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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New York CIty's Retail Majolica Legacy

One of the nice things about living in New York is that I get to see world famous landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge every day. I pass it on the subway on my way to work as it dominates the East River on the south eastern part of Manhattan just south of the Manhattan Bridge.
Its fame is international and people come from all over just to walk it and marvel over its 129 year old walkways, but to us here in NY its utility is generally all we really think about.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled into the Park Slope Gallery Web site to discover there is actually a majolica plate celebrating this marvel of Victorian architecture!

Among their collection of articles created in celebration of Brooklyn, the gallery has a majolica advertising piece created by Choisy-Le-Roi for Ehrich Brothers, a dry goods store (the equivalent of what we today call a department store). Located on a stretch of the Flatiron District called the "Ladies' Mile," the store operated from 1857 to 1911 in several locations, the last of which is now a Burlington Coat Factory.

On the gallery Web site they date the piece to 1915 which seems unlikely considering the store closed in 1911. Most likely it dates to the store's most profitable period from 1880 to 1900, which coincides with the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. It was also a period of prodigious majolica production in Europe.
Within the next few years another NY store in the same neighborhood, Higgins & Seiter, would contract a line of majolica that would keep them famous among majolica collectors to this day.

If you're a collector of majolica, the name Higgins & Seiter means only one thing: Choisy-Le-Roi bunny plates!

The retail establishment of Higgins & Seiter was actually better known in their heyday as an importer of fine European china and cut glass. The company operated from the late 1860's until 1915. The onset of the first World War brought about the end of their import business and eventual bankruptcy. The company had several locations in the city on W. 21st Street, 22nd Street and E. 37th Street all within walking distance of the "Ladies' Mile."

The company also had a store on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, RI, which no doubt catered to the Oelrich's and Vanderbilt's insatiable appetite for extravagance.

Of course the company probably carried other majolica as well, but the Choisy bunny plates are what we associate with them today. Trademarked in 1900, the plates are usually marked with the Higgins & Seiter retailer's mark though not always which implies that they were not exclusive to that retailer. The companion plates in the Choisy game bird series do not have this mark.

Both, the game bird plates and the bunny plates, can be found with a "Made in France" mark, which typically indicates production after 1919, so we can assume they both continued to be successful series' long after Higgins & Seiter folded.

Another plate, created for L. Straus & Sons, part owner of Macy's and Abraham & Straus department stores, and no doubt sold through those stores as well as through the Astor gift shop is this majolica souvenir of the Hotel Astor which stood at the corner of Broadway and 44th Street from 1904 through 1967. With an intaglio image of the hotel in the front surrounded by a wreath of Astor flowers and a German maker's mark on the reverse, the plate certainly dates to the period between 1904 to 1918 when the hotel was new.

W.C. Muschenheim, an immigrant chef from Germany was responsible for building the Astor on a lot of land owned by the Astor family. Known at the time as a business visionary he is credited with making Times Square a business area as well as entertainment mecca. His name is written below the image of the Astor. He died in 1918.

The days of this kind of retail advertising is long gone replaced today by disposable plastic giveaways from places like Walmart and Target, but thanks to the efforts of potters like Choisy-Le-Roi we have an elegant reminder of the way things use to be.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Majolica in the Movies: Gigi

I love my iPad!
I spend hours on it every day playing games, searching the internet and watching movies and TV shows I download from iTunes.

Yesterday I was perusing the movie catalog on iTunes and saw that one of my favorite musicals, Gigi, was available for download in HD. It had been years since I had seen the movie. My own copy on DVD was not made from the best elements so I didn't watch it very often. This, I thought, was a perfect excuse for buying another copy that I could download to my iPad and watch whenever I want.
So I spent the evening downloading the movie and set it aside to watch the next day.

So, with a lazy Saturday afternoon in front of me I decided to indulge in my latest download. As that wonderful Lerner and Lowe score started it transported me back to my childhood, when I first saw the film at the Logan theatre in North Philadelphia with my Mother and brother. At the beginning of the movie Maurice Chevalier opens the story with "Thank Heaven For Little Girls" and introduces us to the title character Gigi playing ball in the park. As the song ends, Gigi rushes home to the flat she shares with her mother and grandmother. There on her grandmother's table is a large majolica vase with applied flowers. You can see the vase on the table on the left below. You can't see it in this picture but later in the scene the grandmother picks up the vase and you can see a huge magnolia flower on the opposite side.

I can't say that the piece looks familiar to me but it is very reminiscent of the kind of thing made by Menton, a French faience company that specialized in ware with applied decoration in the 1880's. This would certainly be appropriate for the story, which takes place around 1900.
Like another movie I mentioned in this blog that also featured a piece of majolica, Meet Me in St. Louis, it was directed by Vincente Minnelli, a former Broadway set director whose movies are meticulous in their decor. 

For the remainder of the movie I kept open an eagle eye for more majolica, though no more appeared. What a wonderful treat this was though, to see a piece of majolica in this lovely movie. I'll never be able to look at it again in quite the same way.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Detecting Majolica Repair

Detecting repair in a piece of majolica has gotten increasingly difficult as restoration specialists get better with every passing year. It's important to learn however, to assure that you know what you are buying when you purchase a piece of majolica.

Majolica has always been a strong candidate for repair because of the soft nature of earthenware pottery. The presence of repair in a piece of majolica doesn't affect the cost of a repaired piece as much as it does in a harder body like porcelain. Still, it does affect cost. The more repair, the lower the cost. I remember seeing a woman at auctions who routinely took out a small bottle of nail polish remover and cotton swab from her handbag for rubbing over a suspect piece--acetone will remove many repairs. That is an example of what NOT to do! She was potentially destroying property that was not hers and was eventually banned from several auction houses.

Here are a few tips that will allow you to detect a repair without destroying a seller's property.

The easiest way to detect repair is simply by running your finger over the suspect area. Places like teapot spouts, rims of bowls and plates, lids and finials on covered pieces are all likely places to search for repair on a piece. When you run your finger over the area, a repaired piece will often feel different from the rest of the piece. The glaze may have a plastic feel. By that I mean that it won't be slightly cool to the touch like a regular piece of pottery. The repaired area may also have a different slippery quality to it from regular glaze--almost a squeaky quality. That's a dead giveaway that a repair is present.

Another easy way to detect a repair is with your eyes. Pottery like majolica has a reflective depth of color that simply can't be mimicked by paint. This is more obvious on some colors than others. Green and brown are notoriously difficult to reproduce because of their transparency. No matter where you look at these colors on a piece of pottery it will have a reasonably uniform look to it. Most restorationists use full spectrum light to get the most realistic color match on a repair. That's all well and good if the piece is displayed under full spectrum light like daylight. Unfortunately, most people don't live outdoors so a piece repaired under full spectrum light will not always display as well under incandescent or fluorescent light. I would suggest viewing a piece under as many different light sources as possible. If you're at an antiques show, ask permission to take the piece over to a window or to a different source of light than used at the dealer's booth. This makes most repairs very easy to detect.

Majolica glaze in particular has a tendency to craze. These fine cracks in the glaze are impossible to reproduce during repair. Some restorationists try to mimic the crazing on a repaired piece by faintly painting over the repair a fine web of lines simulating it. This is sometimes successful in disguising repair but usually only in a superficial sense. A detailed examination of the piece will reveal the repair.

A tool that many dealers wouldn't be caught without is a pocket UV light like this one from Streamlight.

When shone onto a repaired area, an otherwise invisible repair will stick out like a sore thumb. It's also very good at making visible flaws in the pottery like cracks and chips that may not be obvious to the human eye.

An old time method that professionals use to detect repair or damage is by testing the sound of a piece. If you sit a piece of pottery on its base and you tap it very lightly with a hard object like your finger nail, you should get a slight ringing sound. If the piece has been compromised with damage it is likely to give a thud rather than a ring. The difference in sound between the two can be quite subtle in some cases so experience helps in learning what a good "ring" is.
Here are some directions from About.com on detecting the sound of damage on a piece of pottery:

  • If it's two pieces, e.g. a cookie jar, take the lid off.
  • Put the pottery on a solid surface or cradle in one arm.
  • Using your index finger and thumb -- flick your finger onto the piece. Imagine you are shooting marbles!
  • The resulting sound will be a clear ringing bell sound if the pottery has no cracks and a very dead thud if here is a crack.
  • Master your "flick" at home and next time you are out shopping, it will only take you moment to check out the pottery. 

A method that some professionals use that I do not advocate is the "pin" test. This involves taking a straight pin and inserting it into an area of suspected repair. If a repair is present it will penetrate the body slightly. This test has the potential for damaging a repair by scratching the surface of the piece. Unless you ask permission of the owner or outright own the piece in question I wouldn't try this. You risk damaging the property of another person, like our friend with the nail polish remover at the auctions that I mentioned earlier.

The best defense against being fooled by repair is a good offense. Learn these methods and practice them and soon you will be as good at detecting repair as the folks on Antique Roadshow!

Photos of repaired majolica from David Battam's pottery repair site, chinarepair.com.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Antique Majolica Pattern Copies

Have you ever noticed that diamond shaped registration mark on the base of some English pitchers?

That's an English registration mark. It was an attempt by the English pottery system to date pottery designs and prevent companies from copying the patterns of one another. Unfortunately it didn't prove terribly successful because copies of well known patterns litter the pottery landscape. From the beginning, one pottery stealing the design of another has been an integral part of the pottery business. Majolica designs are no exception.

Take a look at some of these original majolica designs followed by their contemporary's copies.

In the United States the copying of English majolica patterns was particularly rampant. No company was more guilty of this than the Etruscan Works. A large percentage of their earliest designs were direct copies of English patterns. In my book on the company, The Majolica of Griffen, Smith & Company, I theorized that the original modeler of the majolica of the Phoenix Pottery was most likely one of the sons of an earthenware modeler for Wedgwood, Hamlet Bourne. This certainly would explain the large number of Wedgwood copies the company made in its earliest years. Hamlet's children would have been familiar with these designs, having grown up with them. Of course, there's no way of knowing for certain because all the company's original records were lost, but it does make some sense especially since both Bourne brothers were known to be working in potteries on the US east coast. Very few of these Etruscan copies of English pieces were actually marked. The reason for this is well known. The Etruscan Works didn't mark their English copies because they were trying to fool consumers into thinking that their pottery was fine imported ware.

As the company grew more assured they branched out into their own original designs and relied less on their copies of English patterns.

It's certainly possible that economics is the reason other small potteries both English and American, copied the work of large English potteries. My own thoughts are that they weren't so much trying to pass their work for that of the large potteries as they were simply copying proven popular designs. If you've compared the early copies to the original, there is no confusing the two.

So, how do these antique majolica pattern copies stack up price wise?
As is generally the case in most arts, the original is usually worth more than the copy. Of course, this isn't always the case. The Etruscan Works copied the oyster plate of the Union Porcelain Works, making only slight changes to the plate border. Now, the Union Porcelain oyster plates are quite sought after by collectors and they can bring hundreds of dollars for exceptional examples, but the Etruscan copies bring several thousand dollars at auction.

In some cases both the copy and the original will bring a similar price. This is particularly true when you have copies of pieces by lesser known potteries.  What matters more than lineage in these cases is color, craftsmanship and glazing.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Elephants vs, Donkeys, Part 2

As we saw in our previous post, the Republican elephant has had significant representation in majolica. Now it's time to look at the Democratic donkey.

As the humble creatures they are, donkeys are almost always represented in majolica for the utilitarian use they have to mankind. Not very grand but still proud in their simple dignity, donkeys are our beasts of burden. No company has been more conscious of them than the fr─Śres Massier, who have done a number of donkeys in majolica.

Other companies such as Minton and George Jones made donkey majolica as well though not as many as made elephant majolica.

So concludes our look at the symbols of the two major American parties. Like the political parties they represent, they offer distinctly different personalities in their majolica incarnations.You make the choice of which appeals to you.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Elephants vs. Donkeys, Part 1

What do Santa Claus, Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey all have in common? They were all the creation of cartoonist Thomas Nast.

Of course Santa had been around  for centuries in the guise of St. Nick and the Democratic donkey had been around since Andrew Jackson's time, but it wasn't until Nast seized on them in the 1870's that they developed the modern conception we have of them today.

With the political season upon us, I thought it may be a good time to take a look at how majolica manufacturers have represented Nast's symbols of the two main American political parties, the elephant and the donkey.
First we'll take a look at the symbol of the grand old party, the Republican elephant.

There are no lack of representations of the elephant in majolica.

The most spectacular would have to be the two Minton gold covered majolica elephants in the window of Thomas Goode & Sons store in the Mayfair section of London. Created for Goode and displayed at the Paris 1889 International Exhibition, the elephants are the largest existing pieces of majolica in the world, standing at over seven feet tall! After the Exhibition, Goode placed them in the shop's window where they have remained for 123 years. Of course, that's not to say that the elephants aren't for sale because they are. The price tag: a cool €6 million. (That's about $9 million.)

Other majolica elephants pale in comparison to the Goode elephants but for the majority of us these smaller elephants will do just fine.

The most famous elephant of the 19th Century was, of course, Jumbo,  that wild African elephant that started its life in the Sudan and traveled extensively through Paris, London and finally the home of P.T. Barnum, New York City.

It was no doubt that while in London between 1861 and 1881, he caught the eye of majolica makers, a prodigious period of majolica manufacture.

A mania for elephants erupted and soon pachyderms were appearing everywhere in majolica, from teapots to garden seats; wall pockets to bottles; and jardinieres to humidors. One even came with a clock!

Actually, I have an amusing story to tell about this last little fellow if you'll pardon the aside.
Years ago I purchased this humidor for $200 from a dealer in the South. I took it to an antique show in Pennsylvania where I sold it before the show opened for $250. The dealer who purchased it then sold it to another dealer who then sold it again, each time escalating the price. By the time the show opened it had changed hands four times and was selling for $850!

If that little story proves anything it's that the elephant's popularity has endured all these years later and has proven an admired symbol of the Republican party.

Next time, we'll take a look at the Democratic donkey.