The Evolution of a Cybis Porcelain Turtle

If Charles Darwin had regarded the Galapagos tortoises from a commercial, rather than environmental, evolutionary standpoint, one wonders whether his theories would have ended up reaching quite the same conclusions as they did! All kidding aside, I recently discovered a fascinating ‘evolution’ of a turtle mold within the confines of the Cybis studio. This particular testudine has five known ‘generations’ thus far.

Generation #1 (The Natural Turtle)

The Cybis turtle family tree began in the early 1970s – probably 1973 or 1974 – when Marylin Chorlton brought a live eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) into the studio one day for observation. This species of turtle is very common in New Jersey, ranging in size from four to nine inches long and often found in both wild and suburban areas and so it’s quite possible that she found the turtle in the studio’s own courtyard garden.

Box turtle coloration combines a dark brown, black, and yellow shell with piercing red (males) or yellow (females) eyes. Each turtle has its own individual shell pattern, much like snowflakes. All of the shells shown in this photo are Eastern box turtles.

A couple of the Cybis artists worked quickly to take a ‘life casting’ of the turtle before it retreated into its shell as a protective measure. And yes, the turtle was returned unharmed to the location from whence it came.

This is a white bisque-fired casting made from the resulting master mold. Because the colorful pattern is not present, the actual striations of the shell itself are now visible (although not easy to photograph). Notice how detailed the scales on the turtle’s neck and legs are. A noticeable difference between the Cybis piece and the actual turtle is the claws; on a real turtle they are longer, and curved somewhat like a cat’s claws. This would be impractical on a porcelain item and so they’ve been shortened. That said, female turtles have shorter claws although probably not as short as this.

This original/first-generation piece is 2.5” high, 6.25” from beak to tail tip, and 4” at the widest point which is the back legs. The width of the shell is 3” across the midpoint.

I must mention here that the Eastern box turtle, although ‘common’, is listed as an endangered species in one state (Maine) and as “of special concern” in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, downstate New York, and Michigan. Therefore, people should not remove box turtles from their natural habitat (even temporarily) or disturb them when found in suburban areas. Do not keep them as pets or relocate a turtle to an area other than where it was originally found. In fact, gardeners should welcome seeing a box turtle because slugs and snails (which do serious damage to plant foliage) are among their favorite foods!

Generation #2 (The Decorated-Shell Turtle)

Thanks to a gift from a generous former Cybis artist, I recently became the proud owner of not only a white bisque example but also this one-of-a-kind turtle whose shell was designed and painted by George Ivers. He is best known for his Limnettes which were done at about the same time as the turtle mold was first made.
While the soft parts (legs, head and tail) of the turtle remain the same, this turtle’s shell mold was sculpted in order to add a beautiful starburst pattern in relief. The main body color is a mint green with touches of yellow-green. What my camera fails to capture is that the wider arms of the ’stars’ are metallic gold, and the diamond-shaped tips are shiny bronze along the center row and metallic gold along the sides. The pattern itself was probably inspired by the natural shell pattern of the living turtle species.My turtle had lost two end claws before he came to me, but that’s okay – I still think he’s adorable! Because of his color, I’ve named him Kermit in spite of the fact that he’s not a frog.

What I don’t know is whether Kermit has any differently-decorated siblings, courtesy of Mr. Ivers or other artists at the studio. Given George Ivers’ penchant for creating amazingly-detailed decorations and small painted items for friends and fellow artists, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Kermit is signed Cybis on the underside, and also dated 1974 in pencil. This particular decorated-shell turtle mold was never created or offered as a retail piece. His dimensions are identical to the white bisque piece because the only alteration was the surface of the shell, and color.

Generation #3 (Turtle ‘The Baron’)

The first retail version of the Cybis turtle (and the third generation of its evolution) appeared as a Spring 1975 introduction in the studio’s new ‘Caprice Collection’ of fanciful decorative items. These were all designed by George Ivers although never publicly identified as such by the studio.
Titled Turtle ‘The Baron’ and selling for $75, he was described in one Cybis catalog as

The Baron, whose great grandsire is still remembered in sporting circles as the winner of that fabled Grand Prix of Aesop…. [and] who is currently seen with his houseguest, the youngest scion of the Emerald-Green Frog family.

Although he may not appear so at first glance, The Baron was created from the first turtle mold. The rear legs and tail were removed, and the top of the shell smoothed out although the faint striations along the rectangular edge sections can still be seen. New decorative sculpting was added to the top of the shell, as was a new separate small frog mold to perch atop it. This same frog mold will appear again, on the 1989 introduction Water Lily with Frog. Notice the use of the same soft light green as on Kermit, although less of it.
The original neck was removed, leaving the head to be attached to the very front edge of the shell opening by ‘folds’ of porcelain. Both ends of the front legs were cut off, leaving only the section between the original knee and ankle joints; this was repositioned horizontally and some long claws were added to the exposed end. Although this position may look awkward, it actually is the way a turtle holds its front legs when in a resting pose – neither fully inside its shell nor fully extended for standing or walking.

The Baron is 3” high, 5” from nose to tail tip, and 3.5” wide (according to Cybis literature.) Compared to the original turtle mold, the extra height is from the frog, and the shorter length is due to the elimination of the tail, front legs, and neck. The Baron was produced for only two years (1975-1977) according to the 1978 Cybis catalog appendix; he does appear on the Fall 1977 and Spring 1978 price lists as Retired although at a price of $95 rather than the $75 that the 1978 catalog states.

Generation #4 (Marigold)

The fourth generation/iteration/version of the original turtle mold appeared in Spring 1977; on that list, the entire five-piece Caprice Collection is marked as “Retired” and a new Collection (the eventual insanity that the Cybis collection format became is related here) entitled Land of Chimeric appeared with two pieces: Marigold and Tiffin.

Marigold is a fairy riding on a now-familiar turtle. For this generation Cybis went back to the original mold: Everything, including the striation patterns on the shell, was left intact and the only addition is the tasseled carpet and the fairy atop it. For this piece Cybis has ditched the original green in favor of turquoise, gold, and pink. In my opinion, it’s a shame that the Marigold figure was not better done; her hands and feet have no detail and look unfinished (like mittens); this spoils part of what would otherwise be an exquisitely-detailed piece. I mean, seriously: fairies need fingers! Because George Ivers designed this series also, I am surprised that he was okay with the lack of detail on that part of this sculpture.

Marigold’s introduction price was $185, and her dimensions are given as 5” high and 7.5” long. The length cited, being 1” longer than the original mold but with nothing ‘added’ in that plane, is surprising and I can’t account for it. Perhaps it was an uncorrected typo for 6.5″.

The 1978 Cybis catalog has a page devoted to this new collection and has two references to Marigold. The caption under the Cybis photo says

When the early morning sun
Is on the violet and the myrtle,
Marigold goes riding out
On a garland-cushioned Turtle.

This is a little confusing because, as you can see, there are no flower or foliage garlands in evidence on the actual sculpture! Maybe the copy writer thought that “carpet-cushioned” sounded too utilitarian?

Marigold is also mentioned in the text:

Early mornings Marigold rides out on her panoplied turtle – gift from her renowned uncle, The Baron.

Okay, let’s be picky and point out that there should be a comma after mornings, and that it should be “a gift”, not just gift. Panoplied actually is accurate as far as the decoration goes, because one definition of that word is “in ceremonial attire.” But wait a second…. a fairy has a turtle for an uncle? Exactly how does that work, er, genetically? I hope the copy writer meant to say that the turtle that Marigold is riding is related to The Baron, rather than Marigold herself!

Like The Baron, both Marigold and Tiffin were only made for two years (1977-1979) although their sudden disappearance is rather odd. They both appear on the Fall 1979 price list, with no indication that they had been retired; yet on the Spring 1980 price list they are nowhere to be seen.

Marigold was the second and final retail appearance of the Cybis turtle, although there was one other iteration.

Generation #5 (Girl Riding on Tortoise)

I first spotted this version in 2017, when a former Cybis employee sent me some snapshots that were taken inside the studio during the early to mid-1980s. One photo of some shelving showed a piece that, at first, I did not even know was actually a Cybis.
This is a zoomed portion of the shelf section. You can see that this is a young girl riding on a turtle. Just to the left of it is a First Born, Virginia Dare. Because it was very common for Marylin Chorlton to bring various items into the studio for inspiration or modification, these shelves were filled with items that were not just Cybis pieces but could be items from anywhere.

At the time, I did not connect the girl-on-turtle with any existing Cybis piece and assumed that it was something obtained from elsewhere. Given that First Born is eight inches high, and this turtle piece is taller, I estimated the girl/turtle height at nine inches and promptly forgot all about it.

Until I saw this item within a mixed lot of studio-liquidation-auction pieces in 2019 and realized that it must be the same piece as in the 1980s photo. However, the back legs are now missing (assuming that they were there originally.) The shell is clearly the same as the box turtle mold but the head and neck are different, and the front legs are fatter and swollen-looking.

The lot was won by the Museum of American Porcelain Art, who kindly gave me permission to use their photograph of it. From this angle, the awkwardness of the front legs is even more apparent and puzzling. Could this have been the actual first mold from the live turtle, with the front part re-worked to make it more attractive?

I scoured Google front-end photos of box turtles to see if I could determine which mold was the ‘natural’ one, and found the answer: This particular Cybis version is meant to be a tortoise, not a turtle – which makes perfect sense, given that the rider in this instance is a human child rather than a fairy! Even the color matches that of a tortoise rather than a turtle.

Here are two actual giant tortoises (Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa) from the Seychelles Islands. You can see that the shape and posture of their legs matches the Cybis piece almost exactly. The tortoise on the left is named Jonathan and he is the world’s oldest tortoise – he will be 190 this year, and is also the oldest land animal alive. He now lives on the island of St. Helena; I hope he makes it to 200, don’t you?

But getting back to the Cybis piece: We don’t know when the original front legs of the box turtle mold were re-worked to make them look like a tortoise’s, other than that it had to have been sometime between 1974 and 1985. The rider offers a clue, because stylistically she resembles some of the Children to Cherish pieces designed by freelance artist Dolores Valenza between 1977 and 1980. This particular mold was not used for any retail piece, but I would bet a box of Godiva that there was a ‘children on a see-saw’ somewhere along the line that never made it to a retail introduction; the girl’s posture is exactly what would be needed for that.

Another thing I’m not sure of is the original neck mold. It’s possible that this one (short neck) was how the original casting turned out, but was then elongated so that the Generation #1/#2/#4 mold would have an upright head. It’s also possible that more than one life casting was taken, and the turtle’s head was in a different position the second time. It certain that the scales on the legs, head and neck became more defined during the normal clean-up process of mold production; the life casting would not have been this sharp and clear initially.

The Girl Riding on Tortoise is not dated, but has a Cybis name stamp on the underside. This is not an indication of age. As explained in this post, when Theresa Chorlton was consigning items to the liquidation auctioneer, an old 1950s Cybis rubber stamp was found somewhere and was used to apply the Cybis name in black to any item that didn’t already have a painted signature on it. It was easier to do that than to hire someone to come in and properly paint the signature in brown on any unsigned pieces.

And so, here we have the evolution of a Cybis turtle over what probably was a five- or six-year period, starting as a box turtle and quite possibly ending up as a giant tortoise ridden by a child. I wonder what Charles Darwin would have made of that?! 🙂

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