Cybis sculptures that were designed by freelance artist Harry Burger are perhaps the easiest to identify, even though his name never appeared on any of them. He had a particular style that sets his pieces apart as soon as one knows what to look for – whether the item in question was produced by Cybis or by the other companies for whom he worked or designed.
He was born Harry L. Burger Jr. in Chattanooga, Tennessee on February 21, 1921, to his parents Harry and Bessie Burger; he would later be joined by at least four siblings. In September 1942, Harry enlisted in the Air Corps branch of the US Army and gave his most recent occupation as “stonecutter.” He was 21 years old, had completed four years of high school, and stood just about 5’6” tall.
We don’t know what civilian occupation Harry returned to after his military service, but it’s clear that he was still working in the arts. It’s also not known exactly when he first settled in New Jersey. In 1949 he visited The Cloisters museum in New York City, a treasure trove of art and architecture from the medieval period, and was particularly impressed by the Nine Heroes Tapestry which was woven in the early 1400s.
It is likely that he began doing freelance sculpting during this late 1940s-early 1950s period. Several molds sold by Trenton companies in the 1950s are in what would come to be known as the “Harry Burger style”: slightly elongated oval face with a decidedly pointed chin, eyes either closed or almost so, arms in positions suggestive of motion (in full figures), and long tapering well-separated fingers. The hands are always a focal point in a Burger design.
In the early 1960s he went to work as a designer for the Lenox China Company in Trenton; at this time he was in his early forties. In this capacity he not only designed many of their giftware items – including their iconic swan – but also went “on tour” to Lenox’s retailers for in-store events. An example is this May 1962 advertisement in the Cincinnati Enquirer:
Lenox Swan handcrafted while you watch! Mr. Harry Burger, master designer for Lenox, will conduct this fascinating demonstration in our Gift Shop, Fourth Floor. See every step in the process of fine china making. See the clays, the molds, the tools it takes to make an exquisite piece of Lenox. Mr. Burger will create the famous Lenox swan. You’ll see every phase of this creation … from clay to finished piece.
Or this, from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 1964:
Mr. Harry Burger, one of the foremost Lenox designers, will show you the many handcrafted operations that go into the making of Lenox. Starting with a sketch of a giftware item, Mr. Burger will follow it through showing how it is sculptured in clay, molded of plaster of Paris, and finally Mr. Burger, here today, Tuesday and Wednesday, will cast a piece of Lenox.
The exact years that Harry worked at Lenox are uncertain, or whether he was pursuing freelance projects at the same time. Several of his pieces were released by Cybis in both the 1950s and the 1970s, although not during the 1960s which may indicate that he was only designing for Lenox during that period. However, because he had a studio adjoining his Ewing, NJ home (which he designed and built) there would be nothing physically preventing him from continuing to do freelance commissions.
As the 1980s progressed and Harry passed through his sixties, retirement considerations led to his relocation from New Jersey to the warmer climes of Sarasota, Florida. It is likely that this took place in 1988, because a sales record shows that his New Jersey house was sold during that year, but he may have “snowbirded” between north and south for several years previously.
These two photos were taken in the late 1980s (possibly both in 1987) when Harry was in his mid-sixties. The lady in the lower photo is his friend Becky; Harry never married. Public records show that Harry L. Burger (Jr.) passed away on January 23, 2005 in Sarasota at the age of 84.
Cybis Sculptures by Harry Burger
Mathematically, there were more Cybis retail pieces by Harry Burger than he actually designed for them – as odd as that sounds. That’s because one of his earliest designs was subsequently ‘cannibalized’ for release as several stand-alone introductions. The Burger/Cybis pieces below are shown in roughly chronological order and were all open (non-limited) editions unless noted otherwise.
This unusual madonna bust is probably one of the earliest; it bears the typical blue Cybis name stamp from the early 1950s. It is almost 13” high and in painting and overall style it definitely fits into the Cordey-Cybis transitional period. I have only seen two of these ever come up for sale online; the other example has blonde hair and the blue is a slightly lighter color. It can be seen in the Early Madonnas post.
All indications point to Harry Burger having designed the Guardian Angel that Cybis produced in white bisque and various colors from 1954 to 1963. Additional examples can be seen in the Angels post. She is 12.5” high and was sold as a pair.
Another religious subject from the 1950s was Saint Theresa, here shown in white bisque although I have no doubt that she was made in glazed color as well. (If anyone has a photo of that version, please share! There is a contact form link at the bottom of this page.) This piece resides in the collection of the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, whom I sincerely thank for this photo.
These two unusual dancing sultans (as I call them) were amongst the studio-liquidation lots in 2019. Perhaps he is meant to be a whirling dervish? The painting on both is unfinished. These were probably done in the late 1950s and their style practically screams “Harry Burger” from the rooftops, er, minarets.
This madonna and child was actually produced by Cybis twice: at least one example (upper photo) in the late 1940s or early 1950s under their Cordey branding and – as far as we know – unnamed; and then again in 1957 as a Cybis retail piece titled House of Gold which was produced by them until 1965. Additional photos of this piece, which varied in appearance during those eight years, are shown in the Early Madonnas post.
This lovely piece, standing almost 17.5″ high, is the Walking Madonna who is a ‘sister sculpture’ to the House of Gold. Many thanks to the curators of the Cybis collection in the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton for this photo! I have a hunch that this piece may have slightly pre-dated the House of Gold.
Here’s where the ‘borrowing’ begins: the head and shoulders of the madonna shown above was taken from the mold, tweaked a bit in the veil area, and released in 1968 (after House of Gold was conveniently retired) as simply “Madonna” but what most collectors call the Madonna with Blue Veil. This colorway was only produced for one year and was likely retired in Spring 1969.
The studio then released the same piece in white bisque in 1969 (probably Fall; I do not have either of the 1969 price lists on hand) and again for only one production year, retiring it in 1970. My informal name for this version – because “madonna bust with blue veil in white” is simply too unwieldy! – is the “white tilt-head madonna bust.”
Harry’s House of Gold/Madonna with Blue Veil/Tilt-Head Madonna in white (whew!) made her final appearance in 1989 as – you guessed it – “Madonna bust”! Unlike the 1960s versions, this one didn’t come on a wood base. But, like them there was was a plain white bisque version and also this gold-trimmed one which was designated as the “color” option. Those that were actually made in 1989 will have the 50th Anniversary stamp added. It was still part of their retail offerings on their circa-2000s website but how many were made is debatable. Feel free to call her the 50th Anniversary Tilt-Head Madonna Bust, as I do. But good luck telling the white Anniversary one from a 1969-1970 white one who has lost her original wood base! In fact, I suspect that the ones offered in the 1990s were simply unsold backstock from that period.
During the studio’s liquidation in 2019, Harry’s infant Jesus from the House of Gold, made into a cherub on a cloud, was seen in one of the auction lots. It may have been briefly offered on their website or eBay in the early 2000s, or may be simply a test piece.
The same piece was on the studio’s website as the Cherub Ornament available with either a pink or blue ‘ribbon’ (indicated by the arrow) wrapped across the front. To be fair, in the early 1980s the studio employees had already modified this mold by adding wings and casting one as an ornament for their office Christmas tree (but had never issued it as a retail piece during that time.)
We need to fast-forward from 1957 to 1972 to find the next new Cybis introduction designed by Harry Burger. The first in that decade was, ironically, designed by him many years previously: the Chess Set.
The full story of the Chess Set and its three iterations (gift of state, retail edition, and Hall of Fame pieces) is told in its own post. As mentioned earlier, Harry actually designed and created clay models of the individual pieces shortly after his 1949 visit to The Cloisters; they are based on the characters he saw in the Nine Heroes Tapestry there. They remained in his home studio until the early 1970s when the Cybis studio proposed the idea of a porcelain chess set as the official gift of state from President Nixon to Russian Premier Brezhnev in 1972; Harry took his clay models out of the mothballs, as it were, and they were transformed into the necessary gift.
The elongated-oval, pointed-chin, closed-eyed face of the Queen is pure Harry Burger!A retail edition of 50 Commemorative Chess Sets was issued by Cybis in 1979. There are slight differences from the original 1972 set but only in color decoration; the molds are the same. See the Chess Set post for more details.
A November 1993 price list from Cybis includes the six chess pieces available as individual Hall of Fame replicas, downsized from the original molds but supposedly painted in the same colors as the 1972 Presidential set. They were on the studio’s website during the early 2000s but without any photos, and I have never seen an actual piece offered for sale. My guess is that these were introduced in either 1991 or 1992. If anyone happens to own any of them and would like to share a photo, there is a contact-form link at the bottom of this post.
A new Cybis Burger-designed sculpture debuted in the same year (1972) as the Chess Set: the Chinese Goddess ‘Kwan Yin’ was an edition of 750 which was later reduced to only 350. She is 13.5” high overall; additional views are found in the Mythology post. Her edition was completed in 1976.
In 1973 Cybis introduced two ballet sculptures from Swan Lake: The Enchanted Princess Aurora and the Enamoured Prince Florimund. Each had a final limited-edition size of 200 in 1978 and are 11.5” tall. Twelve pairs, supplied by the Cybis studio, once graced the tables at a White House state dinner in 1977.
The fact that we see no clearly-identifiable new Harry Burger designs in the Cybis lineup after these ballet figures is interesting, although that doesn’t mean he did not make any others for them. There could have been designs that the studio never put into production, for whatever reason. But we see that in terms of singular original Harry Burger designs for Cybis, there were only eight (if we count the chess set as a single design composed of multiple pieces), although the studio created 14 retail opportunities from those.
Other Harry Burger Designs
Harry is credited with designing the iconic Lenox swans in the early 1960s. They were offered in multiple sizes (3”, 6”, and 12” high) and price points ($5, $11, and $25) during that time.
It’s extremely likely that this Lenox madonna was designed by him as well; her face and hands are definitely his style. The stamp dates these to sometime in the 1950s.
This white bisque madonna and child is unusual, and not least because it was signed H. Burger and dated 56 in the greenware stage. I would not be at all surprised to someday discover a Cybis piece that looks exactly like this, not only because of the style but because the halo molds match two that have been seen on signed Cybis pieces from the same decade.
But what intrigues me even more is the madonna mold, because….
Except for some very minor detail around the eyes and hair, it is identical to one that Cybis did produce during the 1950s.
Lo and behold, here is yet another Cybis version, and with the same hands as on the Burger-signed piece, except that here the right and left hands are reversed (or vice versa, since the signed bust had to hold the baby.) The upper hand of this bust is the lower hand on the bisque one.
The baby is not the same mold that Harry used for what would later become the House of Gold, but it is similar. The porcelain base is not one that I have found on any Cybis or Cordey piece but it could have come from any source. The only remaining question whether Harry (a) created this from several molds that he designed for Cybis; or (b) cast this from molds that he designed for a local mold company (Holland, Atlantic, etc.) and which Cybis at some point decided to buy from them and use as they chose. It’s also possible that, if he did not have his own studio at home in 1956, he worked temporarily at the premises of whatever client he was designing for; in that case it would have been the Cybis studio on Church Street.
It would be interesting to find out more about the non-figural items that Harry Burger designed for Lenox in the 1960s. If anyone has additional information about specific pieces that he created for them or for any of the other Trenton-area porcelain firms (such as Boehm) or mold making companies (Holland, Atlantic, Schmid, etc.), I would welcome the opportunity to add those examples to his artist profile! There is a direct-contact link below.
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