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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wedgwood Pink Shell Pearlware

In 1986 I decided to drive to New Orleans on a whim. While there I did an antique shop hop through the French Quarter in search of majolica. I wandered into a crowded shop that specialized in culinary antiques because I thought I might find some majolica there. Well, they did have some majolica there, some Palissy, but it wasn't the majolica that caught my eye.

In the main room of the shop a large dining table had been set with a huge service of Victorian Wedgwood pink shell pearlware. I had never seen this before and was stunned by its beauty–shells in every shape and size delicately decorated in creamy white, pale yellow, lavender and deep majolica pink. The price of the entire service was many thousands of dollars, far too much for a wandering artist/fledgling antique dealer, but it left an impression that has lasted 24 years.

I mention this here because this lovely ware is often confused for majolica. It's easy to see the confusion. It was made during the same Victorian period as majolica. It is marked like Wedgwood majolica from this period with an impressed WEDGWOOD and a date code on an opaque white reverse. Of course it is rich with the pinks and lavenders one sees in majolica. It also finds its way into majolica auctions and majolica collections.

But it is not majolica

It is a particular type of creamware made by Wedgwood during the late eighteenth and nineteenth century called pearlware. It has an opaque white glaze that is decorated after firing with enamels. The shell molds have been in almost continuous use at Wedgwood from the time of Josiah Wedgwood. Majolica has been made extensively in these shapes as have a number of other wares including bone china.

But it is the pink pearlware that captures the heart. Its popularity usually brings majolica-type prices. It also displays beautifully with majolica, particularly turquoise and green majolica.

Perhaps you can understand how a full service made such a strong impression on me all those years ago.

So the next time you see some Wedgwood pink pearlware feel free and add some to your majolica collection. I think you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Majolica Spotlight: Mustache Cups

One of the first majolica collections I ever saw was a collection of majolica mustache cups. I had never heard of majolica mustache cups before and this collection was just so cool!
In the years since then I have bought and sold many mustache cups and have become aware of how rare these can be. As you might expect, men seem to be the main collectors of this Victorian sub specialty. I've actually never met a woman who cared for them except as a gift for a male friend or relation.

Mustache or moustache cups, for those who are not familiar with them, are a specific type of coffee or tea cup with a special guard to protect a gentleman's mustache from being soiled. They were invented by a British potter, Harvey Adams in the 1860's, but they were actually more popular on the continent than in Great Britain.

They must have been quite a popular novelty in their day though because it appears most major majolica makers made them.

This novelty crossed the pond and found a home at the Etruscan Works as well. The majolica Shell mustache cup has long been one of the most sought after pieces in this wonderful series.

The good news is that majolica mustache cups have come down in price quite a bit since the economic bust on Wall Street. The bad news is that they have also become more rare. It seems inevitable that the prices will rise again so you should snatch them up while you still can.

For more on mustache cups pick up collector Glen Erardi's book on the subject, Mustache Cups: Timeless Victorian Treasures from Schiffer.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Etruscan Majolica Lecture

The Phoenixville Historical Society has graciously invited me to give a lecture on Etruscan Majolica at their December meeting. The program will be a slightly revised version of the multimedia presentation I delivered at this year's Majolica Convention in Dallas. There will be a question and answer session following the presentation and there will be copies of my books Etruscan Majolica: The Majolica of Griffen, Smith and Company, Vol. 1&2 for sale at the meeting.

If you're interested in learning about a company you thought you knew everything about, come to Phoenixville Wednesday night December 1, at 7:00. The Historical Society conducts its meetings at the Phoenixville Federal Bank & Trust Conference Center located at 564 Nutt Road in Phoenxiville.
Admittance is free and there will be light refreshments served after the talk.
If nothing else, I promise you'll be entertained.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Soaring Bird

No bird soars too high, 
if he soars with his own wings.
--William Blake

The long awaited sale at Christie's of the Minton Peacock did not disappoint.

The final price of £109,250 ($171,413) brought by the peacock earlier today smashed the estimate of £70,000 making the bird one of the most expensive pieces of majolica ever sold.
Modeled by Minton Sculptor Paul Comolera in 1873 the piece is one of the only remaining examples of the bird known to exist. This example, dated to 1876, did undergo some minor restoration (which we wrote about http://etruscanmajolica.blogspot.com/2010/09/majolica-restoration-nightmare.html ).

This is one bird that truly soared!

It made the $17,651 price brought by the Minton shell jardiniere at the same auction look paltry by comparison!

All I have to say is, WOW!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Story of a Collection

Sometimes the story behind a collection is as interesting as the collection itself.
One of my oldest and dearest friends, Jeff, has always referred to majolica as "that stuff that has snakes and worms on it." He didn't really care too much for my collection but was always very nice about trying to share my enthusiasm when I got a new piece. A number of years ago after taking a trip to visit an elderly maiden aunt in Ohio, he reported on his return that she had a cabinet full of "that stuff." He couldn't give me much more detail then that except to say that it looked a lot like the things I sold. 

Not that long afterwards Jeff's aunt died, leaving her estate to be broken up among her relatives. Jeff helped in the dissolution of the estate and took the majolica collection home along with some flow blue and a few other sentimental things to remember her by. 

When I finally got a chance to see the collection in person I was impressed by it. It was not a large collection nor a particularly rare collection but the whole group was Etruscan Majolica, all perfectly matched in color and all in mint condition. The core of the collection was an almost complete tea service for six in Cauliflower that had clearly been together since the day it was made. It was without question the most beautifully cohesive Cauliflower set I have ever seen.  In addition to this were two Lily plates, a leaf plate and a begonia plate, again all matching. The only piece that didn't seem to belong was the Cauliflower creamer, which was totally mismatched and clearly a replacement purchased at a later time.

The story of how his aunt had received this collection was fascinating. It had been left to her by a neighbor who had inherited the collection from her parents who were from Pennsylvania. They had gotten it new as a wedding gift. Here was a collection that had been together since the day it was potted in the 1880's. That is such a rare and wonderful thing to find nowadays, and it's especially nice from a sentimental point of view.

When I first started buying majolica in the 1980's it was fairly common to find complete matching sets of majolica that had always been together. These were almost always broken up by dealers for maximum profit. Today, you don't see sets very much anymore. Most sets you see have been assembled over time by collectors from disparate sources. 
To see a collection like this that has always been together gives a real sense of how stunning sets of majolica must have been when they were new and sitting on store shelves.

Jeff has now changed his opinion of majolica. He has purchased a few additional pieces of his own to compliment the collection and displays them proudly in his home. For at least one more generation, this majolica will remain together as it has from the start.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sarreguemines Fruit Plates

The very first majolica I ever saw was a fruit plate service made by Utzchneider & Co., also known as Sarreguemines. (I told the story back in June: http://etruscanmajolica.blogspot.com/2010/06/why-majolica.html ) Today these fruit plates are still being manufactured in Europe. Potted since the last quarter of the 19th Century they are probably the oldest continuously produced majolica pattern in the world. I bought a set of these brand new from a department store in 1986. I still use them today.

There are six different dessert dishes in the set: strawberry, cherry, pear, grape, apple and plum plus an alternate design for the grape plate. Considering the availability of these plates today you would think dealers would have a difficult time selling them but the testament to their timeless quality is their continuing popularity.

Now, if you're curious about the age of the plates you may have in your own collection, the easiest way to tell how old they are is by the mark. The oldest plates will have the impressed SARREGUEMINES mark shown below. This mark dates the plates to about 1865-1880. 

A similar impressed mark with the word FRANCE added was used between 1922-1955.

The ink stamp shown here is the mark that I see most frequently. It was used the longest, from 1920-1960.

There are other ink marks as well, too many to really post here, mostly used through the first half of the 20th Century. The most recent examples are being made by a number of different companies and tend to have simpler markings.

The large number of serving pieces produced to compliment them is rather cool. Here are just a few of them.

They're wonderfully cheery pieces to serve on and I always get compliments on them. Today they're being made with lead-free glazes so you can serve on them without worry. The nicest thing though is that they're still in production if I ever want to add pieces to my set!