NEW YORK — In 1934, Royal Doulton introduced its whimsical Bunnykins tableware and ceramic figures designed for the nursery. They were based on illustrations by Barbara Vernon Bailey (later known as Sister Mary Barbara Bailey), whose father was a Royal Doulton manager at the time. While she lacked formal training in art, Bailey had always loved animals, particularly rabbits, and her simple yet endearing pictures of bunnies charmed nearly all who saw them. She joined a convent at the age of 19 and was allowed to keep making illustrations provided it didn’t interfere with her work there; she was also forbidden to earn any money from them.
Similar in appearance to Beatrix Potter’s wildly popular Peter Rabbit illustrations, Royal Doulton Bunnykins products were immediately popular and reportedly a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II and her sister, Margaret, when they were young. Bunnykins portrayed rabbits and other creatures enjoying daily activities such as listening to bedtime stories, eating ice cream, fishing and playing. Six pieces, signed as Vernon Bailey rather than Barbara Vernon Bailey, were initially made based on her illustrations. These and other early pieces are most sought-after, but even those made later are widely collected. Bailey’s name appeared on Royal Doulton Bunnykins pieces until the 1950s.
The Bunnykins line was made steadily until World War II and not revived until 1969. Some items are still produced today, but only the tableware, and it is made in melamine instead of fine china. Bunnykins figures are, sadly, defunct. It appears that the last figurine, a bunny wearing an Australian Army uniform, was released in 2015.
When it comes to collecting Royal Doulton figurines, prototypes of figures — especially those that were never produced — are intensely coveted. While many best-selling examples date to the early 20th century, more recent ones can do well. The Bunnykins prototypes are the result of Doulton artists playing with new ideas and forms; if the prototypes had parts that could easily break or shapes that were too large and elaborate (aka expensive) to mass-produce at a profit, they did not enter production. A prototype Bunnykins tableau titled Celebration Time and dated 1998 attained £35,500 (about $44,347) plus the buyer’s premium in July 2022 at Potteries Auctions Ltd. It depicts a family of four rabbits looking eagerly at a tall case clock, which reads 8:10 pm, and each holds a glass of milk aloft. A fifth bunny, the youngest child, sleeps against his mother’s shoulder.
Bunnykins came in seemingly all forms and motifs. The theme of jesters was a favorite for Royal Doulton, one which they explored across many product lines, including Bunnykins in the 1990s. A prototype Bunnykins jester, which is different from the version chosen for production, made $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Lion and Unicorn. This example is seated on a stool, empty handed, and the base is plain black. The final version is more colorful, has a harlequin base and the bunny is shown playing a stringed instrument.
As a teacher in her convent’s school, the onetime Barbara Vernon Bailey, now Sister Mary Barbara Bailey, focused on children — not only their education, but their health. Some of her designs, produced as tableware by Royal Doulton, had images on the bottom that encouraged children to clear the plate so they could see the illustration concealed by the meal. These are called “backstamps,” and a beloved Bunnykins backstamp image showed three bunnies playing tug of war.
About 500 unique Bunnykins figurines were estimated to have been produced, featuring a range of themes, designs, colorways and special or limited editions. Family groupings are common and mother figures were often dressed in blue, allegedly for religious reasons, to pay homage to Mother Mary. A figural pepper pot by Vernon Bailey featuring a momma bunnykin wearing a blue shirt and a red skirt made $3,748 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Kinghams Auctioneers. This piece has the iconic three-bunny tug-of-war backstamp, inspired by the artist’s memories of playing children’s games such as tug-of-war.
Holiday collectibles are a popular category, and holiday-themed Royal Doulton Bunnykins pieces have formidable crossover value. Designed to interest both Easter and Halloween collectors was a Royal Doulton Bunnykins prototype witch figurine that earned $2,800 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Lion and Unicorn. Marked on the base “not produced for sale,” the figurine depicts a bunny dressed as a witch and riding a broom next to a large white egg that perhaps could be a stand-in for the moon.
Bunnykins figures routinely bring several thousand dollars each while the tableware items, from porridge bowls to plates, usually command far less. Most bowls and plates were well used by the children who owned them, so it’s hard to find the vintage wares in perfect condition. When good examples break four figures at auction, it’s likely they were unused and stored as keepsakes. Provenance can trump condition, though. A Bunnykins bowl and plate set sold for $5,000 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019 at Mid-Hudson Auction Galleries. While the plate had a chip on its back, the set was owned by Princess Diana and was given by her to a young girl named Cara; it was accompanied by a signed card from Diana to Cara. The set was also signed by Vernon Bailey below a drawing of an animal carrying a newspaper.
Royal Doulton Bunnykins pieces are charming enough to display all year but are ideal to bring out around Easter. Their range of values provides good entry points for starting collectors and they are available in so many styles and varieties there is no wrong way to build a collection.