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

Friday, January 27, 2017

French Barbotine Majolica and the Work of Perret-Gentil, Menton

Picturing the citrus representative of the area is this turn of century poster for Menton

It is probably something of a redundancy to refer to a special type of French majolica as "Barbotine" since it is a generic term that is in general use in France to encompass all forms of majolica and Faience. In reality however it describes any slip form ceramic body that has applied decoration added to it. Specifically what I am referring to is majolica with flowers, fruits and animals applied separately from the body and covered with majolica glazes. While you see a bit of English majolica potted in this manner, the French were particularly adept at this kind of trump-l'oil decoration and used it extensively. They even have their own term for it, "garnissage." It is a form of decoration that has been popular in hard paste European porcelain for hundreds of years. In the late Victorian period it was extended by the French and English to include soft paste work in earthenware with majolica glazes.

The final result is wildly ornate and completely over the top by today's standards of taste but for the Victorian it fit in well within their design philosophy that there is no such thing as too much ornamentation. As you may suspect, this type of decoration is highly subject to damage, particularly done in the soft bodied earthenware that majolica was made of. It is virtually impossible to find an example today without some degree of damage. The one positive note here is that most pieces have so much detail that a broken petal or leaf is easily lost in the overall decoration. Unlike other forms of French majolica, Barbotine work has a limited market in the United States among majolica collectors. It is much more popular on the European continent. There is one manufacturer of this type of work though, whose work is very much in demand among American majolica collectors. The manufacturer to which I refer is the Perret-Gentil factory in Menton, France, commonly referred to simply as Menton.

The pottery industry on the French Riviera has been active manufacturing utilitarian ware since the Greek era. The area is known for its blue seas and abundant citrus. It is the only area in all of Southern France to which the lemon tree is native. As such the symbolic fruit of Menton, the lemon, is frequently used as a decorative motif. In the late 1800's the area's azure shores and beautiful weather became popular with Victorian tourists looking for relief from the Northern European climate. With the creation of majolica the popularity of colorful pottery modeled as citrus and other fruit developed as a souvenir market catering specifically to these tourists.

A Victorian view of Menton on the French Riviera

Signature of the Pereit-Gentil pottery of Menton

Perret-Gentil is not the only Barbotine manufacturer in Menton but it is certainly the best known. It was established in Menton in 1879 by Swiss potter Eugène Perret-Gentil and is still in operation today. The peak of its manufacture of Barbotine majolica started around 1890 and continued until around 1920. The work the pottery has produced since is decorative utilitarian ware most frequently decorated with citrus.

Eugène Perret-Gentil is seen today as one of the most important potters of the Côte d'Azure as he is credited for having developed this market for decorative pottery that has transformed the fortunes of many in the area to this day. Today, signed Perret-Gentil majolica brings top dollar on the antique market. It's easy to see why. Who's spirits wouldn't be raised by its bright, sun drenched colors and realistic life sized citrus. It's like bringing a part of the French Riviera home with you.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

What the Heck is That 2?

It's been quite a while since we've done a "What the Heck is That?" post. Most likely it's because majolica is generally pretty obvious in its iconography. Lately however we've come across another majolica pattern that seems to perplex people. Like the first "What the Heck is That?" post, this one comes courtesy of the Holdcroft factory. We are talking of the Holdcroft tobacco pattern.

On the one hand this pattern would obviously relate to the tobacco plant. After all, everyone knows that tobacco plants have long wide leaves. What throws most people is the peculiar background with the rose colored flowers, but, take a look at a tobacco plant. A flowering tobacco plant has small rosy pink flowers. While the shape and color of the flowers on the pattern are stylized, the placement is correct . The color of the flower varies by variety with flowers ranging from white to purple to red.

Holdcroft's tobacco pattern is a limited one used only on a small line of hollow ware pitchers, jardinieres and bowls. Aside from a butter pat we have not seen plates, cheese bells or tea sets in this pattern though we have seen an umbrella stand. Like most of Holdcroft's pieces, marking is erratic and color will vary with background seen in white and turquoise.

So the next time someone questions what pattern it is you can flash your botanical knowledge and say with confidence that it is a flowering tobacco pattern.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Shaky World of Pottery Attribution

Every antique pottery buyer has had this experience. You go into an antique shop and see a well known design of pottery marked on the sales tag with the wrong manufacturer's attribution. What do you do? Well, your answer to this dilemma will often say more about your ethics than anything else. If it is an expensive piece of Minton marked as an unknown American pottery and priced accordingly you're likely to pay the price and walk out of the shop with your new bargain under your arm, congratulating yourself on your superior knowledge. However if it is the other way around and it is an unremarkable piece by an unknown pottery marked and priced as a piece of rare Minton you're more likely to either chuckle and walk on past or bring it to the attention of the owner in the expectation that they will lower the price. We have to admit that we've responded in both manners to a faulty attribution.

Any glance through upcoming auction listings will offer plenty of opportunity to also do both of these. All too frequently auction listings are wildly incorrect to the detriment of both the consigner and the auctioneer. but to the delight of bidders. We recall seeing an ad for an auction where a majolica teapot was being offered for sale in a box lot with a small group of majolica odds and ends. It looked suspiciously like a George Jones teapot design from the fuzzy picture that was posted of the box lot content. We took a chance and bought the lot by phone bid. When we picked up the box lot we were pleased to see that our assessment was correct and we had purchased the entire lot, including a George Jones teapot, for under $100. If the auction staff had recognized the piece as a GJ teapot it would have most likely sold for several times that price just by itself. On the same note one can look on eBay any day of the year and see a half dozen "George Jones" teapots for sale, only they aren't by George Jones, just unmarked majolica of indeterminate provenance.

This is one reason why education is very important when one buys antiques. You really need to recognize what is being offered. Lately on eBay there have been a large number of pond lily plates listed for sale as Holdcroft. Where this idea comes from we can't say but it has taken hold on eBay and has been self perpetuating for months. Holdcroft made a number of pond lily plates but this design has never been among them; it doesn't even have any of the characteristics of a Holdcroft piece. In reality no one really knows who originally designed this particular pattern. All we know is that it was a design copied by a number of different companies in a number of different countries, among them Forester in GB and Griffen Smith & Co. in the US.

Unmarked pond lily plate frequently misidentified as Holcroft 
Griffen Smith & Co. version of the same pond lily plate as above

Forester comport with pond lily plate
It's funny how misidentifications like this take hold. We have never seen this design attributed to Holdcroft in any book yet there it is all over eBay!

We first joined eBay in 1998 and when we saw a listing for something that had an incorrect attribution we would contact the member who listed the piece and offer them the correct attribution. Perhaps that can be seen as an act of arrogance on our part–to assume we know more than them–but in fact we were just trying to be helpful. More often than not however the response was less than pleasant, sometimes accusing us of trying to undermine the dealer's price. Because of this we stopped contacting people to correct them. People don't like being told they don't know what they're doing, even if it's to their benefit.

The truth is that attributions matter and giving something the wrong attribution can be a costly mistake. Once we saw an extremely valuable piece of Minton offered for sale on eBay with a very low starting price. It was clear from the description that the seller had no idea what they had. They thought they were selling Italian pottery from the 1950s-60s. We wrote them and told them not to accept any offers outside of eBay but to just allow the auction reach its conclusion because their attribution was wrong and it was a valuable piece. We had no interest in buying it but we felt the owner was more likely to get a fair price through auction rather than have someone steal it from him with a private bid. He was very unkind in his response, saying that he had accepted a private offer for $1,500 and that we should mind our own business. If the piece had indeed been Italian pottery from the mid 20th century $1,500 would have been a generous offer. However it was not. The dealer's nasty reaction made it easier to tell him after the fact that the piece had a value closer to $15,000.

The bottom line is that in this name brand world we live in certain names can make a big difference in the antique business. People want reassurance that they are buying the genuine article and are willing to pay a premium for it. This is why signatures, and attributions really do matter.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Latest Majolica Reproductions–Winter 2017 Edition

It's been some time since we've had a post on majolica reproduction. They are consistently the most popular posts that we do. Is it any wonder? The sea of majolica reproductions grows deeper every year. Why such reproductions continue to flood into the US baffles us. Since the collapse of the mid-range and low-end markets for majolica eight years ago these reproductions are often selling for more than the originals. Perhaps it is because the cost of the reproductions is so low that it improves the margins of those dealer who try to pass them off as old. Or maybe it just comes down to ignorance. It is our belief that most general antiques dealers can't tell the difference between the reproductions and the antiques. That is the only rationalization we can offer for their presence in the inventory of reputable dealers. If you are a novice in buying majolica you are better off with a dealer who has a proven knowledge of the pottery.

One thing that these reproductions have in common is their poor quality. Most have unglazed sections in areas that are not commonly seen when on display, i.e. the interiors and the undersides. The areas that are glazed are usually terribly done with no definition and glaze dripping all over. Most are copies of existing antiques but recently there has been a flourish of new designs with no antique precedent. We will be showing both of these in this column in addition to some older reproductions that just don't want to die.

This first reproduction is of one of the most commonly found designs available–the majolica owl pitcher. With all of the originals available at reasonable prices why would anyone choose the reproduction with its muddy, runny glazes.

The next piece is brand new among reproductions. To the best of my knowledge it is an original design utilizing commonly seen decorative motifs. Note the particularly dull glaze, something you would never see in Victorian majolica

The next piece is clearly from the same factory as the one above.

The heron comport below is a copy of a commonly found stand most often seen with a pond lily plate top. This repro however seems to be from the same factory as the two repros above and appears to have been decorated by a child. The glaze is so badly done compared to the original that its appeal completely escapes me.

The repro below might have been passable as an antique toby considering the wide number of companies that made them and the wide range of quality one sees among them, if not for the unglazed bottom which you would never see in a Victorian figural pitcher.

The next repro is a take on the Minton acorn and snail jug. The interior and base are unglazed. The craftsmanship is clearly not that of the Minton factory.

The blackberry plate below is a new version of this commonly reproduced plate. It is actually a copy of one being made in Italy. Ironically the reproductions are of much better quality than the originals.

This next reproduction is a copy of the Fielding butterfly lip pitcher. The give away that this is a reproduction are the poor quality of the workmanship and the opaque green glaze on the side which you would never see on a genuine Fielding piece.

The next copy has been around for a while but in spite of its exceptionally poor quality and unglazed interior and base it is consistently being sold as genuine Holdcroft majolica which it is not.

The next reproduction is of the type of begonia leaf trays made by many different companies but made popular by the Etruscan Works of Phoenixville. The glaze however is very much NOT Etruscan. Something similar in nature is made by Leyden Arts Majolica of California, but those are clearly marked on the reverse. This is not.

The jug below is an exceptionally poor copy of a Sanford Pottery jug commemorating the Crimean War. The quality is so appallingly bad that it should be an easy one to pick out as a repro yet reputable dealers are still fooled.

That's it for now. As we always say, buy from a knowledgeable, reputable dealer who will stand behind their merchandise and you'll be rewarded with a piece you can be confident is a genuine antique... and if not you can return it for a refund!