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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Latest Majolica Reproductions

The main reason I do these posts on majolica reproductions is not only because they are popular, but to make somewhat less experienced collectors aware of some of the deception available in the market. None of these are very convincing and most of them wouldn't fool anyone, still I like to keep everyone aware of what's out there.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sculpture Victorious: Art in an Age of Invention, 1837–1901

We found ourselves making the two hour sojourn to New Haven recently to view two of the finest examples of majolica ever potted. The Yale Center for British Art is hosting an exhibition of sculpture during the reign of Queen Victoria, Sculpture Victorious: Art in the Age of Invention, 1837-1901. Among the 135 objects of marble and bronze included in the show are two monumental pieces of majolica: one of the Thomas Goode Minton elephants and the Minton peacock.

The elephant, a seven foot tall masterpiece of majolica, is one of two commissioned by Thomas Goode for the 1889 Exhibition Universelle in Paris, the same exhibition that brought the world the Eiffel Tower. They were modeled by Thomas Longmore and John Hénk for Minton & Co.

The elephants appeared to great acclaim at the show after which they were placed in the Thomas Goode shop window in Mayfair. There they have stood ever since. 

A masterpiece of decorative art I believe this is the first time one of the elephants has been shown in the United States. Seven feet tall, the gilded majolica elephant stands on a base of carved ebony and majolica tile. The detail is astonishing.

In addition to the elephant in the show, there is also an example of the Minton majolica peacock which is on loan from an American collector. Modeled in 1873 by sculptor Paul Comolera it predates the elephant by about 15 years.

Though we were not permitted to photograph the peacock we have written about it several times before: here, and here, and here. Only a handful are known to survive so having an opportunity to see one up close was a rare treat.

The show also includes extraordinary works in precious metals such as The Eglinton Trophy and The First Class Badge of the Order of Victoria and Albert.

In all it is a lovely show embracing sculpture in a wide variety of media.

It runs through November 30 at Yale at which time it will move to the Tate gallery in Britain. There it will run from February 25 to May 25, 2015.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Majolica in the Movies: The Normal Heart

Last week the film adaptation of Larry Kramer's devastating play on the early years of the AIDS crisis in NYC won an Emmy award for best TV movie. Currently running on HBO, the TV movie is a sober reminder of the prejudice and political inactivity that greeted the virus in the first years of its appearance in the United States.

As you might expect, it's a sad movie. In the middle of the movie the protagonist, Ned, has a heated argument with his brother over his brother's willingness to spend millions on his home while refusing to help Ned's fledgling AIDS awareness organization. Suddenly out of the blue a familiar shape appears. It's a Minton majolica pedestal similar to the one shown below, but with a brown ground!

The piece totally knocked me out of the movie! Supposedly set in 1981, majolica was hardly the sort of thing you would have found in a prosperous man's home at that time.
Still, I must admit I got a kick out of it

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Majolica Classics: Wedgwood Majolica Napkin Platter

For us, one of the most interesting things about majolica is how the glazing treatment of a piece can wildly affect its character.

Such is the case with the Wedgwood napkin platter. One of the most recognizable of majolica pieces, the napkin platter has consistently been popular among collectors in the 30 years we have been buying majolica.
We have owned this piece in three different color combinations and have seen it in three other combinations as well. We believe it was originally designed as a full color piece with a yellow ground and turquoise and grey napkin. It was later adapted to the Argenta color ways. In between there are a number of other treatments as well, quite successful on their own: a cobalt ground with a white and turquoise napkin; a cobalt ground with a white or yellow napkin; and a turquoise or brown ground with a white napkin. 

Each of these color combinations has it's own unique character. For us the original with the yellow ground is the most joyous and rambunctious of the group. It is loud and garish, calling attention to itself regardless of anything that may be around it. Woe be to the other platters on a dinner table vying for attention around this one.

The one with the cobalt ground and white and turquoise napkin is probably the most elegant of the glazing treatments. The strong contrast of the cobalt ground against the subdued napkin colors makes for a strong but beautiful statement that would highlight whatever the owner decided to serve on it.

Those with the white or yellow napkin and cobalt or turquoise ground are the most subdued of the group, all simple, beautiful backdrops to the food without calling attention to themselves.

The largely duotone Argenta version is garish in its own way with its busy taupe and white checkerboard calling attention to itself while bringing out the abstract texture of the napkin in a way that none of the others do. The yellow and pink highlights bring a studied sophistication in toning down the design so typical of the Argenta ware.

Each of these, as different as they are, have their admirers. Any one would make a beautiful centerpiece to a plate collection.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

English Registration Codes on Majolica

There seems to be a lot of confusion among dealers and beginning pottery collectors when it comes to the English Pattern Registration diamond system in effect from 1842 to 1883.

The system had two purposes: to identify a piece of pottery as being of English origin; and to offer a degree of "copyright protection" to the designer of the piece. Many pottery companies took advantage of the system to protect their more original designs, though the degree of protection offered was fairly limited. These registration numbers are commonly found on the base of English majolica. Although by themselves they do not tell you anything about the manufacturer of the piece nor the age of the piece, they can tell you when the design was created and after what date the piece was created.

There were two basic code systems put into effect during this period. From 1842 to 1867 there was one system where the number designating the day of the week is found in the code on the right, the month on the left and the year at the top. Then from 1868 to 1883 there was another, where the number designating the day of the week is found in the code on the top, the month at the bottom and the year on the right. Here is a graphic to explain the two systems:

The Rd stands for Registered Design and appears on all registration marks.  The classification IV identifies the piece as pottery. (A piece of glass would have the designation III, a wood design would have a II, a metal design would have a I and so forth.)  The bundle refers to the number of items included in the classification. The other symbols, for month, day and year are self explanatory. 
So, if for example you take the code pictured at the top of this post, one can see that this registration mark comes from the second classification system. If you follow the table you can see that this code appears on a design that was registered on November 17, 1876.

The system is so well known among pottery collectors that even those creating majolica copies have tried to mimic it as can be seen by the example below. These rather pathetic attempts fool no one as they are always crude and rather ridiculous. 

Starting in 1884, the diamond registration system was replaced by a yearly numbering system. By this time the golden age of English majolica production had past, with most manufacturers tapering their majolica output. Within ten years production on most Victorian majolica would cease, and majolica pottery will have begun its long decline into a century of obscurity.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brush McCoy Corn Ware Majolica

If you've done any substantial traveling around the United States, one of the most common types of majolica you're likely to encounter in antique shops is a specific line of corn shaped wares made by Brush McCoy known as Corn Ware or Cornline.

Designed in 1910 by McCoy designer John Cusick, who signed his wares at the base of the pitcher handles, Corn Ware was created at McCoy but fully flourished after McCoy's merger with the Brush Pottery in 1911. An expansive line, Corn Ware was made with pitchers in six sizes, ale pitchers in 24oz and 18 oz sizes, butter canisters in two pound and three pound sizes, cereal, salt and tobacco containers, wall pockets, condiments, a teapot and mugs. It was made in two color glaze as well as --after 1918-- in solid green. It is believed to have remained in production until about 1925 when the McCoy name was dropped from the Brush McCoy pottery.

I have to admit, I've rarely seen a line of ware that inspires more adamiss among collectors than this one. Many majolica collectors absolutely despise these wares though I've never been exactly sure why. Both McCoy and Brush made majolica jardinieres and pedestals in the early years of their existence so majolica was long part of their output. From what I have seen, collectors of Victorian majolica generally do not include these majolica wares in their collections possibly because of the late production dates or general nature of this majolica which was rather rustic and not as finely detailed as the earlier majolica. But make no mistake about it, this pottery is the Twentieth Century successor to Victorian majolica and should still be considered in the same classification.

Price wise these are generally inexpensive pieces with most selling for less than $100. They are also easy to find so they are a good pattern for beginner collectors who are looking to add a little majolica to their decor.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Majolica in the movies: Tess

In 1978 Roman Polanski fled the United States for France after pleading guilty to the seduction/ rape of a 13 year old girl. At the time he was in pre-production for a film he had long kept in development, a film adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Originally planned as a vehicle for his late wife Sharon Tate the movie was placed on the back burner after her sensational murder by the Manson family in 1969. He returned to the novel nine years later, this time as a vehicle for his latest protégée Nastassja Kinski. With his flight to France to avoid a prison sentence for his Hollywood "transgression" Polanski found himself an international fugitive unable to travel to England to film this most quintessential of British novels. His solution was to recreate Victorian England in the French countryside. The resulting movie released in 1979, is a sad, beautiful film dedicated to Sharon Tate but today most remembered as the film that made Nastassia Kinski an international star.

Given the background information I have just relayed, it should be of no surprise that the recreated English countryside periodically betrays its country of location, most noticeably in the weak recreation of Stonehenge at the end of the movie where the climax of the film takes place. But for the close eyed viewer and majolica collector, the French location shoot betrays itself much earlier in the film in the simple French majolica crockery used by the peasant folk in the earlier part of the film.

I was unable to get a screen capture to illustrate this post but should you get a chance to see this lovely film, look for the French majolica used by the British lasses during their picnic. It's a subtle, but telling clue to the background surrounding the shoot of a director fleeing from justice yet still trying to create his art on the continent.