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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 Year End Wrap-Up

For the first time in ten years there appears to be an improvement in the antique market. While Victorian and earlier antiques remain fashionably outdated for the millennial home decor buying market there seems to be a small uptick in the popularity of older pieces–that is those that fall outside of the popular mid century ware that has dominated the market. This isn't to say that the popularity of the English and French country decor that supported the flourishing of the antique market during the past 35 years has returned because it hasn't, but the austerity of modern design has started to break.

I first noticed this while looking through Country Living Magazine's "40+ Elegant and Easy Thanksgiving Table Settings" last month. A number of table settings include antique china to compliment the modern china that make up the majority of the place settings. In Country Living's December "50+ Christmas Table Settings and Centerpieces." barely a piece of antique china  can be seen among the table settings, but antique china is starting to creep back into the rooms featuring the layouts. Antique glass, flow blue and Jadite appear in the display rooms. The sole use of antique china in the form of red transfer china can be seen in one of the table settings. Majolica, which used to dominate theses layouts, is nowhere to be seen. Country Living magazine declared exclusive antique spaces –as in mid century modern recreated spaces– as one of their "out" trends. They also declared that the popularity of neutrals such as beige and grey as another "out" trend with bright colors and jewel tones a new "in" trend. This supports the Pantone color forecast for 2018 which calls for cerulean blue, green, Tuscan red, violet, teal and turquoise to dominate 2018 decor.

The prices on antiques seem to have bottomed out. While the price of antiques are nowhere  near what it was before the financial collapse of 2007, the decline seems to have stopped. The recent adage "If it's brown it's down," still remains true for furniture but things may be turning around. Antique furniture has a significantly smaller market than it did just ten years ago but like everything else these prices are cyclical and are expected to rebound. Bloomberg encourages buying fancy English and French furniture right now for investment because of their current low prices.

Small antiques stores unfortunately seem to be going the way of mom and pop stores everywhere. Antique malls, auctions and online buying seem to be the wave of the future

The prices on majolica and other antique smalls has also finally steadied after ten years of relentless declines. A survey of general antiques auctions across the past few months support that conclusion. Specialty auctions have also become more competitive with good pieces bringing reasonable but not outrageous prices. Among smalls, antique art and jewelry still bring the highest prices in the secondary market with decorative arts at the low end.

So where does that take us in the individual markets going into 2018? Barring another recession or devastating national disaster the prices should continue to slowly climb upwards. English majolica continues to dominate the market as it always has but some American and French pieces have brought good prices this year as well.

George Jones and Minton majolica have dominated the English majolica market as they always have with Wedgwood and Holdcroft bringing up the rear. The correction of the market has finally made many of these pieces affordable again for the mid range collector. Animal bottles and pitchers continue their reign over the animal majolica market with prices remaining steady.  Humidors too remain popular with good prices across the board. The market for match strikers, butter pats and smokers has largely collapsed.

In all, things are looking good at this point in time for collectors. Bargains are available and this is the time to take advantage of the low prices and strong availability.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Etruscan Majolica Shell Pattern

Plates and cuspidor in the Etruscan Shell pattern

The Etruscan Shell pattern, often referred to as Shell and Seaweed, is easily the most popular pattern made by the Etruscan Works of Phoenixville. It is also the most extensively realized pattern made by the company. It is one of three ocean themed patterns made to compliment each other: Shell, Coral and Dolphin.

Shell was originally designed as the Etruscan response to the Belleek shell pieces. It was the main pattern of Etruscan Ivory Ware, launched around the time of the other two main dessert patterns, Cauliflower and Bamboo. Ivory Ware pieces were fired for biscuit then glazed in an opaque white lead glaze base. The pieces were then fired for a second time with luster glaze highlights in a special kiln made specifically for these pieces.

Belleek shell bowl
Like Belleek, Ivory Ware hollowware pieces were glazed with a yellow luster glaze lining. Exteriors were highlighted with other color luster glazes and colored trims. Unfortunately, the delicacy of Belleek porcelain was far superior to that achievable with the earthenware used by the Etruscan Works. Shell Ivory pieces and Etruscan Ivory suffered from the comparison. Also the lusters used, particularly the yellow luster lining, easily wore off with use, an issue that Belleek did not have, making for a product that did not have durability.

Shell Ivory Ware cake plate
After the relative failure of the Shell Ivory Ware line the company decided to make broader use of the Shell molds created for Ivory Ware by adding a full color majolica version to their catalog. The new version of Shell was an outstanding success soon overshadowing the rest of the company's output. The company continued adding shapes to the pattern over the years and modified others making for a fully realized dessert service.

Full color Shell cake plate
Shell pieces as illustrated in Charles Rebert's American Majolica book
The Shell line consisted of 9", 8" and 7" plates, coffee cups with 7" saucers, teacups with 6" saucers, a mustache cup, two types of butter pats, bowls, a footed salad bowl, tall compotes, dessert or card stand, thirteen sizes of jug, a straight spout teapot in two sizes, a crooked spout teapot in two sizes, sugar bowls in three sizes, waste bowl, spooner, relish dish–only made in Ivory Ware–cake platter, three kinds of fruit dish, ice cream bowl, humidor, cuspidor and two types of butter dish.

One of two styles of Shell butter dish
The pattern molds were also used in the company's Venicine line of enamel decorated earthenware. These Venicine pieces were the favorite of decorators because they required meticulous detail and allowed the decorator's to showcase their artistic talent.

Venicine Shell plate

One of the Shell pages from the 1884 Etruscan catalog
Shell has always commanded a premium price. In the 1884 catalog it is the most expensive dessert pattern shown. The pages featuring the pattern were also the only ones completely removed from copies of the catalog distributed after the New Orleans Cotton Exposition. We can only speculate why but my own guess is that the popularity and expense of the pattern made additional promotion unnecessary. On the secondary market Shell still commands good prices. While it suffered the same fate as all other pottery after the 2008 crash Shell is still the most expensive pattern you can purchase by the company.

If you would like a complete survey of all of the pieces of the Shell pattern it is available in my book, Etruscan Majolica: The Definitive Reference to the Majolica of Griffen, Smith & Company. You can also catch our Shell video on the Etruscan Majolica Facebook page.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Special Thanks

I would like to offer special thanks to Freeman's Auction house, Ceramics Division Head Nicholas Nicholson, and consigner Dr. Howard Silby for making reference to my book Etruscan Majolica: The Definitive Reference to the Majolica of Griffen, Smith & Company, in their recent auction catalog of Dr. Silby's majolica collection.

I had the good fortune to view Dr. Silby's collection at his home when I was seeking rare examples of Etruscan Majolica for inclusion in my book. He was most gracious in allowing me to photograph these samples for my book.

My book is in its updated second edition and is currently available through Amazon and fine book sellers everywhere.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The Etruscan Baseball Pitcher

The Etruscan Baseball pitcher in its most common colorways.

The Etruscan Baseball jug is one of the signature pieces in the GSH oeuvre. First produced in the early 1880s the pitcher is the earliest known pottery depiction of baseball in the U.S. The subject may be strictly American but the pitcher's roots are firmly British.

Wedgwood Cricket and Soccer pitcher in Argenta

The Etruscan pitcher is derived from a Wedgwood jug. The Wedgwood soccer and cricket jug was introduced around 1872 as part of the company's Argenta line. One side of the jug features two figures playing cricket while the other side shows two figures playing football, or soccer as it is known in the United States. The Etruscan version is a pretty faithful rendition of the Wedgwood original with one exception. As cricket was not played in the U.S., the cricket players on the one side of the Wedgwood jug were replaced by baseball players. Baseball was a growing popular sport in the U.S. The Etruscan Works itself had its own baseball team, the Etruscans, who played games against teams from local businesses.

The Wedgwood original on the left with the Etruscan version on the right
The Etruscan Baseball pitcher was made in three different sizes with the largest being the most common. There were also five different variations of the jug made: one with the baseball player on the right side of the handle and the soccer players on the left; one with the soccer players on the right side of the handle and the baseball players on the left; one with the baseball players on both sides of the pitcher with no soccer players; one with only soccer players on both sides; and one version with both baseball players and soccer players with an enlarged spout. 

There are four glazing treatments used that I am familiar with. The most commonly found multicolor treatment is a copy of the Wedgwood Argenta original: white ground with green, grey and rose trim and multicolor figures. Less commonly seen is a red ground with green, grey and rose trim and figures in colors of grey, blue and brown.

Etruscan Baseball pitcher with rare red ground

Etruscan Baseball pitcher in the large spout variation

The pitcher was also decorated using the over-the-glaze Venicine enamel treatment. These jugs were made from traditional earthenware, as were all the others, and marked with the Etruscan Majolica stamp. There does exist a unique variation of this treatment—in Etruscan China made by David Smith for his youngest daughter Alice. This pitcher is decorated in the Venicene manner with an added pink ground, pastel figures and gold trim.

Etruscan Baseball jug in Venicine

Alice Smith's Baseball pitcher

Of all of these the most commonly found treatment for the jug is in a solid majolica color. These were most likely issued as promotions/premiums or issued by the potteries that succeeded the Etruscan Works at the Phoenixville location: the Griffen China Company and the Chester pottery. These solid color jugs are never marked.

Solid color Baseball jug

In addition to these variations of the baseball pitchers adapted from the Wedgwood jug, the basic design for the jug was also adapted for other uses without figures. The company used the design for vases, tumblers, and umbrella stands with solid colored grounds and gold banding or decorated with transfers. The same design was also elongated and the spout enlarged for a tall cider jug. None of these are ever marked.

Etruscan vase with transfer decoration

Phoenix Pottery cider pitcher

Phoenix Pottery tumbler

There was in addition a special version of the pitcher made by the Chester pottery for the political presidential campaign of 1896 with William McKinley on one side and of his vice- president, Garret Hobart, on the reverse. These are marked with the Chester pottery logo.

McKinley campaign picher based on the Wedgwood model

We don't know when production of the Baseball pitcher stopped but our guess is that it was sometime after David Smith left the Chester Pottery in 1885. The other pieces derived from the Wedgwood pitcher –umbrella stand, the cider pitcher, tumbler, vase and plain pitcher– continued in production for several years until the closing of the Chester pottery in 1899. It is believed that all majolica production ceased at this time.

Today the baseball pitcher is still one of the most popular pieces made by the company and even in its unmarked, solid color variation continues to command good prices in the collector's market.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Majolica in the Movies: Raintree County

Raintree County was MGM's "big" production of 1957. Starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Eva Marie Saint it was based on a best selling book by Ross Lockridge Jr. and endowed with a liberal production budget of six million dollars. The studio hoped that it would be the next "Gone With The Wind." Things didn't quite turn out that way.

The movie was plagued with production problems, the worst being an almost fatal auto accident involving star Montgomery Clift which occurred halfway through filming. Clift's face was crushed, requiring months of reconstructive surgery. To finish the movie Clift relied heavily on pain killers and alcohol for the remainder of production causing aberrant behavior, delays and cost overruns for the studio. In addition to this the summer heat of the Southern on-location filming caused some of the cast, including star Elizabeth Taylor, to suffer from heat prostration from their heavy costumes.

Montgomery Clift's car after his accident.
The surgery was remarkably successful considering the severe damage Clift suffered. Still there was a noticeable difference in Clift's face after surgery that turned the entire move into a gruesome guessing game for the audience trying to choose the scenes shot before the accident and after the accident. (The accident occurred before the on-location scenes were filmed causing his looks to shift back and forth from indoor scene to exterior shot.)

The movie is set in the period just before the Civil War and concludes just after the Civil War. The recreation of the period was admirably handled with set decoration and costumes fit for a major MGM production. What I believe to be majolica make two appearances during the film. Early in the film the Clift character is shown at home with his parents in Raintree, Indiana. On the kitchen table sits a majolica bowl or tray on a trivet. I can't make out the pattern but the brown, green and yellow colors look like one of the oak leaf trays seen in the Lassie movies. Since this is the only view of the object that we receive and the only scene in the movie filmed on this set we'll never really know if it is this piece or another but it most certainly is majolica. Considering the date of the scene is supposed to be 1859, it may be a tiny bit early for such a piece to have supposedly found its way to Indiana but it is still within the realm of possibility.

Scene from "Lassie Come Home"

Later in the story at the protagonist's home, we get a good look at what appears to be the second piece of majolica in the movie– a large ceramic cockatoo centered on a Victorian display cabinet. I can't say the piece itself looks like a familiar majolica piece to me but the shiny glaze certainly seems to be majolica. This part of the story occurs sometime after the death of President Lincoln which would place it at around 1865. In this case majolica would have been available to the American market for a number of years so a prosperous household like Clift's would certainly have had access to this latest decorative fad from Europe.

After completion of filming MGM knew it had a problem. Not only was the movie a big white elephant but the Clift issue proved to be a disturbing distraction. Instead of releasing the movie in the higher resolution MGM Camera 65mm format in which it was filmed it was released in the smaller 35mm anamorphic CinemaScope format. It was not only cheaper to distribute on 35mm film which cut potential losses but the lower resolution was more forgiving where Clift's face was concerned. 

Raintree County was universally panned by critics at its release but still handed Elizabeth Taylor her first Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. It also received several other Academy nominations including one for set decoration. In the end however the film won no awards and lost money for the studio. 

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Minton Archive

Minton Museum, 1889.

In a corner of the Internet lies a Web site that could prove of great use to scholars and pottery collectors alike in the coming years: the online version of the Minton Archive.

The Minton Archive consists of the production records of over twenty companies who operated in Stoke-on-Trent from about 1800 through 1968. In addition to the Minton company itself the records of such companies as Ridgeway, Royal Doulton, and Shelly are included in the archive.

Created by The Art Fund in 2015 and gifted to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, the original paper archive is slowly being transferred online. Right now the records of the Minton pottery archive are available for research online as are a small group of highlighted images that accompany these records. Plans are to enlarge these visual images to include the entire Minton section of the archive as well as those records of the other companies.

The site itself is a wonderful read for anyone interested in this period of British ceramics. In addition to photographs of the company there are individual sections devoted to the company, artists, shapes, production, artwork and employees. There is also a marvelous blog that covers a variety of topics from designs to conservation of the paper the original archive was written on.

The archive is extensive. Because of this I will concentrate on only three sections that I thought would be of interest. One of those sections highlights the extraordinary designs of Christopher Dresser. Dresser was a highly influential industrial artist who left his mark on all levels of decorative wares.

Another section shows original designs for majolica wares including English Registration records.

Minton majolica lobster terrine*

Minton vase in porcelain*

Minton majolica oyster plate*

Finally, the blog section did an examination of the famous Minton butterfly plate, starting with the original registration through the various designs used on the plates.

Minton butterfly plate in majolica*
Minton butterfly plate in majolica*
In time the archive will only become better as it expands to include more records. We're very lucky that the potteries had the foresight to save their records for posterity.

To visit the archive go to:  http://www.themintonarchive.org.uk

All images are from the Minton Archive with the exception of those with asterisks*