Object histories from my garden #11 – Fragment of a bisque porcelain doll

Fragment at a bisque ware doll head with painted lips

One of the eeriest pieces that we have dug out of the garden is this fragment of a doll’s head.  It was no ordinary child’s doll, but an expensively crafted item, its head and limbs made of bisque porcelain.  It would have been dressed in opulent, often period-themed clothes, and its eyes may have opened and closed, via hinged eyelids, as it was tilted. 

Bisque ware dolls either appeal to you or don’t, and in my case they sit with clowns and golliwogs in the category of the downright unpleasant. We found a piece of china showing a golliwog  in the garden too.  The bisque ware dolls are collectors items today, and you can usually find a few examples on eBay.  Bisque ware or biscuit porcelain is made in a mould, and fired but left unglazed, giving its surface a matte finish.  When skilfully painted, it can look from a distance like human skin.  Each colour is painted on to the surface and fired separately, building up the layers to create the skin-like effect.  The head and limbs of the doll were formed in moulds.  The unseen body of the doll, hidden by clothes, could be made of much less expensive materials.  Limbs were sometimes articulated, so that they bent at elbows, hips and/or knees.  

A doll head that gives some idea of what the rest of the garden fragment doll may have looked like. “Floradora” by Armand Marseille of Germany. Source: What The Victorians Threw Away

The bisque dolls were made from around 1860 to around 1915, although similar dolls were made from other materials before that date. The earliest were intended to represent fashionable women, and the child dolls only came in later, after around 1880.  Their popularity spread initially in France during the 1880s, but the German market soon competed, making dolls that looked just as expensive but were far more reasonably priced.  By 1900, Germany was dominating in the bisque doll market.  Names like J.D. Kestner, Armand Marseille and the Heubach brothers are still popular in the collector market.   The best known producers marked their dolls where they would not normally be seen, now of great value for collectors, but a head fragment like this would not have been marked.

There is an example of an elaborately kitted out Kestner doll at the end of the post, but to the right is the equally eerie head of another broken doll, from the What The Victorians Threw Away website, showing what the rest of the head of the fragment in my garden may have looked like.  Although some dolls had mouths that moved when the doll was tilted, this one did not, and it does not looks at though the garden fragment did either.  It has eyelashes  like the ones on the one from my garden, but shorter.

There is little to say about the piece from the garden, other than it was made of a thin porcelain, carefully shaped in a mould.  It was very skilfully painted, the cheeks a gentle rosy colour, the thin, bow-shaped lips a bright scarlet, with the ends of long dark eyelashes at top right.  The clump of grey substance on the reverse side suggests that someone had made an attempt to repair the doll, presumably following a previous breakage.  It seems to have been a very unlucky individual.

The fragment is at top left of this photo, shown with a few of the other garden fragments in an old printer’s tray, hung on a wall.

Looking at it, I cannot help but wonder what on earth happened to the rest of the doll and why this bit of it was isolated from the rest of its head and its body?  It was found to the rear of a wide flower bed that was completely dug out, its soil disposed of and replaced due to a particularly virulent and un-killable form of grass, before being replanted. If the rest of the doll had been there, we would have found it, but there was no sign of anything remotely like it.  Perhaps it was dropped, broke on the spot, and this fragment was lost at the time, with the rest of the doll picked up and disposed of elsewhere.  Who knows :-).  It is one of the few hints of any high quality pieces owned by previous householders that we have dug out of the garden.  Most of those items are of domestic use, and very commonplace, although each has its own history as a representative of a certain type of object fashionable at the time of its production.

J.D. Kestner bisque doll with accessories (for sale at over $1000.00). Source: eBay

For other objects in the series,
please see the History in Garden Objects page


History of Dolls
History of Porcelain Dolls

Houston Texas University
Bisque Dolls 1890-1915

The Spruce Crafts
Top 5 German Antique Doll Brands (by Denise van Patten)


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