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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Majolica in the Media: Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Did anyone catch the Andy Serkis interview on the "Late Show with Stephen Colbert?"

Andy, who is best known for being the actor behind such digital motion capture performances as Caesar in the "Planet of the Apes" series and Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings," was wearing a shirt with an applique that bore a striking resemblance to a Minton majolica oyster plate on the sleeve!

Andy Serkis, left
There was no acknowledgment of the peculiar ornament so I haven't the slightest idea why it was on the sleeve. There was nothing else even vaguely similar on the rest of the shirt. My guess is that whoever created the shirt saw an oyster plate and decided to create a patch similar to it. In reality, it was probably not meant to represent a real Minton oyster plate, just a daisy-like ornament but, you never know! The oyster plate inspiration was obvious

Minton oyster plate
In any case, the patch caught my eye and I was curious if anyone else made the association. It was lots of fun seeing it from the perspective of a collector.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Majolica of Joseph Holdcroft and Company

When collectors talk about the top three English majolica potteries they always mention Minton, George Jones and Wedgwood. That these three are considered separate from all the other dozens of potteries is based largely on their quality. The three had a very high standard of design and workmanship that sets them apart from the rest. But there was a fourth large pottery that made fine quality majolica, one that is rarely placed in such illustrious company—Joseph Holdcroft and Company. In spite of their prodigious output Holdcroft never quite makes the cut. Their designs are a little less sophisticated, their glazes a little less vibrant, and their workmanship a lot more variable than the others. This is not to diminish all their work because they made some extraordinary pottery. Their output just seems to lack that little something extra that distinguishes "great" from "very, very good." It's hard to believe, but in the 6+ years that I have been doing this blog I have never done a post exclusively on the Holdcroft pottery. That fact alone echoes the general consensus of how Holcroft is considered. It is the pottery equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield. It just doesn't get any respect!

Unlike most who worked in the pottery trade, Joseph Holdcroft did not come from poverty. He was the child of an affluent pottery owner, William Holdcroft, who spent most of his education in private schools. Upon graduation from the Wedgwood Institute he joined his father's pottery, the George Street Pottery, where he developed several patents for the manufacture of earthenware. Like George Jones before him, Joseph Holdcroft then worked for Mintons, leaving there around 1865 to open his own concern on St. Martin's Lane in Longton where he specialized in silver luster. About five years later he opened the Sunderland Pottery at Daisy Bank, Longton where he specialized in majolica, Parian and silver luster.

Joseph Holdcroft
The William Holdcroft George Street pottery in Tunstall
Longton, described as the "center of cheap china" production
The Joseph Holdcroft pottery at Daisy Bank, Longton

The company's product was well respected and received good sales during its time. After 1885, the thrust of the company changed and it went from producing high quality original ware to cheaper, poorly potted imitative patterns. The quality of the work suffered for the sake of output and workmanship varied significantly. The company continued production of this cheaper majolica until 1906 when Joseph Holdcroft died. The pottery was then taken over by his son, Thomas who changed the name to Holdcroft Ltd. and added the production of enameled brick. The company continued in operation until around 1930.

It's this long and varied quality production of majolica that is responsible for the tainted reputation of the Holdcroft name today. Whereas their finest majolica is among the best produced, the Holdcroft name on a piece is no guarantee of quality as it is the case of the big three potteries.

Of Holdcroft's original designs, at least twelve were registered between 1870-1883. Many of their other original designs were produced in prodigious quantities though few were copied by contemporary studios.

Holdcroft majolica design registered 1870
Recognizing Holdcroft majolica is not always easy since they didn't always mark their wares. When they did mark it the company marked its wares in one of two ways, either with the initials JH in a circle or the name J. Holdcroft in capital letters in a straight line. A way of recognizing unmarked ware is by the underside glaze. Most commonly the underside of Holdcroft pieces will be glazed a recognizable dull green glaze. Some pieces, particularly plates, can be glazed in a mottled gray, blue and brown combination. Less commonly the undersides were glazed in a solid brown or green and brown mottle.

Another way of recognizing Holdcroft is by the quality of the glazes themselves. Their turquoise glaze is a slightly duller color than that of the turquoise of other companies; their green is a slightly dull gray/green. They tend to favor strange color combinations like turquoise, chartreuse and brown as well as turquoise and brown and cobalt and brown. Their modeling is also not among the finest. Human faces look a little bit odd and animals are usually highly stylized. In general their design sense is rather clumsy from a modern perspective but most of it had decent craftsmanship close to that of the "big three".

Still, the company made some wonderful things... and a few slightly peculiar things.

Holdcroft oyster plate
Holdcroft fox and goose game dish
Holdcroft apple blossom punch bowl
Holdcroft majolica butterfly vase
Holdcroft peacock butter pat
Holdcroft copy of a George Jones design

Holdcroft parrot and banana jardinieres

Holdcroft fish plate. A popular design it was expanded to cheese bells and jardinieres
Holdcroft dolphin compote
Holdcroft tobacco leaf umbrella stand another popular design.
Holdcroft pomegranate design mustache cup

Holdcroft fish platter
Holdcroft shell and daisy butter pat
Holdcroft "Melon" teapot, registered 1879
Holdcroft Asian on cocoanut teapot
A Holdcroft registered design from 1877

Holdcroft alligator ground bird and reed jug
Hodcroft "Rustic" tea service, registered 1877
Rare Holdcroft bird on apple teapot.

Holdcroft majolica shell bonbonnière, registered 1880
Holdcroft majolica stork cane stand
Holdcroft "Rustic" Stilton cheese stand
Holdcroft pond lily cheese dome

When collecting Holdcroft, it is easily found but doesn't quite bring the prices of the larger potteries so a fine collection can be assembled at a relatively reasonably rate. You need to be conscious of the craftsmanship when buying because of the large variation in quality made. There are a variety of interesting patterns, like: Rustic, Alligator, Pomegranate, Tobacco Leaf, Pond Lily, and Apple Blossom plus the usual assortment of novelty items. As in other cases, signed examples will command higher prices than those that are not signed.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Our Majolica Music Association Game

Do you ever find yourself drawing associations between artworks of different mediums?

Let me give you an example. Whenever I Hear Saint-Saëns' "Swan" from "Carnival of the Animals" I think of John Everett Millais painting, "Ophelia." There's no real reason for that association as Saint-Saëns clearly was illustrating his idea of a swan's movements. Still, that little piece of music always brings up that image of the drowned Ophelia floating mournfully in the water.

John Everett Millais "Ophelia"
Here's another example. The piece "Aquarium" from that same Saint-Saëns piece brings to mind Van Gogh's "Wheatfields' with its glistening, wavering wheat and flock of birds.

Vincent Van Gogh's "Wheatfields"
The same types of associations come up when I see certain pieces of pottery. I cannot look at Minton's majolica Crusader matchbox without thinking of "Liebestod" from Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde." Tristan lies on his bier as Isolde mourns beside him.

Minton majolica Crusader match box
Of course these are entirely subjective but if you'll indulge me it's a fun way to test your knowledge. I thought it might be amusing to expand this game to other pieces of majolica as well.

The first one that comes to mind is the imperious majolica Barrister pitcher which says one thing to me– Scarpia in Puccini's "Tosca". No more imperious figure exists in all of majolica as far as I know, a perfect match for the grasping, vain Scarpia.

Majolica Barrister pitcher
Then we have Rusalka from Dvorák's opera of the same name. Can't you just picture Minton's mermaid jug figure singing her "Song to the Moon" praying for the love of her mortal prince?

Minton majolica "Askos" jug

There are a couple of pieces that remind me of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" operas, one of my favorites.
The Royal Worcester majolica Hunter brings to mind "Forest Murmur's" from "Der Ring des Nibelungen's" "Siegfried."

Royal Worcester's "Hunter"

Then of course, there is also Brünnhilde's horse Grane who flies through the skies in the famous "Ride of the Valkyries" from "Die Walkure" and later carries her into Sigefried's funeral pyre in "Götterdämmerung."  What more fitting majolica piece than the majestic Sarreguemines "Horse Head" pitcher.

It would be a serious omission to neglect "Vesti La Giubba" from Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." For that we'll choose one of the Austrian clown humidors.

Clown head humidor
The beautiful Wedgwood jewel carrier which would fit into so many contexts we'll pick for the Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin.

Wedgwood majolica jewelry casket

For Brown, Westhead Moore's Egyptian garden seat what could be more fitting than Verdi's Amneris in the fourth act aria finale from "Aida" praying for Radames' soul.

BW&M "Egyptian" garden seat
This game gets kind of addictive after a while. It works backwards too; choose a piece of pottery and try to come up with an appropriate piece of music. I could go on and on but I'll finish up with a lighthearted piece from Meredith Wilson's "The Music Man" –"Pick A Little,-Talk A Lot" which deserves nothing less than a Massier majolica bird opus!

Massier bird planter

Give the game a try yourself! It's fun!