Bunnykins – Barbara Vernon
Barbara Vernon Bailey was the daughter of Cuthbert Bailey who succeeded his father as managing director of Royal Doulton in 1925. As a child, she sketched drawings of the countryside and animals kept by her four brothers and two sisters at their home in Shropshire, largely inspired by her father's exciting bedtime stories about wild foxes and rabbits, particularly featuring John Thomas Foxy.
She desired to become a nurse and teacher and joined the Augustine Canonnesses of the Lateran in Sussex in the late 1920s aged nineteen to become a nun. She took the name of Sister Mary Barbara and taught history and French at the school attached to the convent.
Her father decided to introduce a new line of children's nurseryware in 1934 and asked her to illustrate the series under the name of Barbara Vernon and so was born the range of Bunnykins. He knew that her humorous designs would appeal to children as well as adults. The prioress at the convent reluctantly granted permission on the condition that no profit should be made from the project for either the artist or the convent. This was a brave decision given the enormous royalties that would have come to the Order.
Sister Mary Barbara worked late into the night to produce the most entertaining sketches from her childhood memories. Her illustrations of rabbits doing everyday activities were an immediate success and after being transformed into china designs by Hubert Light, the Royal Doulton's Bunnykins ware range was soon in nurseries around the world. Their popularity has extended to the young at heart of all ages. Many centred on Mr Rabbit who strongly resembled her father with his round glasses and pipe. A favourite is the picture of Mr Rabbit ironing his trousers with a garden roller but her personal favourite was the Lambeth Walk. The famous backstamp evolved from her memories of childhood games playing Tug of War. She eventually painted more than 1000 pictures decorating all types of kitchen and childrens feeding ware. Most were produced as earthenware and the few rare porcelain pieces made are highly collectible. Bunnykins figurines were added to the traditional tableware in 1939 with six figures modelled by Charles Noke, Doulton's art director. Their launch coincided with the outbreak of the Second World War so that production was short lived making them rare today.
Eventually, Sister Mary Barbara ceased drawing when her teaching duties became too demanding and her designs were withdrawn by1952. During the 1940s, Walter Hayward gradually took over responsibility for designing Bunnykins scenes, initially following Sister Mary Barbara’s style so that her name appears on pieces during the transition. Signed pieces always command a premium. Over a 37-year period, he evolved a distinct style including mice and more complex designs showing contemporary life with Bunnies watching television, exploring space, and travelling by aeroplane. Other designers then continued the Bunnykins tradition included Colin Twinn and Frank Endersby. In 1972, Doulton took over the Beswick factory,. a second generation of Bunnykins figurines were produced, and the range was later greatly expanded.
Sister Mary Barbara died at Hayward’s Heath in May of 2003 aged 92. Bunnykins continues to be produced though not for many as desirable as through the Barbara Vernon period. Today, collectors of Barbara Vernon’s Bunnykins are just as strong in their desire for unusual pieces as ever before.
References: Royal Doulton Bunnykins: A Charlton Standard Catalogue, 3rd edition. Jean Dale and Louise Irvine. 1999.