Majolica’s Natural Beauty

By Karen Parr-Moody

 

 

Perhaps no other pottery marries natural grace with whimsy, rich color – and a sense of humor – as well as Victorian majolica.

 

Taking natural forms, including such humble vegetables as corn and cauliflower, and coaxing them into tabletop works of art was a claim of majolica. This porous earthenware was molded into decorative patterns, and then decorated in vivid colors using a lead or tin glaze. The resulting trademark look – as seen in this cauliflower tea set at GasLamp – is easily recognizable (photo, right; tea set includes creamer, bowl, two dessert plates, two cups and saucers; $295, Booth B-211).

 

Majolica was first introduced by Minton & Company (also, Minton Ltd.) at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. This was, of course, a time when all aspects of Victoriana were popular, including massive volumes of tableware for every imaginable mealtime desire. Modeled in relief, early Minton designs focused on Renaissance motifs, such as lions, rams, and mythological figures. 

 

First called “Palissy ware,” majolica was named for a French Renaissance potter, Bernard Palissy, whose success had been with a rustic style of pottery colored in a naturalistic manner that included such forms as snakes, lizards and shellfish.

 

The name that stuck, however, was 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.

 

The Victorian majolica “revival” prompted a frenzy. The pottery designs grew to dovetail with the Victorian interest in the natural sciences; pieces featured butterflies, insects, flowers, leaves, fruit, shells, animals and fish.

 

The “cauliflower” pattern, popular with British and American potters, was joined by other raised vegetable patterns, along with fruit, leaf, and berry patterns. The range of rich glazes included green, yellow, pink, pale blue, brown, and purple.

 

A popular form was the teapot, and of course, its accoutrements. Many such designs had handles fashioned to look like tree branches or vines, as seen in this sugar bowl (photo, left, pink and green sugar bowl, $59, Booth B-106). But as majolica existed during the Victorian era, the array of forms was seemingly inexhaustible.

 

Wedgwood followed Minton’s early entry into the majolica market by 10 years, and issued a more formal collection that included cachepots, umbrella stands, pitchers, candlesticks, sardine boxes, plates, and more. These wares have a low relief patterning, often of basketwork or foliage. Rather than outright mimicry of vegetable forms, for example, Wedgwood would often use foliage intermixed with other patterns to cover a standard shape of ware.

 

In addition to the naturalistic shapes that formed the more intricate vessels, there were platters and plates, of course. Leaf-shaped plates have proven to be a collectible niche. Trademark foliage includes that of ferns, maples, and oaks. Begonia plates, as those seen here, remain particularly popular; according to the “Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica,” this piece was originally used as a pickle or relish dish (photo, right, begonia leaf majolica plates, top, $78, bottom, $85; both at Booth B-106).

 

The array of majolica potters spanned the continents. 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.

 

Of the American makers, Griffen, Smith and Hill pottery produced some of the most collectible works from 1879 to 1892. It was known for its “shell and seaweed” pattern. This firm’s pieces are sometimes marked with “G.S.H.” or labeled as “Etruscan Pottery.”

 

By 1900, the burgeoning Arts and Crafts and Arts Nouveau styles pushed majolica to the outskirts in the U.S., where it was deemed too baroque. The European pieces from the 20th century are less collectible than those of majolica’s Victorian heyday.

 

With a glance at auction sites, such as christies.com, one will discover that majolica prices can start in the low thousands and go up to $20,000. Oyster plates, one of the trademark pieces, can be expensive, as can intricate or rare pieces, such as quatrefoil cake baskets, dressing mirrors, or garden seats. 

 

Fortunately for collectors who search at GasLamp, majolica can still be found to be affordable. The charming purple tulip plates, shown at left, go for $18 each (Booth B-106). And the simple asparagus plate, below right, is a mere $25 (Booth B-142).

 

Additionally, collectors know that majolica is a fragile by nature of its soft earthenware base, and few pieces have survived without some minor flea bites. They still enjoy owning a piece of such beauty.

Print this page