Well it’s a bit convoluted but if you have patience I will reveal all. My Father, Simman, came out of the Air Force in 1946 and started a little business engraving disks and identity bracelets on Blackpool Promenade, at the height of the resort town’s popularity.
In those days all the surrounding mill towns had a fortnight’s holiday annually and the workers trooped to the seaside with Blackpool being the biggest magnet for fun, frivolity and entertainment. From that little kiosk on the Vancouver Hotel forecourt, grew a succession of fancy good shops where the Feblands plied their wares as the Great British country emerged shattered from WW2. Good products were hard to get as there was a shortage of every commodity and people had ration books allowing them to buy a limited quantity of essential food stuffs. I remember my number was NCOM 14-3 and the shop keepers used to cut off a little square when you bought your pyjamas or Crunchy Bar.
I was 12 years old when dad drove with with me to Stoke on Trent to a factory with a beehive chimney where they baked and glazed the pottery called Lingard and Webster. We had a go at bidding for a full firing of teapots and paid sixpence each for them. There were thousands! Mainly Dickens Characters and Nursery Rhyme teapots like Humpty Dumpty. We took delivery in dad’s new shop opposite the Central Pier on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. It seemed to take all day humping the teapots up three flights of stairs. How do you think the teapots went down with the eager public? Awful! first we tried to sell them for half a crown (12.5 p) and then 2 bob (10p). Finally, dad decided if we weren’t going to sell any, we might as well not sell them at a high price. So he upped them to 10 shillings each (50p) and slowly over the next 5 years they all went. Nowadays I am reliably informed that such Dickens teapots are worth at least £50 a piece!
About then came the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1954 and souvenirs abounded, all with Her Majesty’s face or emblem mainly accompanied by the Young Duke of Edinburgh. Blackpool was booming as this was a time before your cheapo flights to Costa Brava. Reg Dixon was playing organ at the Tower Ballroom, George Formby was playing ukulele at the Opera House and Charlie Cairoli was playing the clown at the Tower Circus. As goods began to drift in from other countries dad began to learn about continental china ware; Dresden, Royal Dux, Sevres Bequet, Meissen. It coincided with his purchase of a large shop in the town centre in the back of which he started an Auction Room. Sales were held every Friday and dad was the Auctioneer. He took 10 per cent of the sale proceeds and obtained excellent prices for English China like Royal Worcester, Spode and Crown Derby. So successful were the sales that people came from near and far to hear him with his distinctive cultured accent describe knowledgeably each piece and jolly the bidders along till the deal was struck. Alas the best stuff was drying up so he set forth for the continent in his Jaguar and what he discovered made a huge difference to the lives of the Febland Family.
So Simman Febland goes off in his Jag in 1952 via the Black Forest where he bought a load of carved wood pipes and cuckoo clocks. He also found a number of small wood fired factories making salad dishes with bright selenium colours hand painted with fruit and vegetable decoration. The prices seemed too good to be true. A few years previously Italy was part of the Axis with Germany and Japan seeking to Rule the world as a fascist dictatorship but Italy was impoverished by Mussolini’s unbridled ambition and the common people paid the penalty. It is said the the Italian soldier joins up to wear a posh uniform, at heart he is just a romantic tenor and wants his Mum to prepare a huge bowl of spaghetti al pomodoro. The people dad found were all artists, making every sort of fancy ceramic product you never saw in the less imaginative British Isles. Having bought many fancy items, ashtrays, figures, bowls, plant pots around Marostica, (the little walled city where they play Chess with human pieces in the court yard,) he drove down toward Florence and along the Arno river where he found his first big lines.
In one of these first trips dad became aware of the existence of a very high grade of figurine manufacture mainly in the Milan area. Italy has always produced wonderful figurines. The names Lenci, Cacciapuoti and Borsato come to mind. It was during his stay at the Excelsior Gallia Hotel in front of the Stazione Centrale in Milan, staring back at him from one of the showcases in the splendid lobby were a few figures by the young Giuseppe Cappe’. Simman hastened to find the source which was out in the country close to Monza, which boasts the famous Autodrom. Cappe’ was a partner in Kings Factory with Giovanni Vernazza and they were just getting established. Nothing like it had been seen before. The fantasy, attention to detail, the wonderful expressions on the faces, and the finish were all there. Simman could see immediately that this porcelain product was equal to anything produced in Worcester or by Doulton.
Having found fountain of porcelain art, my dad, then sought to unify the the range under a generic name. As he knew the old Capodimonte ware was a symbol of Italian excellence but no longer existed since 1750, he chose the name New Capodimonte, as a marketing strategy. This became shortened again to just Capodimonte as the new school became more well known. He asked the producers to put on the old mark viz the Crown of Naples in a stylised form. Unfortunately this mark was only registered by Febland’s in UK and nothing prevented other makers from abusing this mark widely until it became virtually meaningless. Nowadays people come to me and show me the famous mark embossed under a piece of pottery trash, thinking it to be a treasure left by their Granny. I try to enlighten them as gently as possible and when they see the genuine fine pieces in our showroom they quickly make a comparison and realise that they have acquired fool’s gold and that it won’t pay off their mortgage.
At first, in the nineteen fifties, Capodimonte Porcelain was not easy to sell. In the UK people love figurines, Toby jugs, Beswick horses, fine china flower bowls but these new pieces were so different from what had been seen before. We had to use all our powers of persuasion to get the jewellers and gift shop owners to stock a few pieces. The range only really took off when Merli produced the famous ”tramp on the bench” in 1962, Previously, figurines had portrayed fine ladies, cavaliers, children of a noble men dressed in Bergere, the odd professional entity like Doctors, Lawyers and Generals but a Tramp! It was completely different, there he was, feeding a few crumbs from his panino to a cheeky sparrow, tattered trousers and a weather beaten hat but obviously content with his lot. A fine example for those in Britain who just chased the illusion of worldly success.
The Tramp took off at the Blackpool Gift Fair which was held all over the town in February each year and in particular the Talbot Road bus station where Feblands had a 90 metre space full of Italian pottery, Venetian Glass, terracotta plant ware, and of course, Capodimonte. Cappe’ by this time had split up with Vernazza at Kings and produced the most amazing figurines with faces of the villagers around him. There were rag and bone men, urchins, buskers, mendicants, fishermen, trollops, gossips, portly gentlemen, gipsies and so many other subjects all completely original and finely sculpted. The break through probably came when Northern Goldsmiths of Newcastle agreed to take a full window of Cappe’s pieces in their Blackett street branch. Within a few months all the associate companies in the Goldsmith chain were stocking and selling the character pieces.
At that time my best mate was a young ventriloquist called Dennis Spicer and he was 5th on the Bill at the Central Pier which was produced by Peter Webster. Dennis was a keen photographer and was fascinated with the Capodimonte Tramps and characters. He got me to bring several pieces round to the theatre and in between stage appearances he started taking photos in black and white which became the basis of our home made catalogue. On one occasion Bob Monkhouse saw Cappe’s pieces and bought a piece called the clown, a wonderful piece embodying the joy the clown exudes to his audience and the sad heart he bears privately. Forty years after this purchase Bob remembered the occasion in a note he inscribed in one of his books which I sent him. Poor Dennis didn’t reach 30, he crashed his TVR on the way home to Potters Bar just at the height of his career, having been invited to perform at the Royal Command Performance, I believe in 1964.
Thanks, Dennis for helping me to promote the Capodimonte pieces you so loved.
I was asked recently how many years has the company been established and for once I declined to give the facile reply “too bloody long!” and actually gave away the date of our first ventures being 1952. I was only a school kid then and aspiring to go to Oxbridge with my classmates Malcolm Mitchinson, Frank Roberts, Malcolm Phillips and John Clegg. We all made it but the most successful of our group was Jimmy Armfield who took up a career in Soccer,
although Arnold was a Rugby Union strength under the formidable Wilbur Howarth, the geography supremo. I am actually listening now to Jimmy OBE as he summarises the Arsenal – Man U match which will determine the result of the premiership this year 2008/9.
He’s pushing 73 now and I’m glad to say all the aforementioned old boys are still going strong having got through the dangerous years between 55 and 65 which has claimed so many good men.
I reflect, that a company has to be like a chameleon and change its aspect on a regular basis. We had tremendous success with importing Italian pottery and porcelain in the early years. The customers had never seen such attractive lines and each successive Blackpool Gift Fair saw the company expanding by virtue of our quest for the best range in the country, but as a plant gives out green shoots, flourishes and eventually decays so does every range of goods. You have to be one step ahead.
And this is why we went into Italian furniture and added a manufacturing arm to our facilities. We were able, in the seventies, to convert baroque Italian frames into fine finished furniture which appeared to be made in Florence and Verona but actually came from Blackpool. In those days the choice of cover was simple. You got red, green, beige or gold draylon. I wish it were as simple now – we have to handle hundreds of fabrics, texture, shades and styles. Just recently we completed a job for Hell’s Kitchen, the ITV show and each chair of the 76 ordered was different in its specification. Amazingly the order came out well and we continue to derive spin off orders for our Georgian spoon backs.
As the sales of Italian reproduction furniture reached a peak we were looking to the far east for sources of Glass and Metal and luckily we found a rich vein of suppliers in the Guandong area where Chinese partners had sucked in investing entrepreneurs from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. These partnerships gave rise to a super growth of manufacturing capacity. I was amazed at the price structures being used compared to frequent price increases from the European suppliers, in China the prices go DOWN instead of up. They pass on economies of scale and at the beginning the Chinese Government gave away bonuses on export orders. China was amassing dollars and despite the crowds of Chinese gamblers tripping to Las Vegas they could not spend all the dollars they were earning from the West.
Now however, it’s all change again. Sales are slowing up because people are worried about their jobs and whether they have too much month left at the end of the money. We are ready now with a surprise infusion of new lines, if I said they were ‘Cuddly’ and ‘Green’ you might have a clue. Watch this space.