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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Recent News: Majolica
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Historical Society of Phoenixville Area to host special program on Aug. 7The Times Herald, July 28th
Afterward, you may enjoy the exhibit Majolica: Phoenixville's Victorian Pottery, which includes historic details regarding Majolica and rare pieces that have been recently added to their collection. The museum is open First Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. and...Read more
Sicily's City of Ceramics, a millennia of maiolicaHome Accents Today (blog), July 28th
Two weeks ago I joined a group of U.S. retailers in Sicily for a tour of the ceramic artists and factories of Caltagirone, Italy's "City of Ceramics," where Sicily ceramics youtube video tin-glazed majolica and terra cotta products have been produced...Read more
Faces of Americana and an actress's collectionBoston Globe, July 24th
The expected top selling decorative item is a pair of 1920s Italian majolica life-size figures of Great Danes ($20,000-$30,000). They were formerly in the collection of John Ringling of the Ringling Brothers Circus, who displayed the black-spotted...Read more
A Sleek Home at British Museum for Ferdinand's GiftNew York Times, July 22nd
but designed so that the viewer can get close and appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship of all the pieces — from enameled caskets and silver-gilt sculptures to majolica urns painted with mythological scenes and richly detailed goblets, ewers and...Read more
Dolce & Gabbana's midsummer masterpieces at Alta Moda show in PortofinoThe National, July 18th
The frivolity carried on into the early hours, with ladies resplendent in foulard print dresses, charmeuse gowns depicting scenes from Portofino and striking blue-and-white majolica numbers. Guests returned to their hotels via luxury Riva speedboats...Read more
A cozy cottage getaway in the cityDallas Morning News, July 17th
I wanted upholstered walls and wallpaper. The 8-foot ceilings were perfect for me. I don't need 9-foot or 10-foot ceilings.” Collecting antique furnishings and porcelain has long been a passion for Woody. “All my collections started with one majolica...Read more
Wallace, Renee L.Madison.com, July 16th
She enjoyed knitting, collecting majolica pottery, reading, and the color red. Renee is survived by her husband, David; daughters, Avery and Halley Wallace of Fitchburg; mother, Carol Marcott of Delafield; brothers, Randy (Cheri) Marcott of New Berlin...Read more
Witherell's summer auction includes items from Sutter Creek antique shopSacramento Bee, July 9th
A preview of an extensive collection of items being sold from the former Klima's Antiques shop in Sutter Creek will be held Saturday at the warehouse of Sacramento-based auction house Witherell's. The preview will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to...Read more