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

Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Year End Wrap Up

Every year at this time we check the stats at Blogger to see the posts that are most popular among our readers. As has been the case for the past several years, interest in posts on the three major English potters, Wedgwood, Minton and Jones continue to lead in page views with Jones leading the pact. Of the posts written this past year, our post on Asparagus Servers leads the way with our posts on Jardinières and Cachepots and the Majolica of Wasmuel following in that order.

While the prices for majolica have held steady this year, prices of antiques in general have taken a deep plunge since the beginning of the 2008 recession. Prices for all majolica manufacturers are at their lowest point in over 20 years. Even majolica at the highest end is down since its peak in 2007. This is great news for the collector who can now afford pieces once outside of their price range but it is bad for the investor who has seen the value of their collection drop by half. 

Majolica as a collectible has fallen out of fashion after 30 years of steadily increasing interest. This in part is probably a result of decorators now favoring modern design over the traditional design of the past 40 years, but majolica is not alone in losing value. Across the board, antiques have lost their appeal to younger buyers. Many young people associate antiques with the elderly thanks to programs like Antique Roadshow. Antique furniture has taken a dramatic drop in value as younger buyers are more interested in mid century design than Art Nouveau. The clean modern look favored by tv home makeover shows is in direct conflict with the cluttered shelves full of smalls favored by collectors.

We have become a more mobile society where transporting vans full of old "stuff" every few years simply has become impractical. Buying a new suite of disposable furniture from Ikea has become more economically feasible than spending thousands of dollars on a mover. When it's time to relocate you just throw out the old furniture and buy new at your new location. The smaller living spaces most are dealing with also do not lend themselves to the oversized pieces of the past. 

For many years the popularity of majolica could be attributed to the popularity of the "country" look in furniture and accessories. There's no question that majolica lends itself well to this, but as French country and English country and American country have all fallen from favor the market for majolica has gone with it. In part this is certainly a result of the economics of the vanishing middle class. Where the market for high end antiques continues to be relatively healthy, the bottom has completely fallen out from mid range antiques. People of modest means simply no longer have sufficient disposable income to spend. A recent survey by The Economist found that the number of antique dealers who have closed up shop has increased tenfold in just the past few years.

The changing media landscape has added to this. Ten years ago a piece of majolica featured in a popular magazine like Vanity Fair would increase the value of similar pieces across the globe. Unfortunately magazines have lost their sway with the public with social media taking its place. The last thing that social media is concerned with is antiques.. unless of course you have a Kardashian sitting on one!

So where does that leave us heading into 2016? Popularity vacillates with taste. Most observers expect the prices of antiques to rise again in time but possibly not in our lifetimes... but you never know. If you enjoy collecting for the sake of collecting there is no reason for you not to do so, but the days of buying antiques for investment purposes seem to have past. As they say, buy what you love because you love it and you will never go wrong. 

Speaking for ourselves we will continue to cover the majolica market. Our love affair with majolica has not ended and according to our Blogger stats there is still plenty of company for those who join us in appreciating the color, the fantasy and the whimsy of Victorian majolica.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Etruscan Ivory Magen David Soapbox

Etruscan Ivory Magen David soap box
We were recently somewhat alarmed to see an auction listing for a Magen David majolica soapbox described as an "interesting example of early America Judaica."

Over the years this particular Etruscan majolica piece has unfortunately been misunderstood due to the presence of the Star of David finial. What contemporary viewers bring to the item is a modern understanding of the Star of David as a symbol of the Jewish faith. When the item was created in the 1880s however, this symbolism did not exist, at least not in the United States or anywhere else outside of Central Europe. At the time the Magen David hexagram was most frequently seen in the U.S. in churches and in Masonic imagery as a symbol of good luck.

The Star of David has been a popular symbol in many cultures from the earliest of times with multiple meanings ascribed to it. It is believed to have originated in Egypt. In Hinduism the triangle pointing down is said to represent female sexuality, with the triangle pointing upward representing male sexuality. Their combination symbolizes unity and harmony. It has appeared in the iconography of witchcraft, the Druids and Arabic magic. In alchemy, the two triangles symbolize fire and water representing the reconciliation of opposite forces. In the Middle Ages the two triangles were seen as water and heaven to indicate a harmony of heaven and earth. It was sometimes used as an emblem of alcoholic libation. It also appeared frequently on churches as a symbol of the messiah, but rarely in synagogues or on Jewish ritual objects. The Star of David also appears in the architecture of Mormon places of worship, where it symbolizes the union of heaven and earth, with God reaching down to man and man reaching up to God.

The earliest known Jewish use of the hexagram was as a seal in the 6th century B.C. but it did not represent the Jewish people in this context. It was the menorah that served as the primary Jewish symbol from antiquity until the post-Renaissance period. In the 17th Century the symbol was adopted by certain groups in central Europe as a symbol of Judaism but it was not until the late 19th Century that the Magen David began to gain association with Judaism in Eastern Europe. It was in 1897 with the International Zionist Conference that the star was chosen as an international representation of the Zionist movement.

The Etruscan Magen David soapbox was created in the 1880's as part of the Etruscan Ivory toilet set. It consisted of eight pieces: the soapbox with cover and liner; wash basin; pitcher; toothbrush holder; mouth cistern; chamber pot with cover; dresser mug; and dresser pitcher. The soap was the only piece in the set that had the Star of David on it but all of the pieces bore an overall design of upward and downward facing triangles. Most pieces were decorated in a combination of different color mottled glazes like the one shown below but some were decorated in the Venicene manner of enamel decorated earthenware like the example at the top of the post. All pieces are marked with the Etruscan Ivory circular logo.

Etruscan Ivory majolica Magen David soapbox

Considering the hundreds that were potted, all of the toilet set pieces are hard to find today. We have seen only four of the soapboxes in the past thirty years so no real price point has been established for them. Still we would encourage you to pick them up if you come upon them for you'll certainly never get another chance to own one.

For further reading on the history of the Magen David we refer you to The Six Pointed Star by Dr. O.J. Graham. For more information on the Etruscan toilet set we refer you to our book on Etruscan Majolica: The Definitive Reference on the Majolica of Griffen, Smith & Company.

The Art of Majolica: Felix Clouet

Felix Clouet was a French late 19th Century still life artist. His work is probably best described as tromp l'oeil: realism was his stock in trade. He was born 1806 in Puiset in Eure-et-Loire. He was a student of Emile Vernet-Lecomte. He made his debut in 1859 at the Paris Salon. Most frequently his work included game or flowers but occasionally he expanded into other still life subjects.

Nature Morte Au Lievre by Felix Cluet
A Still Life of Paeony Roses by Felix Clouet
In 1876 he undertook a painting that incorporated a majolica ewer into his subject matter. The ewer will be instantly recognizable to most long time Victorian majolica collectors: the Minton Palissy jug.

Hunting Still Life with Jug and Pheasant
Minton majolica Palissy ewer

The colors of the jug are different from that in the painting but there's no question that the shape is that of the Minton pitcher. But is it the Minton Jug? The answer is no. The jug shown is in fact the original 16th Century jug by Bernard Palissy upon which the 19th Century Minton jug is based upon. Below are some images of the Palissy original from the V&A Museum.

Original Palissy ewer from the V&A Museum

Some details of the jug in the painting:

It is so rare to find a recognizable piece of majolica in a painting. A lovely painting it is too!

Clouet's work can be found in private and public collections, including those in Northumberland, Bourges and Chartres. Clouet is listed in the 'Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs', by E Benezit. He died in 1882.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Minton's Majolica Prometheus Vase


Of all the pieces of majolica Minton created for its regular production line, one piece stands above the rest: the Minton majolica Prometheus Vase. The sheer presence of the four foot piece is stunning in its magnificence. In our 30 year career of buying majolica we have seen five of these for sale. Three of these vases had glazed grounds of clear Minton turquoise with the captives, eagle and Prometheus figure in full color. Two examples had the detailed hand painting created for exhibition pieces. Even the one example we saw which lacked its lid—and therefore its Prometheus figure—was quite imposing in its beauty.

Prometheus Bound by Peter Paul Rubens
The vase recounts the unsavory tale from Greek mythology of the punishment of the god Prometheus. The Titan stole fire from Mount Olympus and brought it to mankind. In revenge Zeus had Prometheus bound to a mountain rock and sent an eagle to eat the liver of the captive god. As Prometheus is immortal his liver regenerates every night only to be plucked out again the following day. The neck of the vase is decorated by four bound captives modeled after Italian 16th Century Venetian originals. The base has a wreath of laurel intertwined with snakes.

Designed by Victor Etienne Simian for Minton, a pair of the vases were first shown at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. This pair with painted decoration of a boar hunt by Thomas Allen was an imitation of the maiolica of the 15th Century.

In 1876 Minton exhibited an example with metallic decoration, simulated ivory figures and an azure ground at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.

Prometheus Vase with metallic
decoration in the Manchester Museum

A turquoise example in full color majolica glaze came up for auction recently in Pennsylvania.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an example with sgraffito decoration by Silas Rice done in the ancient Greek manner.

Originally quite expensive, the vase was considered the Rolls Royce of Minton's line when it was new and remains so today. Consequently there are not that many available for sale. Should you be interested in buying one they have brought between $11,000 and $40,000 for turquoise examples and up to $100,000 for the hand painted ones. A turquoise example without the lid sold in Atlanta a few years ago for $5,000.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Majolica Squirrels

As poor a reputation as rodents have, they are well represented in majolica. More often than not, rodents play a supporting role to other animals like cats and birds but sometimes they shine on their own.

The most commonly found rodent in majolica is probably the squirrel. Present in designs by Fielding, Sarraguemines, Lonitz, Minton George Jones and countless unnamed potters the squirrel is, as Carrie Bradshaw says, "a rat with a cuter outfit." Who has not seen the George Jones or Minton squirrel nut dishes or one of the many unmarked copies of them? They fill antique stores from coast to coast. A natural form for serving nuts they are always accompanied by a tray with leaves and/or flowers.

Minton majolica nut tray
George Jones double nut server
The much copied George Jones nut server
Round George Jones nut server
Unmarked majolica nut tray
Antique copy of the George Jones squirrel nut tray

Both Lonitz and Minton made life sized squirrel figures in majolica.

Lonitz majolica squirrel vase
Minton squirrel wall pocket
Of course squirrels appeared in other context as well. The French made majolica squirrel pitchers.

Fielding made two pitchers with squirrel decoration

There are also numerous representations of squirrels on vases.

Minton squirrel vase

There are squirrel figurals to sit on your shelf.

Lonitz majolica squirrel figure
Lonitz majolica squirrel figure group
George Jones majolica figure

And a squirrel creamer to match the Minton flat iron teapot.

Minton squirrel cream pitcher
There are squirrel plates and banks and teapots

So if you thought rodents weren't something you'd want sitting on your table or your shelf, remember the majolica squirrel!