Lenci Ceramics
by Federico Fiecconi

Founded in Turin in 1919, the Lenci company is one of the famous Italian icons of this century. Initially involved in the production of hand painted and stuffed dolls, which became very popular between 1925 and 1927, Lenci quickly became synonymous of the best Italian craftsmanship in his field, leading the market at least until World War II. The company did not start pottery production until 1928: its distinctive style mixes early '900 Turin touches with German-Hungarian taste brought in by the founder's wife Helen König Scavini. Favorite subjects among the figurines: the celebrated girls, animals, angels and a variety of other holy subjects.

Starting from the fifties, Lenci introduced a few Disney characters into his catalogue. Each piece is signed "Lenci - made in Italy" by hand on the bottom, but doesn't usually show any Disney copyright. The dull opaque finish shown by the Lenci Disneys gives these figurines a look very close to the Walt Disney Collectors Society sculptures popular nowadays.

"Bambi" inspired a full series of ceramics, which includes: Bambi (# 1189, 26 cm high), Thumper (#1190), the Owl (#1192), and Flower. Curiously enough, the Allemandi catalogue (Turin 1992), which is the definitive reference for Lenci ceramic collectors, registers as "Skunk - Walt Disney" a version (marked #1191) showing a skunk with a realistic look and a glossy finish. The catalogue displays another skunk holding a flower, sculpted by Rosa Seglie and pictured as item #1476, which looks like an elongated but fairly close version of the original Disney Little Flower.

Among the Disney figurines produced in this century, undoubtedly the Lenci Thumper represents one of the highest points of a non-American three-dimensional representation of a Disney character. The source clearly appears to be a drawing of Thumper (as published in "Illusion of Life" by Thomas & Johnston, page 27), penciled by one of the "nine old men", legendary animator Frank Thomas. At this point of the movie Thumper slides happily on ice, enjoying the friendship with the fawn and showing him how to have fun on the slippery surface. This appealing sketch of the bunny holding his paws, is lightly painted with watercolor, giving the little bunny a childish cuteness and a spirited look, with some brushes of pink on his cheeks. Somehow this drawing must have crossed the ocean, catching the Lenci artists' attention. In fact, the Lenci figurine maintains those soft and inventive colours, enhancing them and adding original touches like some pale blue softening to the eyelids and the chest. The twinkling in the bunny's eyes, typical of the classic Disney characters' design, here becomes a pie-shaped white triangle. A solid stylized "deco" look is the technical and aesthetic answer to depicting the furry waist and tail.

Thomas' beautiful drawing portrays Thumper's floppy ears with a peculiar and very effective twisted perspective. The same special feeling is completely echoed by the sculpture, which obviously tries to retain the artwork's harmony in every detail. What makes the Lenci Thumper so unique is the high level of fidelity to the spirit of the original artwork: most of the Lenci and the other Italian ceramics usually bring out the original Disney look with a local flavour, often mixed with a bit of caricature and grotesque. Thumper is one of the best examples of a European artefact skillfully keeping faithful to the original Disney spirit, retaining an overall quality that makes him appear almost like one of the famous three-dimensional plaster pieces coming from the Character Model Department of the Walt Disney Studios which were produced to inspire the animators' work.

Beside the Bambi pieces, the Lenci catalogue lists three "Peter Pan" characters, all with bases: Peter Pan (#1432, 22 cm high), Michael with Teddy Bear (#1435, 14,5 cm), and Tinker Bell (#1440, 23 cm). Other characters taken from the Disney feature films and produced by Lenci are Pinocchio (item #1334, 19 cm high, walking and holding school books with one hand and an apple with the other) and a gorgeous Dumbo (item #1262, walking too, with his hat on top of his head, 27 cm long).

The only standard characters included in the Lenci catalogue are two Disney leading stars, Mickey Mouse (item #1417, 15,5 cm high) and Donald Duck (#1418, 15,5 cm high), both around 3 inches tall. The pair were auctioned in 1997 at Sotheby's - Milan for Lit. 2.070.000 (around $ 1.100), including the auctioneer's premium.

Despite instant critical acclaim and commercial success in Europe and the U.S.A., the recession and careless management kept the company in troubled waters from the early thirties. An terrible World War II bombing hit the Lenci factory's warehouses hard, deepening the crisis in the company. Finally, the Lenci factory stopped production in 1964. Today the glamorous barely-dressed "signorine", modeled by the founder Helen König Scavini, fetch high figures at European and American auctions. But also the Disney Lencis are rapidly becoming sought after and hard to find: you can expect to pay in the $500-1.000 range for very good + pieces.

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