A look at the design, market and legacy of Victorian pottery

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

James Beard: the Dean of Chef Majolica Collectors

James Beard
Say the name James Beard to most people under 40 and you’re likely to get a blank stare. That’s a shame. In the last half of the 20th century James Beard was one of a small group of influential writers who transformed the way people thought about American cuisine.

Born in Oregon in 1903 Beard began his education at Reed College. After being expelled from college for his open homosexuality he moved to New York and began to seek work as an actor. Things being what they were during the depression he found it difficult supporting himself with his acting work, so with a friend he began a catering company, Hors D’Oeuvre Inc., to capitalize on the growing NY social scene. In 1940, Beard began his career as a food writer publishing his first cookbook, Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés based on his catering experience. After a stint in the United Seamen's Service, Beard used his minor celebrity as a caterer to create his own TV show I Love to Eat in 1946, the first national television cooking program. He soon developed a reputation as a specialist in American food. In 1955 he opened the James Beard School.

James Beard c. 1930
Beard's first book Hors D’Oeuvre and Canapés
Beard on the set of his TV show "I Love to Eat"
Through the 50s, 60s and 70s he became a fixture in American pop culture. Besides being a champion of American comfort food he believed in using the freshest ingredients and newest methods of food preparation. He was the first serious chef to advocate the use of the food processor and pioneered the farm-to-table movement. In 1981 he helped establish City Meals on Wheels to feed the homeless and housebound elderly in NYC. Regular appearances on television and in magazines as well as more than 20 new cookbooks kept him in the public eye until the 80s when his health began to fail him. He died in 1985 in his home in Greenwich Village of congestive heart failure. By the time of his death he was known as the Dean of American Cookery. In his will he directed that his belongings be sold and the proceeds donated to Reed College, the college that expelled him 60 years earlier.

When his belongings came to auction at Doyle galleries, Beard's collection of decorative arts became a sensation. Among these was a large collection of English, Portuguese and American majolica. This came as no surprise to his friends who were often treated to elaborate meals in his home. It also came as no surprise to readers of his cookbooks. In 1965 Beard published Menus For Entertaining which featured some of his majolica in the photos. On the cover he displayed two of his game terrines. Inside he had a full set of Wedgwood dessert wares and some of his palissy pieces.

Cover of Beard's 1965 book Menus for Entertaining
An image from the cookbook showing a Wedgwood desert set
In total 60 lots of majolica were sent to auction.

Doyle catalog of the Beard estate
Page from catalog showing a Holdcroft dolphin compote PHOTO:Doyle
Wedgwood strawberry pieces and English corn pieces  PHOTO:Doyle
English majolica pieces  PHOTO:Doyle
Three Majolica Palissy pieces sold for $3100  PHOTO:Doyle
Minton game terrine from the cookbook cover sold for $350  PHOTO: Doyle
This continental corn tureen brought the highest price for a
single piece of majolica at the auction–$4000  PHOTO:  Doyle
Beard had two partial Wedgwood dessert services with dolphin
stands–one with shells another with reticulated borders
Among the lots was a set of eight Minton fish plates which sold for $3500
A pair of Sarreguemines dolphin vases sold for $1700
Also included were a fish platter for $2100; a pair of garden seats, $2300; and a Minton tiered oyster server, $1800.

Julia Child and James Beard.
After his death, good friend Julia Child felt it was important to maintain Beard's legacy. The James Beard Foundation was founded by Child and teacher Peter Kump, founder of the New York Cooking School, in Beard's 12th Street Greenwich Village home. Its mission is to honor chefs and restaurants who advance the celebration of American cuisine. To win a James Beard award is one of the most prestiges honors in the culinary world. The foundation also sponsors scholarships and hosts charity dinners for members who can eat at the James Beard house.

The James Beard House
In retrospect it's easy to see what a strong influence he had in the development and presentation of contemporary food. Without James Beard there would have never been a Julia Child. Without Julia Child there would never have been a Martha Stewart. Without Martha Stewart there would never have been an entire industry of home caterers, party planners and TV food personalities. His influence reaches far and wide even today, 34 years after his passing.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Twins Separated at Birth: 2

As we saw in the first edition of Twins Separated at Birth, attribution in ceramics can be a tricky subject. Unless a piece is actually marked you can never be sure which pottery produced it. Majolica was produced for such a long time that factories often copied the work of other potteries. This is more common among the smaller potteries but it occasionally happened with larger potteries as well. One well documented example is this figural of two cherubs carrying a barrel. The design certainly originated with Minton and was made in several versions including a version with each cherub on its own. They have all the design attributes of Minton. Yet the design was also successfully copied by Holdcroft. The Holdcroft version included a flower frog which made clear the intended use as a centerpiece. The Minton versions could be used for anything. I've never seen one with a flower frog from Minton though they may have made them. Both potteries signed their work and used glazes distinctive to their factories, leaving no question to the attribution.

Minton version with cherubs holding an oval barrel

Minton version with cherubs holding a round barrel

Minton example that substitutes a shell for the barrel

Holdcroft version with a round barrel and flower frog

Another commonly seen twin is the rope and acanthus leaf cheese bell. These are generally attributed to Forester but the original was registered by Joseph Roth, London. When Roth folded after just a few years in production Forester purchased their majolica molds. The Roth examples are marked; the Forester examples of the same design were not. However we know Forester made the piece because it appears in advertising from the company catalog. In addition to Forester other companies copied the design as well including the Bendigo Pottery of Australia.

Roth fern and rope cheese bell

Underside of Roth fern and rope cheese
Bendigo Pottery fern and rope (PHOTO: MAAS)
Another well known piece, the monumental Wedgwood fish platter, has its own twins but the makers are unknown. The MIS has suggested that one of the makers may be Holdcroft but I have never seen one marked as such. The quality is variable on these though it is often quite as good as the Wedgwood original.

Wedgwood salmon fish platter
Holdcroft(?) salmon fish platter (PHOTO: MIS)

Unmarked fish platter

One commonly found majolica twin is the Copeland cauliflower teapot but in this case the twin, made by the Etruscan Works of Phoenixville, PA is more well known than the Copeland original. Very popular with collectors the GSH designers created a complete service of dessert wares around the teapot. To the best of my knowledge matching pieces were not made for the Copeland original.

Copeland majolica cauliflower teapot

Etruscan majolica cauliflower teapot

Etruscan cauliflower set, including a similar Wedgwood cauliflower teapot in back

Since we're discussing Etruscan twins the GSH bird and iris teaset is a slightly altered twin of Forester's own bird and iris teaset.

GSH bird and iris teaset

Forester bird and iris teaset

With an English designer–most likely Hamlet Bourne of Staffordshire–the Etruscan Works copied many original British designs creating American twins of their English cousins. Even the most famous Etruscan piece, their baseball pitcher, is an adaptation of Wedgwood's cricket jug.

Wedgwood original, left and its American cousin on the right

Among the other "twins" of European majolica created by the Etruscan Works are the E-3 butterfly pitcher after a jug by Forester; the lily dessert stand; the C-7 geranium cake tray; the E-12 corn pitcher from a BWM original; the C-11 strawberry server from a Wedgwood original; the E-5 corn creamer; the K-2 cow butter from a GJ original; the N-14 sardine dish also from a GJ original; the E-1 straight side jug from a Wedgwood original; the Asian peasant plate from a Choisy Le Roi original; the A-6 pansy pat from a Copeland pat; the A-1 pond lily pat from a GJ original; and the A-7-2 pat. Many of these copies were specifically intended to undercut the sales of the more expensive imported versions.

GSH E-3 pitcher

Forester butterfly lip jug

Other copies exist from other potteries of course but if I were to list them all I'd be here all day. Still, this gives a good idea how common the practice of "twinning"was.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Majolica Smokers

In the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century majolica smoking paraphernalia was one of the leading products made by pottery companies. Particularly popular on the Continent, German, French and Austrian potters were always looking for novel ways to appeal to this large smoking audience. One of the most whimsical products created was the figural smoker. Often mistaken for match strikers by today’s collector these smokers proved to be an amusing alternative to the ashtrays and smoking sets available in such quantity.

The idea behind the smoker was quite simple. At the base there was a large enclosed ash tray for the smoker to place their lit cigar, pipe or cigarette. Above this there was usually a figure of some sort with an open mouth. The smoke would rise from the ashtray and come out through the figure’s mouth giving the illusion of the figure exhaling smoke. Most frequently the figure would be something completely inappropriate like an anthropomorphic animal or a child to add to the amusement. Most of these smokers were unmarked so we don’t have an idea who actually made them, the exception being WS&S who marked most of their wares and carried large lines of smoking paraphernalia.

WS&S cat smoker

Now smoking paraphernalia isn’t as popular a collectible as it once was as society has turned away from tobacco products for health reasons but the legacy left by these potters continues to provide amusement to collectors savvy enough to pick these up when they come across them.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Majolica of Joseph Roth, London

The impressed mark of JRL for Joseph Roth London is one of the rarest and most mysterious in the English pottery collecting world. Very little is known about the concern. It has not been verified if this is a successor to Whitman & Roth which potted some majolica in the early 1870s.  It's even been theorized by Bergeson that Roth was not a potter but a retailer who commissioned work from another pottery. What we do know about Roth is that he was in business a scant six years from 1877 to 1882. In that brief time he registered seven original majolica designs, two of which went on to be among the most copied Majolica designs during the Victorian period thanks, no doubt, to the Forester Pottery who purchased the company’s molds after the company failed.

The best known of the Roth designs is the flat sided teapot. This pot has roots in Japanese design but in the Roth version is decorated with wild roses. The design has been copied and elaborated on by many different potteries so unless the piece has the JRL logo on the base there is no guarantee that Roth is the manufacturer.

Roth design teapot

Another well known design is the Fern and Rope cheese bell. This is a common pattern due to the large number of copies made by Forester who purchased the Roth molds after the close of Roth's London concern. I have also seen this design on pitchers though I suspect that is not a Roth original.

Roth fern and rope cheese bell
Mark on the underside of Roth cheese bell

One of the most whimsical pieces potted by Roth is their monkey and coconut tea set.

Roth three piece monkey and coconut tea set
An unusual design made by Roth is a pattern reproduced extensively by Choisy-Le-Roi and Villeroy & Boch. The Roth examples have exceptionally fine workmanship as opposed to the continental examples whose workmanship varies from excellent to poor.

Other designs made by Roth include a whimsical pair of wall pockets in the form of bird nests, overlapping begonia leaf plate and small leaf trays.

Roth wall pockets
Roth marked plate probably served as an underplate for a hollow ware piece

Roth leaf trays
Underside mark of JRL on leaf tray
Roth begonia plate