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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Majolica of Wasmuël

If you've spent any time at all looking at majolica you've certainly come across the faience of the Wasmuël pottery of Belgium. Among the plentiful majolica potted in Europe Wasmuël majolica stands out; it is has a very specific look and color palette. Still, the story of Wasmuël is little known outside of Belgium.

The pottery at Wasmuël with its large domed kilns

The story of the faience factory in Wasmuël begins with potter Isidore Paulus in 1834. Paulus was the former manager of the pottery factory at Onnaing. He purchased land in the Belgian city of Wasmuël and built the pottery for the production of white glazed utility pottery and earthenware for sanitary use. With the introduction of majolica glazes in the 1850's Paulus began experimenting with majolica and solid colored earthenware. Soon he was incorporating majolica decorative wares into his line.

Upon Paulus's death in 1878 Auguste Mouzin expanded the pottery with the intention of exporting his faience to Great Britain and France where he saw a market for it. By 1880 a large percentage of the company's output had been converted to the production of decorative majolica for home use. Mouzin's son-in-law and successor Eugene Meyer and later his son Henri continued the production of faience in specialty and decorative products like asparagus sets and jardinières.

The interest in majolica began to wane by 1907 and the company shifted more of its production to more modern wares. The period from 1880 to 1914 is the source for the majority of majolica we associate with Wasmuël today.

Auguste Mouzine
Wasmuël plate with a portrait of Eugene Meyer, Mozine's son-in-law and successor

After the end of World War I the pottery passed through a succession of managers. Majolica production continued on a limited basis until the beginning of World War II when production at the pottery slowed to a trickle. In 1951 financial problems caused the pottery to close. In 1952 the company was liquidated and the pottery demolished.

Wasmuël majolica is easily found today but not necessarily easy to recognize for the novice. The vast majority of Wasmuël majolica was not marked aside from a decorator's mark on the reverse; later pieces bear one of several ink marks.

As we mentioned earlier the company's glazes have a very specific color palate and look. With practice one can learn to recognize the glaze colors that distinguish the ware of this pottery from those of other European potteries.
I should mention that there was considerable overlap between the managers of the pottery at Onnaing and the pottery at Wasmuël so there is a certain similarity to the glazes of the two potteries.

Let's take a look at some of the ware.

The variety is enormous; the quality is fine. There is wit and charm in the work much in the French tradition of whimsy. One can't really say it is an elegantly designed majolica but it fits in very well with the country French market for which it is intended. Prices are generally quite reasonable too, which makes it a good choice for those on a limited budget.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Majolica of the Arsenal Pottery

Walk into just about any antiques shop or co-op in the U.S. that carries pottery and you're likely to encounter the work of the Arsenal Pottery. The pottery was abundant and inexpensive at the time that it was made and has remained easily available to just about anyone who might be interested for the past 110 years. Yet, the Arsenal Pottery is one of the least well known names in majolica. What happened?

What happened is that not much was known about the majolica of the Arsnal Pottery until relatively recently. It is only because of the accidental discovery of shards of majolica from the shores of the Delaware River that we now know the manufacturer of the majolica that has graced our homes for all this time.

The Mayer Bros. c. 1885
The pottery began in 1869 as a division of the Joseph Mayer Pottery Manufacturing Company of Trenton, NJ. Mayer was an English potter who emigrated to the United States in 1865 to seek his fortune in the booming American pottery trade. Under the name of the Arsenal pottery Mayer opened his pottery in 1876. Mayer began by specializing in yellow ware, tile and treacle glazed Rockingham ware for domestic use. In 1878 his brother James joined the operation and by the early 1880's the Mayer brothers expanded their wares by adding majolica and Barbotine wares to their line in addition to porcelain and ironstone ware.

Arsenal treacle glazed pitcher
The Arsenal Pottery was located on Temple Street at the corner of Third Street and ran the length of the block to Schenck Street in Trenton, an area conveniently located three blocks from the Trenton Channel of the Delaware River. It consisted of several three and four story brick buildings approximately 250 feet by 300 feet in size employing about 100 men, women and children. The pottery had five large kilns as well as a smaller decorating kiln.

The majolica produced at Arsenal are some of the most commonly found designs seen in U.S. majolica.

Arsenal Pottery cannister marked APC

Arsenal marked their ironstone but almost none of their majolica. The two exceptions I can speak of from my own experience are in the Arsenal owl paperweight which I have seen marked with the Mayer name, and a green leaf dish which was marked Mayer in a script font.

Arsenal  Owl Paperweight marked MAYER

This lack of markings is one of the reasons the identity of these pieces was unknown for so long. It was only until the earlier mentioned excavations that the connection was made with Arsenal.

In 1884 the Mayer Pottery submitted to the New Orleans Cotton Centennial Exhibition an elaborate piece of majolica for prize consideration. While the ceramics prize instead that year went to Griffen, Smith & Company of Phoenixville, PA, the majolica piece shows the company's dexterity with the majolica form.

Arsenal pottery vase exhibited to the 1884 New Orleans Exhibition

Arsenal Pottery is easy to find and relatively inexpensive. It has remained a favorite with decorators looking to add a bit of rustic charm to country interiors.

Despite its availability, the work of Arsenal is being liberally reproduced today. The quality of some reproductions are exceptionally good. The Toby plate, the Blackberry plates and the Stag and Dog plate reproductions are so good they have fooled both dealers and collectors.

Reproduction majolica blackberry plate

Reproduction majolica dog and stag plate

Other pieces being reproduced today are easily discernible from the originals: the floral pitchers; birds nest pitchers; pond lily pitchers; maple leaf plates; and bark and flower pitchers. One design, the small daisy pitcher is even being marketed with a phony Eturscan Majolica seal on the underside.

The production of majolica continued at Arsenal at least until 1893. When Edwin Atlee Barber published his book, The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States he commented that at that time Arsenal was the only pottery in the country still potting majolica. The Mayers sold the pottery in 1905.

This post has been updated since its original publication