It's rare enough to find three sisters who share the same talent for ceramic artistry. But what are the odds against finding three who could work together in the same studio and often on the same object?
It's also pretty rare to find a pot bearing proof that all three have each played their part in producing. But, fortunately for collectors of Doulton stoneware ceramics by Hannah, Florence and Lucy Barlow, they turn up occasionally and the joy of discovery hooks another victim like the owner of the pieces illustrated here.
More common are vases which bear the monogram signatures of two out of the three Barlows. Most usually it's Hannah, noted for her incised animals, and Florence, who was particularly successful at painting birds and foliage.
In truth, both artists were adept at decorating Doulton stoneware with animals and birds, but such was their contentment at working together, they made a pact to stick to their respective subjects. And together they drew the accolades from an adoring public.
Hannah Barlow was the first woman artist to be employed by Henry Doulton, joining the company's Lambeth studios in South London in 1871. Like many of her fellows, she was a former pupil of John Sparkes, the principal of Lambeth School of Art and a close friend of Doulton, who helped her obtain the job.
It was probably her talent for drawing animals that got her noticed. It was a talent that was well suited to the ceramic medium.
She used a technique known as sgraffito, a term derived from the Italian for "scratched", which involved applying incised designs with a needle-like tool. The area was then brushed with a coloured stain, usually blue, which found its way into the cuts and, after firing, made the shapes stand out more obviously.
Inspiration for her animal studies came from regular visits to London zoological gardens and her own private zoo at her country home which was said to be home for 100 animals.
In 1876, five years after joining Doulton, she lost the use of her right hand, some reports blaming the constant handling of wet clay. However, undaunted, she set about learning to decorate with her left hand and became just as competent as before. She retired in 1913.
Like her sister, Florence also attended the Lambeth School of Art and joined Hannah at Doulton in 1873. However, despite being a competent exponent of the sgraffito technique, Florence's forte was ceramic painting.
She used a technique known as pâte sur pâte, literally body on body, which involved building up layer after layer of translucent slip to achieve a decoration that stands in relief from the surface of the object.
Supreme patience and delicacy of brushwork was needed to obtain the desired result, but Florence was probably Doulton's finest master of the technique. She was particularly successful at using various coloured bodies to obtain light and shade in her painting, a technique well suited to birds in flight. Florence retired in 1909.
Lucy Barlow is perhaps the least well known of the three sisters, having worked at Lambeth for only three years from 1882 to 1885. Little has been published about her role in her sisters' studio, and her more unkind critics described her as having had only a minor talent.
However, examples of stoneware exist that bear the monogram marks of all three, from which it can be deduced that Lucy was kept busy applying the fancy ribbed and lobed borders inside which Hannah and Florence practised their skills.
Once seen and identified, the Barlow monograms are easily recognisable. Hannah's looks like two letter 'B's back to back; Florence's spells 'FEB' and Lucy's has 'A' and 'B' joined by the upright of an elongated letter 'L'.
Visit an auction sale that issues a catalogue telling you what's what or a reputable dealer who knows the difference. In either case the goods can be handled and you'll soon find you're able to tell one from the others.
But don't think it was only the Barlow girls who could decorate pots. Brother Arthur was at least as important as his sisters, but ill-health cut short his Doulton career to a mere eight years when he died in 1879. Consequently, examples of his work - they bear a monogram that looks like a capital 'A' in a spin - are extremely rare and sought after.
Unlike his sisters, he concentrated on depicting flowers and foliage in highly naturalistic form, using a combination of carving, incising and modelling. He was a mere 34 when he died.