The Martin Brothers of Southall

Perhaps the best known craftsmen associated with Southall were the four Martin Brothers (Robert Wallace, Charles Douglas, Walter Fraser and Edwin), who were potters. Their output, known as the Martinware, made them little profit in their own lifetimes, but it has become very sought after as fine examples of highly individualistic (some would say bizarre) salt glazed crafted pottery of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It can be seen in museums and galleries throughout the world as well as in the homes of collectors. There is a special display at Southall Library of many of the pots which were acquired by the council in the twentieth century.

Photo of the Martin Brothers

              Above: Walter, Robert and Edwin Martin outside the Southall Pottery

The family’s origins were in Suffolk, where their father, Robert Thomas Martin, had been born in Bury St. Edmunds, in 1806 as an only child. It is alleged that they had an eighteenth century ancestor who was an antiquarian historian. Robert Thomas moved to London as a young man and married Margaret Fraser, born in Scotland in 1822, and who was to outlive him. They had at least six sons and three daughters. Initially they lived in the City and Robert worked as a stationer, but by 1861 had moved to Brixton, living in houses in St. John’s Terrace and later in the Kennington Road.

Four of their sons began working together as potters in Fulham in 1873; the three elder had all briefly attended the Lambeth School of Art. Edwin and Walter also briefly worked at Doultons’. They moved to Southall four years later and this was where their pottery was for the next few decades. Initially the plan had been to secure premises at the Gas Works as a pottery but negotiations were unfruitful. Some months passed and nowhere could be found that would not be objectionable to neighbours. Eventually Henry Phelps Baxter, a local landowner, suggested an old works at the end of Havelock Road, just by the canal, consisting of a small cottage and some sheds, formerly used for the production of either soap or chemicals. A lease was made out and a kiln was constructed there. Frederick Nettleford gave financial assistance for the building of the kiln and the lease of a shop in Brownlow Road, Holborn. Work could begin.

Their pottery was described in 1912 as ‘wonderful creations [which] are now eagerly sought after by art connoisseurs in all quarters of the world’. Yet the brothers themselves lived unostentatious lives ‘holding aloof from all municipal and social affairs’. Many who noticed their humble pottery on Havelock Road ‘associated with it personalities so vivid and remarkable as Messrs Martin, and work so graceful and beautiful as Martinware’.

Photo of Martin Bros Workshop

               Above: The Pottery; with Walter at the window, Wallace to the right and
​                             possibly Edwin to the left

This was where the pots were created and fired. They were all handmade, unlike much pottery then created in factories (which had been the case since the previous century). In fact, the Martins were among others at the time who were reacting against mass production. In 1866 it was recorded of Robert Wallace Martin that

                  ‘He did not wish to see the workmen of this country always remain mere
​                   copyists; but he was desirous to see their abilities displayed as
​                   designers – a class of men which was very much ​wanted at the present
​                   day’.

When some of the Martins’ work was exhibited in 1874 it was noted, ‘it never takes the form of mere imitation, still less of any attempt at reproduction’.

Painting by Ernest Ham of Martin Bros Workshop

              Above: Ernest Ham’s painting of the Martins’ pottery, c.1895

Initially the pottery that was produced were household items that people would buy for their utility. These included clock cases, lamps, bread trays and cheese and butter dishes. There were fireplaces, mantelpieces and hearth curbs. Outdoor furniture was also produced; flower boxes and sun dial stands.

They also made jugs and these were enhanced by images of carved creatures forming the handles. These could be lizards, dragons and eel like fish. In the 1880s the famous grotesque birds were first produced. These were the Wally Birds, named after their creator, Robert Wallace Martin. These were in the shape of grotesque owl like birds, which were tobacco jars with moveable heads. Apparently, some of these were based on local personalities. Charles Douglas Martin also made some of these birds, but made very few; Edwin Bruce also designed some and coined the phrase ‘wally Birds’ by engraving this on the vases made.

Even more grotesque were the spoon-warmers, pots shaped as open mouthed monsters. There were also statuettes and figurines, including characters from Dickens’, such as Quilp and Mr Pickwick. A small number of Imp figurines was designed. Pottery portraits of Queen Victoria were made in her Diamond Jubilee year. Less interesting pots were stoneware one gallon beer jars, ginger beer bottles and stoneware taps for acid jars. They also made vases.

They undertook larger works, too. These included water fountains for connoisseurs such as Sir Samuel Hoare and Nettleford. A tiled fireplace for Lord Farringdon was later exhibited at Pitzhanger Manor in Ealing and there was a water fountain designed by the Martins in the grounds of Southall Manor House.

They exhibited their work in numerous exhibitions from 1880. In 1881 they won the highest award in their class. Sydney Greenslade, a friend and patron, encouraged them to take part in further exhibitions in the 1900s. 

Photo of two 'Wally Bird' Jars

    Above: Two Wally Bird jars

After the clay was blended, the pottery was thrown and embellished. It was then incised, painted, glazed, fired, cooled and finished. Pictures of fish, dragons, flowers, birds and plants were often carved onto the pot.

Every piece of work that was made was unique. Their work showed a great deal of imagination. Some believed the jugs and vases with human faces were ‘endearingly human’, caricatures of real people. Others, that they were leering, vicious and untrustworthy, barbed satire on what the designer saw as being greedy or stupid people. Traits were exaggerated and weird monstrosities emerged.

Photo of collection of Martinware grotesque

    Above: A collection of Martinware grotesques: birds and imps

No two pots were ever the same. This was appealing to collectors and successful to the Martin genre. The grotesques are neither man nor beast but biological impossibilities. It has been argued that they are a response to the social concerns of the middle of the nineteenth century, such as fear of political unrest, poverty and death.  

Photo of Martinware vases

                   Above: Martinware pottery

As they worked, their craftsmanship evolved. In the early twentieth century their style changed. This may have been due to Greenslade’s influence. Pottery decoration and colour became less elaborate and more subtle. Vegetable shapes provided the inspiration and some pots were ribbed to resemble marrows. This was in keeping with a new French style of artistic pottery which Greenslade had read about and which he supplied them with sketches. Edwin Martin wrote ‘Of course I shall not slavishly copy and mine will all be different’. By 1909 Walter Martin was decorating them with motifs of marine life such as crabs, frogs and even jelly fish.

The four Martin Brothers were quite distinct individuals. Each had different skills and so each had a different task to do in the creation and sale of their distinctive produce.

Robert Wallace Martin,  1843 - 1923

Photo of Robert Wallace Martin

This was the eldest of the Martin Brothers and ironically the last to survive. He was born in Hoxton on 4 April 1843 at 204 Upper Thames Street and later lived with his parents in Brixton. He was working as a sculptor from his teens. By 1881 he lived where he worked, at The Pottery on Havelock Road, Southall, and he was to reside there until his death. His wife, whom he married in 1873, was Elizabeth Martin, 1845-1924. They had two daughters, Amy Mary Margaret, 1877-1952 and Beatrice Mabel, 1880-1882. They had one son, Clement Robert Thomas, 1882-1962, who followed his father in the same profession. Beatrice Mabel married Philip Moore in 1921.

Robert was the pioneer and the dominant force behind his brothers, perhaps because he was the eldest. He was the sculptor and modeller. He began making artistic terra cotta and salt glazed pottery at Pomona House in Fulham in 1872, and the work was fired at Old Fulham Pottery. Aged 20 he had modelled his own portrait in bas relief and was his own subject for a similar work two decades later. He won many prizes for his carvings; the first gained when he was sixteen. He won the first prize at the South London Working Classes Industrial Competition.

He trained both as a sculptor’s assistant and as a stone mason in the yards near the Houses of Parliament. He grew up reading Samuel Smiles, Dickens and Ruskin and so would have known about the debate between those who favoured conventional ornamentation and those who preferred irregularity and individuality. He thus modelled his vases and ornaments as grotesques.

After the death of his potter brothers, Robert, now 72, wanted to erect a suitable memorial to them in Southall. He also aimed to carry on the pottery with his son.  He died in Southall on 10 July 1923 and his will left £320 to his son. His wife died in the following year. They were buried in Havelock Road Cemetery, Southall, as was their son.

Charles Douglas Martin,  1846 - 1910

Photo of Charles Douglas Martin

The next brother to have been a potter, Charles, was also born in Hoxton but began his working life as an office boy. He began working with Robert as a potter, but continued to live with his parents and after his father’s death, with his widowed mother, until presumably, her death.

He was the salesman and kept a shop in Brownlow Street, Holborn, to sell the goods until 1908. Greenslade wrote,

                    ‘After they have left their creators’ hands at Southall, they are entrusted
​                    to the kindly care of Mr Charles D. Martin, the brother who has for so
​                    many years superintended the dispersal of them to their “world-wide”
​                    patrons, and none has taken a keener interest in or more loved the work’.

He added:

                    ‘After they have left their creators’ hands at Southall, they are entrusted
‘Happy the connoisseur who should be wandering in the precincts of
​                    Holborn, and can find time to drop in and have a look around, for he will
​                    easily discover many pots with charms and subtle characteristics which
​                    will at once fascinate him, and whether the cost be one shilling or five
​                    pounds his fancy can easily be satisfied’.

However, the shop was not appealing in appearance; being described as ‘dingy and ill lighted, dusty, obscure’ and ‘forbidding’. The shelves were crammed with stock without any pretence of a more attractive display. It had the atmosphere of ‘an old curiosity shop’. Charles often did not like selling his favourite pieces and so kept these hidden from the gaze of potential buyers.

Unfortunately his health was poor. On 3 March 1910 he was admitted into Wandsworth Asylum and later into the Middlesex County Asylum. He died on 10 June 1910 and was buried in Norwood Cemetery, although he never lived in Southall, presumably because he had the shop to run and elderly parents to care for. 

Walter Fraser Martin,  1859 - 1912 

Photo of Walter Fraser Martin

Unlike Robert who lived above the workshop, Walter lived at various addresses in Southall; 2 Melrose Villas in 1891; 25 Endsleigh Road by 1906 and at 18 Rectory Road in 1911. At Fulham Baptist church in 1906 he married Elizabeth Pattinson, 1873 - and they had at least two children; John Robert Fraser, 1907-2000 and Norah, 1910 - He died at Witley Gardens in Southall on 8 March 1912 and his will left £724 12s.

He was the brother who mixed the arts of potter and chemist. He mixed the West of England clays, which they used for their pots, and then stood at the wheel. He also was responsible for the colouring of the pots, and that was his work alone. For his ‘throwing’ he had gained a prize from the Turners’ Company. Yet when he died, his surviving two brothers did not know his colouring secrets, and they wondered if it had been left in a coded message among his papers. His secrets died with him, however. 

Ernest Marsh, a great collector of Martinware, wrote a letter of condolence to state:

                    ‘A great artist has finished his work, and his death is a great loss,
​                    nationally were the fact but realised. Those of us who had the great
​                    privilege of meeting him in association with his work know something of
​                    this, and most sincerely deplore that which is now destined to be
​                    accomplished by him, especially when it seemed that so many of his
​                    ripest years of work were still come and just to hand’.

Edwin Bruce Martin,  1860 - 1915 

Photo of Edwin Bruce Martin

Edwin lived with his brothers and parents in Brixton until at least 1881. Later he was at Cedar Creek, Mill Platt Avenue, Isleworth, in 1908 and then at 39 Church Road, Southall from at least 1911. He married, at St. John’s church, Isleworth, in 1908, Katherine  Winterbourne, 1874-1943? They had three daughters, Olive Margaret Matilda, Alice Beatrice and Margery Winifred.

His role was the etcher and painter of the firm, designing the quaint bird and fish figurines, signing them as the work of the firm, Martin Brothers of Southall and London. He also prepared many of the clays and threw many of the smaller pieces.

He died on 2 April 1915 and his will left £479 19s. He had been suffering from cancer of the mouth for three years, but despite radium treatment, he died at West London Hospital after another operation.

The pottery was continued by Robert Wallace’s son, Clement, after his father’s death. He had already been employed in the business for over a decade and appears to have continued to do so until 1935. 

Martin Bros burnt down workshop, 1942

                         Above: The end of the pottery, 1942

The pottery burnt to the ground in 1942, apparently following a fire during a freak thunderstorm. The place had then been disused for some time and was housing a vast quantity of inflammable film. Housing now stands on the spot where the pottery once was.

Photo of Martin Bros at work

                         Above: Inside the pottery; Walter, Charles and Edwin Martin

Apart from the four brothers, other boys and men were also employed with them from time to time. Mark Marshall was the first to be an assistant at Southall until 1880. Then there was one Fawcett and he trained Walter Willey who was employed there for the two decades after 1879 and was the most important of the helpers. He worked on much of the decoration in thus period and worked on all the flowers and leaves which appeared on the pottery. A number of collectors assisted the Martins with cash or/and encouragement and advice. These men were the aforementioned Greenslade, Ernest and Nettleford.

The Martins never made much money. Robert once said, ‘my Brothers and myself never got more than Labourers’ wages’. This was partly due to poor business sense but also because of a relatively small output. Everything was done by hand. This was a strength in making every piece unique, however. The hazards of firing the kilns also led to some of their work being ruined. The extreme heat needed for salt glazing meant that the furnace had to be kept at its maximum heat for three days and three nights. It has been estimated that the kiln held 600 pieces and was fired twice a year. A third of the output was useless and a third of the best quality. Quantity plummeted after about 1900 and more so after the small kiln was used from 1912.

This lack of financial success led to relations between the brothers being rather fraught. A new kiln was made but it failed to yield any output because there was insufficient heat. Although a great designer, Robert’s brothers felt he focussed his time and energy on work which was unprofitable. Instead of making bird and face jugs which sold he preferred to work on miniature chess sets and a fountain. Charles and Edwin suffered from poor health. The shop suffered; firstly from a fire in 1903 and then from Charles’ lack of enthusiasm for the job and his depression.

Initially their graves in Havelock Road Cemetery, Southall, were unmarked but in 2006 their final resting place was officially marked in stone, following lobbying by local Martinware collector, George Twyman.

The Martins’ legacy to posterity is their surviving works. They did not pass on the secrets of their work and founded no school of successors. Their work was not fully appreciated by their contemporaries. Their impact on Southall was also limited. Their pottery was on the edge of the built-up district; they sold their wares in London and employed very little labour. One of the brothers did not live there and another only towards the end of his life. Robert worshipped at the Gospel Hall in Hammond Road, Southall. Robert gave a talk about the potter’s art in Southall Library in 1917 and the local newspaper covered the deaths of the three brothers who died from 1912-1923.

By 1915 examples of their work could be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum and at the Museum of London. Examples of the Martinware can be found in many public collections, including Southall Library and Kingston Museum. Much of it is in the hands of collectors in many countries. Some collectors also knowingly acquire fake Martinware.  Many pieces were acquired by Southall Library by donation since at least 1943 and later the London Borough of Ealing, the largest single donation being by Professor and Mrs Hull Grundy in 1986. He had collected many of their works in the 1930s.

Another important legacy are the papers collected by Sydney Greenslade. He amassed a considerable archive about the Martins, their works and that of other potters and their pots, including exhibition and auction catalogues. This was donated to the Ealing Library Service. It consists of 3,000 items and is a valuable research resource for all scholars interested in the Martins and Martinware. Approximately half of it deals with the Martins and the Martinware, including correspondence between them and Greenslade and the latter’s diaries which deal with the Martins’ work. These can be viewed at Ealing Central Library, preferably by appointment.