Send in the clowns and collect them

Jim and Sue with their dolls

Doll collecting is alive and well; all around the world. Image Handmade Porcelain Dolls were made by Jim and Sue Visser in South Africa during 1980 - 1990. They became highly sought after collector’s pieces. Many of them travelled to other parts of the world. Over 48 ranges of clowns and costumed dolls were numbered and produced in limited quantities. A certificate confirmed the date of production, the range and the number that was painted at the back of each head.

Pierrot dolls trigger a new collector’s craze

Pierrot dolls and figurines became fashionable during the early 1980’s. This meant that we began to collect dolls, dishes, cushion covers and even T-shirts that depicted this sad white-faced clown. My husband and I were already prospering from making ornaments for printer’s trays and had a bottomless market for miniature trinkets to fill all the niches. The use of lead type fell away, thanks to digital printing and the wooden trays that were used to house the strips of text and characters were tossed out. Printer’s trays, we called them and when hung up on the wall, they created the empty spaces that could be filled by our miniature ceramic mice, animals and cute little things. We could work from home with our two small children and we all enjoyed messing about with clay, glue, fabrics and even seeds, bottle tops and pebbles. We turned all sorts of trash into cash.

When a friend gave us a Pierrot doll and told us this was to be the next craze we took up the challenge. The head, hands and feet were to be made of porcelain – gleaming white, as opposed to the chalky white painted specimen we were challenged by. My background as an industrial designer had included a course in ceramics. We had been taught how to make plaster moulds, mix up the liquid clay called slip and mass produce objects such as jugs and teapots. But I had no idea how to start from scratch.

I sought the help of an expert potter, the late Les Bayman who went out of his way to get us up and running. After a few months, many mishaps and what seemed to be tons of raw materials we produced our first porcelain components. The faces were individually painted and the body consisted of foam bandages, wrapped around a wire skeleton that connected the porcelain head to the arms and legs. This innovative structure allowed the dolls to bend and pose in realistic, unique postures.

Craft market with priceless dolls












These first porcelain Pierrot clowns were snapped up by eager doll collectors around South Africa and just about every upmarket gift shop sold them. The series were limited to 500 and soon we were challenged to make different yet complimentary ranges. A few years later we found out that some collector wanted over R 2000 (US $ 144) for a series 1 Pierrot. We only got R 45 (about 4 dollars). I feel for Vincent Van Gogh!

Pierrot and other members of the Commedia dell’arte

According to the popular scenario acted out by members of an acting troupe called the Commedia dell’arte, Pierrot was in love with Columbine, a lady skilled in dancing and singing. But Harlequin, another actor dressed in a bright diamond-shaped patchwork tunic stole her heart. Hence the tragic face of Pierrot. This story inspired our first trio of characters and was soon followed by Punch (Pluchinella). The modern Circus as we know it today began in the late Victorian era and famous white-faced clowns (Joey clowns) became very popular. We made a number of these clowns but especially the famous Joseph Grimaldi who was one of the most talented of these early clowns.

The Auguste (fool) clown was that counterpart of Joey in scenarios that introduced the more burlesque and slapstick aspects of comedy. It was always Joey who stayed clean and never got hurt or humiliated. We made a few series of real portrait clowns of famous South Africans. Joey Francesco was one of them and he came to see us and receive the first doll of the series. What a handshake, what a bear hug. He was a master at expressing emotions, poetry and philosophy. He often performed alone, even on TV. Tickey was a dwarf clown, a lovable and very skilled Auguste clown, performing in the early days of the South African Boswell Wilkie Circus. We also paid tribute to the local Auguste clowns: Tommy, Little Jerry and Crazy Banana.

The silent movies were dominated by Charlie Chaplain and Laurel and Hardy. We made a few special dolls on request and produced fairy like characters from the Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s famous whimsical play. A more ornate range emerged when I discovered how to do gold lustre brushwork. We had intricate decals printed and when fired at a low temperature, the gold fused on to the porcelain. I painted the delicate black filigree designs myself and the result was a stunning troupe of acrobats, jugglers, magicians and buffoons.

Thus began our passion for researching the history of clowns and portraying the most lovable and famous of the characters - Annie Fratellini, Tom Belling, Jacko, Bimbo, Grock and Coco to name a few. The collectors were thrilled and so were we. We could pay the rent and there was food on the table.

Our helpers and friends

After a few months we were able to afford some helpers and we trained a number of young local people ourselves. They were talented and eager to learn and so Jim and I taught them how to produce the ceramic components, how to do basic painting and how to sew. Some of the guys were very good at helping out when there was a crisis in the sewing room!

We worked as one big happy family, we lived and loved during those special years and shared many things.

“Oh you beautiful doll, you great big beautiful doll”

We began to produce larger versions of most of the 42 cm dolls and they were over 75 cm high. We had special stands made for them and the display in our own home began to crowd out the living space. At the other end of the scale we made thousands of miniature 10 cm and 15 cm clowns and costume dolls. (For printers trays – for the stragglers who were still trying to fill up all the niches!) At the same time we perfected a beautiful flesh coloured porcelain glaze and made thousands of beautiful costumed dolls. They were in a class of their own – unlike the traditional bisque dolls with their eggshell finish and inserted glass eyes. I used to spend hours painting the eyes, eyelashes and delicate eyebrows myself and no two were ever alike. They became people to me.

Our collection

I loved designing and sewing the intricate costumes. We depicted the fashions of our own country, starting with Jan and Maria Van Riebeeck of the 17th century. Rich ornate velvet attire and the wigs were made out of mohair that we washed and dyed ourselves. We continued with the British 1820 settlers and the pioneering Voortrekker dolls. We also made Cape Malay costumed dolls and cute little black baby twins called Tembie and Toto. By this time I had a team of ladies who helped me with the sewing, but I personally used to cut out the major pieces of clothing. Somehow I could cut out more coats from the same piece of cloth and produce less wastage.

The ceramic workshop is where the doll components were made

The first kiln firing was done at a low temperature of 980 degrees centigrade to produce what is called bisque ware. The pieces are then glazed and fired a second time to a temperature of 1400 degrees centigrade. The extremely high temperature fuses the minerals together to produce a vitreous or hard, glassy finish. This time-consuming process took a few days, but porcelain is an art form of its own. Our slip formulation was a nightmare to perfect but eventually we were able to produce a consistent clay body.

Ceramic workshop

The glaze also had to “fit” the bisque fired ceramic. This means that if there are not enough solid, non-shrinkable minerals like silica or borax and not enough “pliable” minerals such as bentonite, kaolin or magnesium in the glaze it cracks. The whole surface pings and crackles as the porcelain cools down. You can hear disaster looming even before the kiln door is opened.


Unfortunately sometimes the cracking happened weeks after the firing. Oh dear. We wasted a lot of perfectly cast, cleaned and carefully smoothed out and sanded bisque ware because of such mishaps.

Black Diamond Dolls – the final and fatal challenge

Ironically we began with a white faced clown and ended with a black faced clown. When I was experimenting with the gold and black paintwork, I took a black theatrical mask and decorated it with intricate gold and silver designs. I added gold ribbons and other finery and hung it up on the wall. After all, characters like Pierrot, Harlequin, Punch and other actors in medieval times all wore black leather masks so as not to show their identity.  Once again, I was challenged to make a series of black porcelain dolls. But I explained that porcelain cannot accommodate so many minerals as the translucent and fully vitrified quality would not manifest. So I embarked on a different mission, to produce what is called a transmutation effect. This meant that the minerals present in the bisque body would fuse with those of the glaze and produce a gun-metal effect.

Sue with all her formulations

It was simple to make the first seven trial formulations. I then mixed up the leftovers and placed another experiment into the trial firing. This random mixture was perfect – better than any of the 7 carefully documented experiments.

(I tend to do this in the kitchen as well! Madness sometimes creates something out of nothing.)

It was a long, long schlep to reproduce that magic mixture but eventually I perfected the gun-metal glaze. The heads were decorated with pure gold, like the previous dolls of the golden series but the effect was far more dramatic. We mounted a specially cut diamond into the design that graced their heads and dressed the dolls in specially embroidered black costumes. This is how the final Black Diamond series came to be. They were hideously expensive, with bases of the stands made from slabs of gemstones. We only made 100 pieces for collectors who swooped down on them. We are also lucky enough to have a set. Pierrot, Harlequin, Pulcinella, Pantaloon and Scaramouch are lined up on a high (safe) shelf, to remind us of those days. An investment for the kids or grand children one day.  

Stress and heavy metal poisoning took their toll on my adrenals and I was in need of a good detox. My husband was getting heart seizures. We were looking for a solution and it happened to be – calcium and magnesium supplements! So we started to make these health products and my formulation has stood the test of time for over 20 years. We still take it at bedtime. So send in the clowns, with my calmag. We all need our minerals, especially magnesium

Prototype pierrots

The original Image Pierrot prototype plus a series 1 

Minerals are still a major factor in our current business. The same calcium and magnesium that formed our bisque and glazes are now sold as Nature Fresh Calcium Complex. As with porcelain, only the purist minerals make the grade. No contaminants are allowed. the only difference is that now we use pharmaceutical grades. More expensive - but it helps to keep "dem bones" strong and keeps the blood pressure down. It also helps to pay the rent!