When Minton & Company of Staffordshire exhibited a new line of ceramics at The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the firm called it Palissy ware. The name came from a 16th-century Frenchman named Bernard Palissy, whose vividly colored, high-relief, lead-glazed plates, platters, and pitchers had inspired Minton’s new, French-born art director, Léon Arnoux.
The word majolica was also used to describe the ware, since it had some commonalities with the tin-glazed 16th-century Spanish and Italian earthenware of the same name. But even though Palissy ware was a more accurate description of Minton’s new line, the work quickly became known as majolica.
Before long there was a majolica renaissance in Europe and the United States. A great deal of it was made in Italy by firms such as Ginori and Cantagalli. In Germany, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory was known for its majolica.
What these companies shared was a vocabulary of images and style that was at once exuberant and uniform. All used bright colors splashed on reliefs of plants and animals. This was fun ware for the common man, and it sold as quickly as Minton and others could produce it.
Naturally Wedgwood and other Staffordshire stalwarts wanted a piece of this action, even though Minton had about a 10-year head start. Predictably, Wedgwood majolica was more formal than Minton’s and used humor with restraint. While some potteries were producing teapots in the shapes of cauliflowers, Wedgwood stuck mostly to basket-weave patterns and relief foliage on the outsides of its standard shapes.
In the United States, a similar fascination with majolica took hold around the same time as the Minton debut. As in England, potteries coated their ware with clear glazes, so that the pieces positively shined. Griffen, Smith & Hill was one prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”
Other American companies known for their majolica in the second half of the 19th century were Morrison & Carr, Chesapeake Pottery, and Edwin Bennett. They produced relish dishes,...
One of the most popular majolica forms was the pitcher, which was sometimes designed to appear as if it had been formed from vertical slices of wide bamboo, with more slender bamboo branches employed for the pitcher’s handle. Other pitchers resembled ears of corn, while syrup containers were routinely festooned with fat sunflowers or clusters of lily leaves and flowers.
There were platters and plates, or course, with leaf-shaped plates being a collectible subcategory all its own (begonia leaves were especially popular). Sardine boxes and cigarette holders were also produced—many were topped by African-American figurals, known then as now as blackamoors. And animals from bulldogs to pigs were deemed the perfect shapes within which to store tobacco.
If there was a dark side to the sunny look of majolica it was the process of making it. In 19th-century America, young girls did much of the painting, usually earning as little as 25 cents for a 12-hour day. This was well before child-labor laws, so the idea that these children were expected to work long hours and handle lead glazes was not seriously questioned until the first part of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the difficult conditions produced work that was often sloppy, as anyone who has seen a majolica vase with colors radically out of register or running down the side can attest.
By the 1890s, the majolica craze was ending in the United States—the technique looked a bit too baroque compared to the ascendant Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. While majolica persisted in Europe, pieces from the 20th century are generally thinner and feature less dramatic relief than those from the century before, which makes them less interesting to collectors.
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Auctions & FairsIrish Times, April 17th
A Victorian “Egyptian Revival” majolica (glazed earthenware pottery) garden seat €4,000 (€200-€300); a pair of Georgian mahogany bookcases €3,800 (€4,000-€7,000); a Wedgewood dinner service in the “Kutami” pattern €1,050 (€250-€350); a document ...Read more
Excavations at the RailyardSanta Fe New Mexican, April 17th
Almost 95 percent of the finds were sherds of historic Pueblo ceramics, but there were also sheep, goat, and cow bones; glass and metal Euroamerican artifacts; majolica; a glass bead; a square-cut nail; and other items. Badner said the midden showed ...Read more
Greater Morristown weekend preview: Gardens of Earthly DelightsMorristown Green, April 16th
More than 40 antique dealers from five states are coming; look for automobile collectibles, early American and Victorian furniture, Lionel trains, stoneware, rare books and prints, 19th century vintage prints, porcelain, Majolica, Roseville, Daltons...Read more
Treasured Possessions, Fitzwiliam Museum, review: 'genuinely original'Telegraph.co.uk, April 13th
And so, as herbs and spices from America and the Far East began to be sold in large quantities in 16th century Europe, apothecaries presented their wares in wonderfully embellished majolica vessels. To reassure customers that they were getting what...Read more
I must be getting oldDaily Local News, April 10th
There are exhibits on the Lenni-Lenape Indians, early agriculture, majolica pottery, abolition, Lincoln University, women's rights and several other subjects. Local conventional artists including Barclay Rubincam and Horace Pippin are also featured...Read more
Bacall's EffectsLondon Review of Books (subscription) (blog), April 10th
'Going from room to room,' she writes in her 1994 memoir, Now, 'I am faced with one or more of my collections, my follies: books, pewter, brass, Delft, majolica, tables, chairs, things… how did it happen, the acquiring of all this, the accumulation of...Read more
Fine Majolica at AuctionMaine Antique Digest, February 23rd
At the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in Hyde Park, London, Herbert Minton introduced Victorian majolica, a new line of ceramics based on Renaissance designs and natural forms with rich lead-glazed colors: bright green, yellow, turquoise, and deep...Read more
Marvellous majolicaTelegraph.co.uk, September 29th
Twenty five years ago, in Britain, majolica was seriously unfashionable. Most ceramic dealers and collectors ignored it, feeling that this flamboyant expression of High Victorian taste was totally out of step with minimalist "modern" aesthetics. Not so...Read more