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

Friday, August 13, 2010

The St. George Fountain

It's really rather sad that the finest piece of majolica that ever existed is lost forever.
Built in 1862, it charmed viewers for 64 years before the English climate, pollution and neglect took their toll, demanding its dismantling. 

The St. George Fountain, created for the 1862 London Exhibition was the ultimate majolica creation. Modeled by sculptor John Thomas for Minton, the fountain was made of majolica and stone and stood 39 feet tall and 36 feet in diameter. It was made of 369 separate parts, carefully assembled in London's Exhibition Hall court over a period of two months, covering 1521 square feet of floor space.

The top piece was a sculpture of St. George slaying a dragon. This figure was supported by four winged victories holding crowns of laurel wreaths around the main support column inscribed with the motto: "For England and For Victory."

Below this were four alternating smaller fountains, two of lions holding coats of arms and two of grouped griffins.

Below this, and surrounding the main tower of the fountain, were four figures of Aphrodite holding shells above their heads, each kneeling in a shell held aloft by herons. This part of the design was originally created a few years earlier for use in the Royal Dairy, shown below, and was copied for the St. George piece.

Surrounding the entire piece was a pool decorated by wreaths of oak leaves and acorns, punctuated by roses of England, divided by six vases of flowers. The basin circulated 7,000 gallons of perfumed water each hour, filling the exhibition hall with fragrance.
It must have been quite a sensory experience!

Considering how long it stood, there are remarkably few images. Those we have in color are all chromolithographs from the period. Almost all the photos are from stereocards.


At the close of the exhibition in 1863 it was donated by Minton to the South Kensington Museum. It was moved to the Kensington Horticultural gardens where it stood for nine years before being moved again to the Bethnal Green Museum Department of Science and Art in 1872. There it occupied the front courtyard of the Museum.

As early as the turn of the century traffic and pollution in the area began to take their toll on the fountain and it began to break apart. After years of neglect the St. George statue fell from the top during a storm.

Though once a part of the V&A museum collection, changing fashion dictated that it was not worth saving for future generations. At the encouragement of Queen Mary who considered it an eyesore, the remainder was allowed to deteriorate until it was dismantled in 1926. A few pieces of the St. George fountain were moved into the Bethnel Museum. The remainder was sold off in parts. What was left was crushed and incorporated into the flowerbed and the paving of the roadway in front of the museum.

It was a grand and glorious thing, now gone. 

As an 1862 news account stated, "If there were no other object in the building but this grand work alone, it would be well worth a shilling entrance to see it."

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