Three versions of the Staffordshire figure The Italian Boy

Three versions of the Staffordshire figure of Carlo Ferrari, The Italian Boy, c.1832, including the figure on the right priced at £1200 from RTS Antiques.

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The model of a seated ‘Italian’ boy holding a cage of mice is now believed to represent the tragic tale of Carlo Ferrari.

The figure has long been the object of collecting curiosity. One catalogued in the late 19th century as ‘Italian Boy’ can be found in the Willett Collection at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Who was the boy?

But who was he and why did the Staffordshire potters see fit to model him in clay?

Revans-Turner was recently shown a copy of a book by Sarah Wise published in 2004 titled The Italian Boy, Murder & Grave Robbery in 1830s London.

It tells the story of the trial of John Bishop and Thomas Williams who in December 1831 went to the gallows for the grisly practice of ‘resurrection’. They operated in the impoverished Smithfield area of London selling cadavers to anatomy students at the nearby St Bartholomew’s hospital.

Print of Carlo Ferrari

A contemporaneous print titled Carlo Ferrari, The Poor Italian Boy.

Receiving 20 guineas per corpse, they admit ted murdering several unfortunate souls to supplement their profits.

Among those Bishop and Williams were accused of murdering was Carlo Ferrari – one of the Italian immigrants who came to London in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars.

An angelic-faced boy who had eked out a living at Smithfield Market playing music and performing with animals, his death in November 1831 became the focus of newspaper reports and contemporary prints on the body-snatching trial.

‘A remarkable discovery’

Revans-Turner makes a convincing case that the figure is an addition to the wellknown series of Staffordshire ‘crime and punishment’ models.

“Few, if any new Staffordshire crime figures have come to light in the last 50 years so to add another to the list would be a remarkable discovery, I am going to stick my neck out and put forward an old contender with a newly found attribution”.

He has recently acquired three versions of the rare figure, all modelled holding cages, by three different factories. Currently one of them is available for sale priced at £1200.