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

Friday, January 27, 2012

Etruscan Majolica: Fact and Fiction

About six months ago. I received an email from a writer at Main Line Today magazine.
He was writing an article on Etruscan Majolica and asked if I could send him copies of my two books on Etruscan Majolica for review purposes. I debated the idea for a couple of weeks before being persuaded by people I trust to send them to him.
Working in the magazine industry myself I know that it isn't always easy to get accurate reference material when working against a deadline so I felt pretty good about my decision to contribute to the article.

Well, I finally got a look at the finished article today.  It is in the February issue of Main Line Today magazine.

It's a nice, overview account of the history of Etruscan Majolica.

I would very much like to thank author J.F. Pierro for including a mention of my Etruscan Majolica Web site in the article. He was also nice enough to quote my book near the end of the article. I can tell that he clearly read my book by the structure of the article. Yet, his article still has some of the same misinformation that has circulated about the Etruscan Works for years. It is these old wives' tales that I wrote the book to dispel, but they have surfaced once again.

I can't say I totally blame Mr. Pierro. He obviously interviewed a number of people instead of just relying on my book and an author's story is only as good as his sources. Some of these stories are harder to kill than a vampire in a blood bank. Still, he did have my book which is accurate and specifically addresses these issues.

Old Wives' tale # 1: William Hill was not involved in the production of Etruscan Majolica.
This one is easy to dispel. There are newspaper articles that date the production of Phoenixville majolica to April of 1879. Hill was actively involved in the Phoenixville pottery from January 1879 to May 1880. That would mean that majolica was in production during his tenure there. 

Old Wives' tale # 2: The 1890 fire ended the production of Etruscan Majolica.
The plant fire in December of 1890 had nothing to do with the end of Etruscan Majolica.
By 1890 the Etruscan brand had been out of production for almost two years. After David Smith left the Phoenixville Pottery in 1889, the Etruscan name was retired and the pottery took on the mark of Griffen, Love and Co. and later the Griffen China Company. Monochromatic majolica production did continue on a limited scale until around 1895 under the name of the Chester Pottery, but never again under the Etruscan banner.

Old Wives' tale # 3: President Grant bought Etruscan Majolica for his daughter.
This is a total fabrication. President Grant's daughter did own pottery made at the Phoenixville Pottery but it was a solid cobalt display set with over painted decoration given to her by W.H. Schribner as a wedding gift in 1874 from the people of Pennsylvania. This was five years before production of majolica began at the plant.

I am always happy to see Etruscan Majolica receive such a nice write up from a local publication, but I would hope that the article would be totally accurate.

If you would like to read the article for yourself go to the Main Line Today Web site.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: "The Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica" by Mariann Katz-Marks

If there was any reference that was responsible for assisting in the popularization of majolica in the US it would have to be the original Mariann Katz-Marks books Majolica Pottery: An Identification and Value Guide/1st Series & 2nd Series. These two paperback books were the first real collector's guides to the majolica market. Released in 1983 and 1985 respectively, they were the right thing at the right time.
Preceded about five years earlier by the Charles Rebert book, American Majolica: 1850-1900, they were the first user friendly reference to majolica with pricing, something the Rebert book decidedly was not. They also listed both American and English majolica, something else that was new to the majolica reference market.

Written by a dealer who appeared to have a modest understanding of majolica, these two references were for many years the only references available. As such they had an enormous impact on shaping the early majolica market. I've written about the influence of the Marks books before here and here and here.

In time other majolica books became available including the Karmeson-Stack definitive reference, Majolica: A Complete History and Illustrated Survey and the Marks books lost their monopoly of the market and with it their influence. In 1992, the two books were combined, reformatted and expanded into the hardcover The Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica. It is this reference that I am reviewing today.

The content in this format has remained a useful reference, particularly for the beginning collector. Created in the usual unattractive, haphazard Schroeder publications style, the photographs are large and clear if unattractively taken against a yellow or grey ground. Light on information and heavy on images, it is exactly the kind of reference the casual collector loves, providing a good overview to the forms in which majolica is available. The photo captions are short and punchy, often betraying the author's clear bias towards American majolica. There is a very short and superficial history of the pottery and a section in the back of poorly photographed maker's marks. If the book has an obvious flaw aside from its hideous design it is in the lack of representations of Continental majolica. 

Like its paperback precedents the price guide is its weakest component, underestimating the prices of the English pieces and overestimating the value of the American ones. It is also more difficult to use than its paperback counterpart since it is now all located at the back of the book. This was certainly done to allow for easy updating.

Today, 29 years after the first Marks book was released, the book remains a good general reference for the beginning collector. The more sophisticated collector however, will come away wanting more substance.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Majolica Garden Seats

It was a matter of chance that the British abolition of the glass tax in 1847 and window tax in 1851 happened around the same time as the invention of Victorian majolica. The vast English upper and middle classes had entered an era of ostentatious wealth where conspicuous consumption was the fashion of the day and nothing said wealth to the Victorians like the luxury of the home conservatory. New exotic species of plants, flowers and fruits were appearing from the far corners of the vast British empire and the only way to enjoy these things were in a greenhouse.

The history of greenhouses goes back to Roman times but the reemergence of the greenhouse in the last half of the 19th Century was the perfect opportunity for majolica manufacturers to use the environment to expand their list of products. Home conservatories became the center of entertainment in these newly wealthy households and majolica was great for grabbing attention.
Fountains and garden seats, formerly the domain of the iron trade emerged in the colorful majolica shown by Minton at the London Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. Where the majority of the majolica fountains created during this period have since deteriorated the garden seats have remained for the modern collector to enjoy.

All of the major English potters made garden seats. Minton, Holdcroft, Copeland, Brown, Westhead & Moore, and Wedgwood produced these in prodigious quantities, usually with the same conceits that influenced their other wares. All of the major design styles popular during the time influenced their look: neo-gothic, Egyption revival,  naturalism, Eastlake,  Japonisme and  Orientalism all appeared.

If you have your heart set on a garden seat, you better have a healthy bank account. Garden seats do not come cheaply. While you can pick up some unmarked examples in the $500-$600 range, expect to pay 2-5 times that for a marked example from a major potter with many designs going for several times those prices.

Still, it is a lovely addition to a collection and one that says boldly, "I love majolica!"

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Majolica Ice Cream Services

One of the things in my personal majolica collection that I've owned the longest is an ice cream service made by Wedgwood in the Fan pattern. There are ten plates plus platter all with the same decoration and dating to the same year. When I first started buying majolica back in the 1980's complete ice cream services like this were a fairly common thing to come across. I can't say that any more as most of these ice cream services were broken up by their owners to maximize sales profit.
It's actually quite a shame, but it's still possible to assemble a beautiful service today through diligence and selective collecting.

One of the things that I think surprises new majolica collectors is that most of these platters and ice cream plates are flat plates and not rounded bowels the way we eat ice cream today. To understand this, one needs to understand how ice cream was prepared for service during the Victorian age. In this time before modern refrigeration, ice cream was generally sold and prepared by small neighborhood shops. Ice cream was commonly sold as small balls, neatly stacked together. It was also available in a variety of different shapes, molded to entice the eye. These molds were also used by home chefs to add elegance to their table. Many of these pewter ice cream molds have survived to today and are eagerly collected by enthusiasts.

This type of display of ice cream lent itself best to service on flat services, hence the flat form of Victorian Ice cream services.

Wedgwood and Holdcroft probably made more ice cream services than any of the other major potters but the little Etruscan Works in the US also made their own contribution to the form.

The simplicity of many of these platters have kept the prices fairly reasonable with many selling for under $250 and individual plates selling for $50-$75, so they can be assembled over time with rather little pain to your pocketbook.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Sunflower Majolica

I have mentioned before in this blog the influence of the Aesthetic Movement on the majolica designs of American and English majolica.
The Lily and the Sunflower both were representative of the movement but the Sunflower in particular has always been the flower most people associate with it.
More than anyone else, Oscar Wilde is responsible for the popularity of the movement in both the US and in Great Britain as can be see by some of the decorative arts from the period.

The "flowering" of the Aesthetic Movement largely took place during the 1880's. a time of prodigious majolica manufacture. Because of this, the Sunflower has appeared all over many majolica designs. The relationship between the flower and Oscar Wilde was so strong in fact that "Oscar Wilde" was the name commonly used in the Etruscan Works when referring to pieces in their Sunflower line.



Combined with the country look so popular in decoration today, these pieces are more popular than ever and generally bring prices higher than other flower-related items.