It’s hard to visit any antiques fair these days without seeing at least one toby jug and Charing Cross Collectors Market is no exception. With their sometimes gaudy colours and exaggerated features, these ceramic characters are easy to pick out but few people know more about them than just their name.
First produced in the mid 18th century, their inspiration has never been explained definitively. However, the most likely possibilities are that the grotesque, often inebriated figure was inspired by the character Sir Toby Belch in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night or possibly the notorious drunkard Toby Fillpot celebrated in the drinking song ‘Little Brown Jug’. Either way, you will no doubt distinguish yourself as a minor authority on the subject if you only know that a Toby jug should show a person’s full body whereas one depicting just the face is a character jug. The latter have become popular souvenirs all over the world, featuring anyone from actors to politicians.
Naturally, Toby jugs which predate the advent of mass production (c.1750-c.1850) are the most sought after and can fetch thousands. Yet they often escape the casual observer because they might appear quite plain to the untutored eye so it’s always worth inquiring about the provenance. And if you really do get the bug, there’s no doubt that they make for a striking display!