Parian ware is a type of porcelain produced to imitate carved marble. As it could be cast and molded, the material was ideal for mass production at a scale and cost not possible with carved stone. Unglazed white bisque porcelain was popular in the late 18th century at the Sevres factory in France and Derby in England, each producing very sophisticated bisque figural groups. By the 1820s several other firms were in production, including Worcester, Rockingham, Coalport, and Minton.
By the mid-19th century, English manufacturers including Minton, Copeland, and Wedgwood developed and produced Parian to satisfy the demand of a new and predominantly middle-class market. They mainly offered figures and busts, and by the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, at least ten British firms displayed Parian wares. Examples included figures modeled after statesmen such as George Washington, William Shakespeare, scientist James Watt, the antiques specialist Frederick Rathbone. Figures and groups of classical, mythological, and allegorical subjects were also exhibited and sold.
The sculptural appeal of the figures resembled finely carved Italian Carrara marble sculptures and quickly became a great success. It was an affordable way to own and decorate with smaller-scale copies of the more imposing marble statues and busts brought back from the Grand Tour of Europe by the wealthy. The influential Art Journal described Parian as “The statues of the people.” Classical-style figures include allegorical figures of the Seasons, characters from literature, and mythological subjects such as Ariadne on the Panther, Innocence, and Pandora, and Biblical groups such as the Finding of Moses.
In the 1860s and 1870s, color tinting Parian also became popular, some with their surface stained after the casting process, others with a colored clay body. Producers offered tinting for figure groups and busts in a wide range of colors. Gilding was also added sparingly as an accent trim to some of the figures. Although the production of Parian in England peaked from 1850 through the 1880s, output from a few firms lasted until the onset of World War II. After that, the market declined with a change in taste and the spread of cheap figures and busts imported from Germany, Austria, France, and Japan.
Although there are many unmarked examples from lesser manufacturers, most of the more desirable and high-quality pieces are usually impress marked into the clay body with factory name, sometimes including dating symbols, and inscribed with the sculptor’s name. Additionally, some figures and groups were also produced for specific exhibitions and are stamped “Ceramics and Crystal Palace Art Union or Art Union of London.”
Condition is an important factor in valuing Parian figures. Excellent restoration to the bisque porcelain’s all-white, textured, unglazed body is difficult to achieve. In today’s market, the presence of damage discounts many figures to simply decorative status. However, minor, less significant damage may be more acceptable on rare examples as scarcity determines supply and demand.
Excellent publications on Parian wares include Victorian Parian China, C. and D. Shinn, 1971, and The Parian Phenomenon: A Survey of Victorian Parian Porcelain Statuary & Busts, Richard Dennis, 1989.