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

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Myth of the 7" Wedgwood Majolica Oyster Plate

I think everyone understands the "nails on a chalkboard" syndrome. This is how I feel whenever I see a 7" seafood plate in the "Ocean" pattern by Wedgwood sold as a small size oyster plate. Call it a pet peeve if you wish but it drives me crazy! It's just not a small oyster plate! Now I know there are those who would disagree with this assessment but allow me to make my point.

When I first started buying majolica I was particularly attracted to the Wedgwood "Ocean" pattern. I even did a blog post about it during the first year I had this blog. As such I have paid particular attention to the pattern and its various ocean themed serving pieces. Like many Wedgwood oyster plates I've always felt that the oyster plate in this pattern is one of the finest pieces in the service. The "Ocean" oyster plate is 9" in diameter and deeply sculpted to allow for the serving of five oysters and a dipping sauce.

Wedgwood Argenta majolica "Ocean" oyster plate
In addition to this plate Wedgwood created a number of other plates for seafood use, including the well known large shell dishes that make up part of the fish service, two matching platters and a smaller 6" version of the shell plate for salad or whatever.

Wedgwood Argenta majolica "Ocean" fish platter
Wedgwood Argenta majolica 9" "Ocean" fish service plate
Enter Mariann Katz-Marks and her Collector's Encyclopedia of Majolica. We have written about the influence of Ms. Katz-Marks' books before. As the first real majolica identification guide available on the market it became an invaluable resource for collectors and dealer alike. The book became the reference of record until the Karmason-Stack book Majolica: A Complete History and Illustrated Survey became available several years later. Since the publication of the latter book the Katz-Marks book has fallen to the wayside as other, better researched books became available, but the influence of the book on the early development of the American retail market is unmistakable. Unfortunately the many errors and biases in the Katz-Marks book were also perpetuated until they became part of the collector's lexicon. One of these errors is the identification of the 7" "Ocean" seafood plate as a small oyster plate.

7" Wedgwood Argenta faux oyster plate
Now why anyone would believe that this plate is a small oyster plate confounds me. It does kind of look like the "Ocean" oyster plate, yes, but the plate is essentially flat without wells to hold either oysters or dipping sauce. It is completely useless for the proposed purpose. Compare this flat plate to a real small size oyster plate such as the one below with deep wells, and you can see there is no mistaking the function of the real oyster plate.

Wedgwood small oyster plate
Besides, looking at it from a purely practical point of view, why would a small plate for oysters hold six oysters when the larger plate only holds five?

The answer to this quandary comes to us from the Wedgwood pattern books. A 9" version of this plate design also exists and it is just as flat as the smaller one. 

9" Wedgwood Argenta majolica "Ocean" "Seafood" plate
The Wedgwood pattern book identifies this larger plate as a "Seafood" plate. And there is your answer! The small plate is not an oyster plate but a general seafood plate or pickle to compliment the larger 9" "Seafood" plate the way the 6" "Ocean" fish service plate compliments the larger one.

I suppose it wouldn't bother me so much if it was simply a case of misidentification but the truth is that dealers are selling these small seafood plates as oyster plates and charging ridiculous prices for them.
This makes us all out for fools and no one likes being a fool.

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