TWO collections of rare British Victorian pottery sold for £250,000 at Salisbury auctioneers Woolley and Wallis — smashing pre-sale hopes of £160,000.

The top two selling pieces alone took more than £50,000 between them – a rare Wally bird tobacco jar and an ultra-rare Bird man jar.

For Woolley and Wallis Head of Design Michael Jeffery, this was a personal as well as professional triumph, as he pioneered UK sales of Martin Ware.

“If only the four Martin brothers were here today to see this,” said Michael. “They were geniuses, really, with many of their designs decades ahead of their time and anticipating modern art, but only one of them lived to see their creations meet any sort of financial success.”

The collections of 250 pieces, which were expected to fetch around £160,000, were auctioned by Woolley and Wallis on November 27.

The pottery business started in the family home in 1873, when the four Martin brothers – Robert Wallace, Walter, Edwin and Charles – fired up their first kiln.

Moving to a disused soap works in Southall, west of London, four years later, their 50-year production would come to an end in 1921, when only Robert Wallace, the eldest, was still alive to see bidding at Sotheby’s in London reach £50 for a single bird jar.

The family had only ever known poverty as they struggled to fulfil their artistic dreams. In 1910, he had said “my brothers and myself never got more than a labourer’s wages”.

Robert Wallace modelled the figures with Walter overseeing the kiln, mixing glazes and throwing pots, Edwin decorating the output and Charles managing the shop where they attempted to sell their wares.

However, problems came with the commercial side of the business. Charles hid his favourite pieces under the floorboards of the shop because he could not bear to part with them and turned away potential customers. The shop burnt down in 1903, destroying the stock.

Charles ended up in an asylum where he died in 1909.

The other brothers could only afford to fire the kiln once or twice a year and because they had no money to pay for the protective containers needed to hold the pots during firing, many ended up damaged.

Two years after Charles’s death, Edwin started to show signs of the facial cancer that would kill him in 1915; shortly after that Walter knocked his elbow while packing the kiln in 1911. The resulting wound and blood clot caused a fatal cerebral haemorrhage just three months later.

Despite their tragic fates, the brothers’ reputation grew quickly, with royalty and leading artistic lights of the day, such as the Pre-Raphaelite painters Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti, becoming avid collectors. In 1914, Queen Mary ordered 60 pieces of Martin Ware to be exhibited at the Paris Exposition.

Production came to an end in 1923 when Robert Wallace died.