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

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.