Ivorex plaques were made in Faversham, Kent, England at 83 Abbey Street between 1899 and 1965 by the B. Osborne Company, founded by Arthur Osborne, the inspired sculptor of the incredible art that he named Ivorex.
Arthur Osborne was born in England on the 13th of August 1855, as Arthur Monk, in Ospringe Street, in the village of Ospringe, Faversham Kent, he was the son of a bookseller / printer and having shown artistic talents in his early years, attended South Kensington School, which at the time was considered to be one of the best in the country for art subjects. The family name was changed to Osborne at some time during the late 1860s, and in the mid 1870's Arthur Osborne, as he was now known, emigrated, first to Canada, then on to the United States of America, where he settled in Boston Massachusetts and found a job working for the J. and J.G.Low Art Tile Company. Here he became their top designer of low relief tiles and it was upon these tiles that the AO mark of Arthur Osborne first appeared. Having married in Boston he eventually returned to England in 1898 and started the manufacture of what was to become known as Osborne Ivorex. What was to rapidly expand into plaques, free standing shelf pieces, calendar holders and eventually figurines started off life as plastic sketches, these were free standing sculptures in three dimensional relief that depicted scenes such as The Old Curiosity Shop. The name "Plastic Sketch" was derived from the plastic term for clay when it can be carved and moulded to shape. These plastic sketches soon gave way to the more familiar plaques that were to form the basis for a thriving Faversham industry.
Arthur Osborne created the highly detailed master plaques in clay often using picture postcards from locations all over the world as his reference source, some of these cards can still be found today and show the incredible attention to detail that was maintained by Arthur Osborne. This master plaque was then used to create the gelatine moulds into which would be poured the finest plaster of Paris from Newark-on-Trent. The plaster of Paris would be brought in by the sackful and in some cases mixed with an ochre coloured pigment to add some base colour to the pure white plaster, this was sifted to remove all traces of lumps before mixing with water to a cream like consistency that would be poured into several moulds at a time, bubbles would be skimmed from the top and the plaques left to harden.
Once removed from the moulds the plaques were air dried in a heated room and then hand finished and painted by young Faversham girls using water colours, junior girls would do the simpler tasks but for highly detailed work the items were passed on to the more experienced women for completion, once the painting part of the process had dried the plaques were dipped in hot paraffin wax to give them their characteristic Ivory like finish. This was then buffed to a shine, brass eyelet rings and cords for hanging were fitted to the backs and they were then packed ready for shipping. During the war years when brass eyelets became difficult to obtain Osborne used steel eyelets in their place but these have tended to rust over the passage of time and can show through the face of a plaque as a dark stain. Special custom made cardboard boxes were made to pack the plaques in and these usually have the plaque title and production number printed on the edge, these boxes added a couple of pence to the overall cost.
Some of the plaques were put into purpose built black lacquered frames complete with a dark velvet slip that added even more depth to the scenes depicted. The frames differ in moulding types and range from one inch wide to two inches wide and can be found both with and without velvet slips and could also be purchased without glass. Some frames were made with a wood effect lacquer using the same mouldings but with the different finish. Even odd shape plaques like the five sided Canterbury Pilgrim types were sometimes framed utilizing the velvet slip to accommodate the awkward shape.
The titles on the plaques were inscribed in the style of Arthur Osborne by Walter Davis who was also the expert in charge of the shading and painting of each piece and had worked for A. Osborne since 1910. These plaques were trade named "Ivorex" and copyrighted throughout the world, although copied by others the same quality was not achieved. One of the main, and closest in style of the imitators was "IvorArt" who produced small plaques in a very similar style to Osborne but tending to portray different scenes rather than direct copies, compared side by side with Ivorex there is no contest, the quality of Arthur Osbornes skill shows through. The Ivorex items covered many subjects, notably Cathedrals, Churches and famous places as well as people, both historical and fictional, these creations were then sold as tourist souvenirs. Arthur Osborne exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1899, these were three pieces desribed as 'Reliefs' and entitled 'Reading', 'Writing' and 'Arithmetic'. He also exhibited and sold his wares at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Plaques sold at this exhibition had a special paper label attached to the back indicating the place and date of purchase. But the vast majority of production was sold via small retailers, Osborne would obtain photographs or postcards of Cathedrals or places of interest such as Exeter, create plaques depicting the scene and then supply the retailers in the area the finished articles for sale in their shops.
American, Irish, Welsh , Scottish, Australian, Bermudan and Canadian subjects were also well covered, with, in the peak years of production, 45,000 pieces being made annually by a work force of 50 people.The business was in production from 1899 to 1965 . At the peak of production, shipments to America became a fortnightly event with as many as a thousand pieces at a time being dispatched in cases which each held one hundred and eighty items. Shipments were also made to New Zealand, South Africa and even India.
The business struggled during the war years with rising costs, labour and material shortages, and also a dwindling market after the second world war, and although attempts were made at using machines for some of the work, the task of making plaques remained labour intensive and costly.
It was during 1943 and the creation of new masterpieces in the shape of Dickensian character figurines that Arthur Osborne was taken ill and in November of that year, sadly died, for the unique Ivorex industry of Faversham, already ailing, this was a blow that would prove hard to recover from.
From this time Arthur's daughter Blanche carried on the good work with the help of Walter Davis acting as manager, they continued to make the popular selling items and Walter Davis created a number of plaques to maintain a level of new subjects and seek out new markets. But the companies fortunes continued to decline and they eventually ceased business and closed, in September 1965. In 1971, W.H. Bossons of Congleton Cheshire England bought the assets of the Osborne Company and in February 1980 produced a range of at least 49 of Osbornes scenes. These first pieces were moulded in Congleton Cheshire and shipped to Faversham for the original painters to complete. Later editions were painted in-house by Bossons as can be seen by different colour shades, in 1997 the Bossons company also ceased trading. It is understood that Bossons produced a quantity of prototype figurines, small oval plaques and other scenes that never made it to mass production, two of these being Mr Pickwick oval and figurine.
According to a list published by B. Osborne & Co. there were 495 pieces produced with the largest plaque being 12"x19" and the smallest 2.75"x3", these consisted of 147 English and Welsh, 53 Scottish, 21 Irish, 78 American, 40 Canadian, 11 Australian, 11 Bermudan and 53 misc. There were at least 20 pedestal calendars and 5 hanging calendars.
The majority of the plaques were rectangular but with at least 14 that were 5 sided, 5 or more were six sided, 52 oval and 9 circular. 53 were miniatures at 3.25"x4.5".
The numbers quoted here are rapidly becoming out of date and research by fellow collector, Bob Court, and data supplied by other keen collectors now show the grand total (including Bossons) to be well over 850 types. In some cases there are different versions of the same subject plaque, early versions being in sepia tones whilst later versions were in full colour, subtle differences can be found in some titles and even in the scenes depicted. There are a few plaques with errors in the titles that were later corrected thus making two collectable plaques of the one scene. An example of this is "The birthplace of Charles Dickens no 387 Commercial Road Landport" and "The birthplace of Charles Dickens 393 Commercial Road Portsmouth", and yet another "The birthplace of Charles Dickens no 387 Commercial Road Landport" with a different shape to the bottom of the plaque, all showing the same scene.
Burns Cottage Alloway Ayr is a good example of a scene change and can be found in versions with either six or nine palings in the fence by the side of the cottage. Why ?, who knows, perhaps the mould was damaged and then repaired.
Another, St. Pauls Cathedral has two versions, an early one with lamp posts in the foreground and a later one without lamp posts. Why ?, well, the lamp posts kept breaking off as the plaques were removed from the mould thus creating a lot of rejects, so the mould was altered to remove the lamp posts and thus remove the problem.
The plaques that were made by W.H. Bossons of Congleton in Cheshire are almost identical in form to those of Osborne with only the Osborne AO trademark removed. The colours however can be quite different, using other shades of blues and greens that in some instances make the plaques look quite unusual. Bossons also made some subtle name changes and "Shakespeares House Stratford on Avon" became "Shakespeares Birthplace Stratford on Avon". So this particular plaque in this size can be found in three variations, a sepia coloured Osborne, a fully coloured Osborne and the Bossons name and colour change version. The Bossons versions can be identified by the lack of any AO trade mark on the front of the plaques and a gold foil "Bossons" trade mark label is usually stuck to the centre back. The more experienced eye will spot them by the colour differences alone.
It should be remembered that each plaque once had at least one previous owner and a little social history is sometimes added to a piece in the form of notes written on the reverse, we have examples that have "Left of fireplace" and "Right of fireplace" on them, did the chimney sweep arrive and need to take them down in order to affix his dust cloths or was the note made to remind the owner of the plaques positions after redecorating the wall.
Another example tells us that the plaque was awarded to its owner as first prize in a game of whist and records the date it was presented, yet another example, and the strangest of all, holds some long filled, shopping list of groceries, did the owner suddenly decide to make a list whilst the family needs were fresh in the mind and upon finding no paper to hand, take the plaque from the wall and write the list on the reverse.? Not always obvious when one is looking at the face of a plaque, is the history that may be behind it, turn it over and take a careful look, remember what is written could have been penned almost a hundred years ago.
Prices have changed slightly since their original manufacture, a plaque of "Temple Bar in Dr Johnsons Time" 10.25x8 may well fetch a price of fifty pounds today but was originally sold for six shillings and six pence (thirty two pence current money) and for one pound two shillings if framed.!
In todays Faversham the local historical society maintain a small museum displaying artifacts of times past and in one of the display cases will be found a selection of the works of Arthur Osborne and his company.
First you might want to know if your plaque really is an Osborne Ivorex, as we know, other companies made similar products and some people even made direct copies from Osborne plaques. There are however usually a copyright mark or two to help you out and here are a few examples.
This mark is found on the back of plaques in the bottom left hand corner and often contains the name of copyright countries like America and Canada or the words "all countries." This mark will not be found on direct copies of Osborne plaques, but it is only an ink stamp and so can fade or wear away. The Phillipson and Golder, Chester mark also shown here was put on plaques specially made for this company and will be found on plaques like "The Rows Chester".
This stamp was applied by the Ivorex Co. Inc. on some American plaques.
See also the Trademark page for examples of ink stamp trademarks.
This is an inscribed mark will only be found on the back of the older plaques.
Note the date is 1906.
This is a De Blois inscription found on the back of an Osborne plaque.
This is the © A.O copyright mark that can be found on almost all Osborne plaques, usually placed in the bottom right or left hand corners but was removed on the Bossons versions of plaques. On some plaques the "A" is above the "O" whilst on others they are side by side. On later plaques made after the death of Arthur Osborne will be found © W.D, the initials of Walter Davis who created some of his own designs.
These are two types of labels that can be found on the back of Bossons versions of Ivorex plaques, they were usually stuck to the centre bottom area at the back of the plaque and if removed tend to leave a lighter area 1.5x1 inches.
It is preferable to have the label intact if buying a Bossons version.
With prices for the small ovals shown as one shilling and nine pence whilst the large plaques are for sale at five shillings.!
Click on the advert to see a larger picture.