to disguise a deeper message soon led to their widespread use in children’s literature, notably “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and Lear’s nonsense poems.  In 1908 Kenneth Graham wrote “The Wind in the Willows” to comment on the behaviour of the English aristocracy, but the exciting adventures of Mr Toad subtly conceal the author’s critical stance.  The dapper toad in his pinstripes and tails was modelled shortly afterwards by Lambeth artist Francis Pope, and a company piece shows Mr Toad disguised as a washerwoman in order to escape from prison.