Stella Crofts who came to prominence in the early 1920s was a ceramic
sculptor whose works were unlike any other of the time. She specialised in
animals and birds with a focus often on complex family or moving groups. Her
pieces demonstrate an ability to capture the emotion, character and age of
her subjects, often with a subtle element of humour.
Stella had been born in Nottingham in 1898 on the 9th of January, the third
daughter in the family of Dora and Herbert Crofts. Stella had a difficult
upbringing, her health being seriously blighted with TB, thought to have
been contracted through drinking infected milk. This affected the bones in
her hands and legs and she spent some time whilst young confined to her bed.
Stella had no formal education, being schooled at home by her mother
formerly a teacher until she reached her early teens, when she was well
enough to attend college. During her years of illness she acquired an
ability to draw and sketch and decided to use this skill to become a poster
artist, a common profession at the time for women interested in making a
living from their art. Between 1916 and 1922 Stella studied at the Central
School of Arts and Crafts in London where she developed an interest in clay
modelling. From there she went on to study at the Royal College of Art
(RCA), taking pottery and sculpture (students at the time included Henry
Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eric Ravilious). Stella’s love of wildlife took
her art in a completely different direction from her more famous
contemporaries, preferring subject realism over that of the abstract. Stella
was greatly helped in her study and sketching of animal subjects by having
privileged access to both the Natural History Museum and London Zoo. In
executing her work she was greatly assisted by her father who had helped her
set up a studio complete with kiln at their home in Ilford.
Stella was at her peak between 1925 and the early 1930s when most of the
international exhibitions to which she contributed took place. These were
usually organized by the British Institute of Industrial Art and took place
most notably in Paris and Milan in 1925, Venice in 1926, Leipzig in 1927 and
a tour of North American cities in 1928/9. In total her work was displayed
at over 185 exhibitions both within the UK and abroad.
In 1931 Stella, together with a group of other noted artists of the time,
produced a range of models for the Worcester Porcelain Company. Several of
the seven pieces she designed were adaptations of figures she had already
produced in her studio for which Worcester acquired copyright usage of the
design. These pieces were comparatively expensive for the time, being in
production at a time when Britain was in deep recession. Money for such
luxury items was scarce and as such these models are now some of the rarest
Worcester pieces produced.
In the early 1930s, following her mother's death, the family built a house
adjacent to Norsey Wood in Billericay, Essex. This move marked the start of
a different phase in her life where more of her time was spent looking after
a succession of animals, most notably a number of dogs including her first
much loved borzoi. ‘Brecq’ was modelled in more forms than any other of her
subjects and several of these anticipated the changes that marked the last
phase in her artistic life. During this time she undertook a number of
commissions to model other’s favoured pets including one of four dogs for
Dorothy Paget, the wealthy (and notorious) racehorse owner.
Following the death in 1948 after a couple of years of illness of Stella’s
father, she returned to her ceramics with a renewed focus. Her new pieces
were in a style markedly different to her earlier works often finished in
with a matt glaze and showing greater attention to detail. Her interests in
bird watching and local wildlife conservation leading her to focus more on
native British species. Most of the pieces accepted for the Royal Academy
exhibitions occurred during this period of the 1950s and early 1960s.
Stella died at the age of just 66 in 1964 after a very brief illness.