Figure of a sphinx

This terracotta, slip-cast sphinx was made at the Watcombe pottery, Torquay, in the early 1870s. The maker’s mark was impressed on the side of the base. The Torquay pottery industry was launched in 1869, when a deposit of fine clay was discovered near Watcombe. Further deposits of red clay were soon located and other potteries opened following the success of the Watcombe venture.

The design of this sphinx was taken from similar ceramics produced in the Wedgwood factory in Staffordshire a hundred years earlier. Josiah Wedgwood had produced this style of sphinx, through slip casting, in his potteries around 1770. A very popular version of it was made in black basalt, a clay rich in manganese which burned black in firing.

Wedgwood had probably taken his design from another artist, Robert Adam. Adam was a distinguished architect and designer of neoclassical decorative interiors in the 1760’s. His sphinxes of 1763 were designed to be seen on pedestals outside the grand London house, Osterley Park. But even Adam’s designs may have originated elsewhere. The palace of Louis XIV in Marly had sphinxes like this, designed by the sculptor Nicholas Cousteau around 1700.

Although RAMM’s piece dates from Victorian times, you can see this terracotta Grecian sphinx in the Ancient Worlds Gallery at RAMM. It is found in the Modern Classics section which explores the many revivals of interest in the art of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome that have occurred in recent times.

Grecian sphinxes were lionesses, with the head and breasts of a woman and the wings of an eagle. They are also sometimes shown seated upright, while an Egyptian Sphinx would be shown on its front, ‘couchant’. In Adam’s work these fascinating creatures have been interpreted as a romantic and irrational reply to the order and regularity of neoclassical architecture.

Object Summary

Accession Loan No.
Collection Class
British ceramics
Common Name
figure of a sphinx
Simple Name
Period Classification
Victorian (1837-1901)
Production Town
Production County
S. Devon; Staffordshire
Production Country
United Kingdom: England; England
Production Person Initials
; Josiah
Production Person Surname
Watcombe Pottery; Wedgwood
Production Year Low
Production Year High

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figure of a sphinx