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In England between 1850 and 1914 you would have probably been the proud owner of a little china figure after a visit to the fair. They were given away as prizes at the fairground and were mostly small porcelain ornaments. The word fairing (‘fayring’ or ‘fairin’ in old English) is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a present given at or brought from a fair’ and it comes from the Latin ‘féria’ meaning a holiday.

“The power of Love” fairing, National Museum collection (photo: National Museum)

Fairings were made of white soft-paste porcelain and often incorporated figures, ranging from about 7.5 cm to 12.5 cm in height. Because they were intended for display on mantelpieces or in display cabinets they usually have a rectangular base with a caption written in black script on the front describing the particular scene. The early examples (1850 -1870) were usually slightly larger and of a better quality with more detail and carefully applied colours. The later figures dating after 1870 show more signs of mass production. As these small objects grew in popularity so did the demand.

Matchstick fairing, National Museum collection. (photo: National Museum)

Victorian fairings capture the humour of nineteenth century Europe and over 400 different varieties can be found depicting funny scenes either of risqué courtship and marriage, parenthood, politics, war, children and sometimes animals behaving as children. Popular songs and music hall numbers inspired some of them, such as “Jenny Jones and Ned Morgan” and “Champagne Charlie is my name”. Others commemorate important people. Bedroom scenes were very popular, so much so that fairings were once known as “bedpieces”. The captions on these fairings often show a cynical attitude to marriage, for example “When a man is married his troubles begin” or “Home from the club he fears the storm.” Some fairings are politically inspired, such as “English neutrality 1870 attending the sick and the wounded” commemorating the fact that Britain did not become involved in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. Others are naughty –  in particularly “Shall we sleep first, or….?” which show a couple sitting up in bed deciding whether to go to sleep or not…; or show men flirting with their maids “Did you ring Sir?”; “Did you call Sir?” both of which show a maid walking in on a gentleman either in the bath or bed. Some fairings were also functional, such as small boxes, match holders, strikers, watch holders and mirrors. Some were manufactured as pairs, with each figure telling a part of the story.

Two examples of “Last in bed to put out the light”, National Museum collection (photo: National Museum)

Although they depict typical Victorian English humour, most fairings were produced by Conta & Boehme in Germany. German factories were technically advanced and able to mass produce these brightly coloured, gilded fairings at minimal cost. Conta & Boehme exported large quantities to the British Isles, the United States and many other countries. The company was established in 1790 and operated until 1937. The production of fairings however ended at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Other manufacturers of fairings included Ernst Bohme & Sohne and Ackermann & Fritze, both of Rudolstadt, Germany and an unidentified Japanese company. Conta & Boehme however have become the Clarice Cliff of fairings and will reach a far greater price at auction.

To identify Conta & Boehme fairings, look for a shield- shaped mark that contains a small arm holding a dagger impressed on the base. Unfortunately a great many fairings were unmarked. From the 1870s onwards, many fairings were marked with a number that indicates the shape. These run from 2850 to 2899 and 3300 to 3385. From the 1890s the shield mark may be printed not impressed and after 1891 “Made in Germany” was added as all imports and exports had to indicate the country of manufacture.

Conta & Boehme porcelain mark (photo: Graham, A. Victorian Fairings Revealed. Part 1.)

Although not as popular as they were a decade ago, genuine fairings are still sought after by serious collectors. In the United Kingdom they can range in price from a few pounds for the more common ones (such as “Last in bed to put out the light”) to several hundred pounds for the rarer ones. As with any antique, the value depends on its condition – they are particularly delicate and any damage can seriously impact the price.

These amusing china ornaments were intended as souvenirs made to delight the crowds that streamed to the fairs and today they still fascinate and entertain old and young alike. Visitors to Freshford House Museum – a satellite of the National Museum – will be able to view some of these charming fairings on display in the sitting room.


China fairings.

Clifford, D. Fine Antiques & Collectibles Devon, England.

Graham, A. Victorian Fairings Revealed. Part 1. Antiques Info. July/August 2004.

Graham, A. Victorian Fairings Revealed. Part 2. Antiques Info. September/October 2004.

Victorian China Fairings.

Sudre Havenga

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