By Karen Parr-Moody
The Victorians were obsessed — obsessed — with natural forms of all stripes. So when majolica, a soft-bodied earthenware, took natural forms from corn to cauliflower and molded them in low or high relief decoration, hearts were set aflutter.
As a bonus, this tabletop ware was finished in a wide array of vibrant colors using a lead or tin glaze, which merely added to the allure. The resulting look was unmistakable — and to this day, majolica is easily recognizable and much desired.
Majolica was first introduced by Minton & Company (also, Minton Ltd.) at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. Modeled in relief, early Minton designs focused on Renaissance motifs, such as lions, rams, and mythological figures. The wares were originally called “Palissy ware” after a French Renaissance potter, Bernard Palissy. He had created pottery colored in a naturalistic manner that included such forms as snakes, lizards and shellfish.
The name “Palissy ware” did not stick, however, and the tableware came to be called majolica. This term had its roots in the name of the Spanish island, Majorca (or “Maiorca”), which was a port for similar glazed wares being sent from Spain to Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Majolica’s designs grew to dovetail with the Victorian interest in the natural sciences; pieces featured butterflies, insects, flowers, leaves, fruit, shells, animals and fish. Then there were the many raised vegetable patterns, along with fruit, leaf, and berry patterns. The range of rich glazes included green, yellow, pink, pale blue, brown, and purple.
Wedgwood followed Minton’s early entry into the majolica market within 10 years, and issued a more formal collection that included cachepots, umbrella stands, pitchers, candlesticks, sardine boxes, plates, and more. The photo, above right, is of a shell dish by Wedgwood that would have arrived during the 1870s ($159.95; Booth B-219). Wedgwood was known for its low relief patterning, as seen in this dish.
In addition to the naturalistic shapes that formed the more intricate vessels, such as teapots, there were serving platters and an array of leaf-shaped plates. This niche of majolica includes the trademark foliage of ferns, maples, and oaks. Begonia motifs, such as the platter seen in the photo, above left, remain particularly popular today ($149; Booth B-200). According to the “Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica,” smaller begonia plates were originally used to hold pickles or relish.
Fortunately for collectors, some majolica can be affordable. What is not to love about this majolica teacup and saucer, photo right, selling for a mere $39 (Booth B-200)? The blending of the brown and white looks as delicious as a dessert, and the flowers molded in high relief on both the cup and saucer are simply darling. And since a popular form of early majolica was the teapot and its accoutrements, such a duo fits in with the Victorian spirit.
In 1827 the first friction match was sold, releasing people from using the inconvenient flint and steel to start any form of fire. Soon afterward, people needed a device to keep the matches safe and available for ready use, and that’s when match strikers hit the scene. While they were common objects, they could also be decorative in addition to being utilitarian. Such is the case with this majolica version of a little man and his rather large boot ($49; Booth B-200). Majolica wares have long been found in every room of a house, from the library to the conservatory. This fellow would most certainly have found his way into a billiard or smoking room of days gone by, along with the ashtrays, cigar boxes and tobacco boxes.
The vintage majolica plate in the photo, right, features a glossy pear and is from the Sarreguemines maker in France ($39.95 B-219). Over the years, majolica potters have spanned many countries. In addition to Minton and Wedgwood, the English group included George Jones, Joseph Holdcroft, T.C. Brown, Westhead, Moore & Co., William Brownfield, Copeland, S. Fielding, and Worcester Royal Porcelain. A large amount was made in Italy by the firms Ginori and Cantagalli. In Germany, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory was in on the act. And in America, Griffen, Smith and Hill pottery produced some of the more collectible works.
Today collectors know that majolica is a fragile by nature of its soft earthenware base, and few pieces have survived without some minor flea bites. But no matter: People still enjoy owning these treasures of beauty that marry whimsy, rich color and a sense of humor.