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

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.

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