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

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Majolica in the Movies: The Fly

I’m a voracious viewer of Turner Classic Movies. As such I’m always watching old movies. One of the fun things about watching old movies as a collector is keeping an eye open for the set decoration on the movies looking for Victorian Majolica. Some movies are naturals for antique decor because they are period pieces. Examples would be movies such as “The Age of Innocence” and “Meet Me in St. Louis.” What I don’t expect to find however, is antique pottery in contemporary settings. Imagine my surprise at finding majolica in a classic horror film that I’ve probably seen a hundred times since childhood. This was the case with “The Fly.”

For those unfamiliar with “The Fly,” it is the story of a scientist whose experiments with transporting matter go terribly wrong. In the process of transporting himself from one place to another his atoms become mixed with those of a housefly giving him the head and leg of a fly while the fly gets his human head and arm. The movie was filmed in the 1950s and is set contemporaneously.

The movie has a surprisingly good cast. The scientist is played by David Hedison, here credited as Al Hedison, who would find fame on tv years later in the science fiction tv series, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” His brother is played by that stalwart horror movie actor Vincent Price. The police inspector called in to investigate the matter is the great character from the 30s and 40s, actor Herbert Marshall, who will forever be fixed in my mind for two Bette Davis pictures—as Regina Giddens’ ailing husband in “The Little Foxes” and the cuckold husband in “The Letter.” (Here’s an interesting bit of useless trivia: Herbert Marshall had a long successful career in Hollywood in spite of having a wooden leg, a fact that was never divulged during his heyday as a leading man.)

The last thing I expected to see in "The Fly" were two majolica plates as part of the affluent home decor of the scientist and his wife. The plates decorate the family kitchen. I had to do a double take when I saw them. Frankly their presence made me laugh. Can you imagine the reaction of the manufacturer if he knew his work would be immortalized in such a bizarre setting 80 years later?

No one knows who potted this design but there are a broad number of matching pieces that can be found to coordinate today. The level of craftsmanship on this series is high so it is most likely British in origin.

As is standard in these types of movies the creature and all of the scientific findings that led to is creation must be destroyed  for the good of mankind. The scientist destroys all his notes after which his wife crushes his fly head and arm in a press so no one will ever know this terrible secret. The final scene of the film where the fly is being eaten by a spider provoked nightmares for endless generations of children, myself among them. 

In spite of all this death and destruction of course there is a happy ending. With the monster destroyed, the wife accused of murder is absolved of all charges and the whole group walk into the sunset together, no doubt headed to the nearest antique market to enlarge the family collection of majolica.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Rare Survivor From the New York City Pottery

I recently heard from a reader who owns a rare marked piece of Carr American majolica. They were kind enough to share photos with me and I am happy to share them with you.

The first known American manufacturer of majolica is believed to be the New York City Pottery of James Carr. I’ve written about Carr majolica in the past. The main difficulty in discussing the New York City Pottery’s majolica is the lack of marked examples. The example owned by our reader is similar in shape to the one that appears in the collection of the Brooklyn museum but with an entirely different design and glaze treatment.

The vase is a hand thrown piece with what appears to be a scene of undulating flowering plants on the sides, boldly glazed in browns, blues, greens and yellows. It appears to be an underwater scene. It measures 7”x 13.5”. The rim is decorated with petal like leaf forms in the classical manner. The interior of the vase is glazed in a highly saturated reddish pink color. Along the inside rim of the piece is a flange, which implies that it once held a lid.

J. Carr majolica vase from a private collection

Top view of the Carr vase showing its brilliant pink lining.

It is marked  J Carr, City Pottery NY N3, H Lancaster, SC in hand written script on the base similar to other examples I have seen. It is undated. The foot has been repaired.

Underside of the Carr majolica vase

It's quite an extraordinary survivor from one of the most important American potteries of the 19th Century. You will go a long way before you see another.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Art of Majolica: Edward Middleton Manigault

Edward Middleton Manigault, c. 1915
Edward Middleton Manigault was born in Ontario, Canada in 1887. As a young man he enjoyed drawing and was commissioned by his hometown of London, Ontario to create a series of postcards of local buildings. In 1905 at the age of 18 he moved to New York and enrolled at the Art Students League where he found success under the tutelage of Robert Henri and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Initially Henri encouraged him to paint the city as he saw it but other influences by Miller  and Albert Pinkham Ryder moved him away from the world of realism and towards the Post-Impressionist style of Modernist painting. He imbued his work with a spiritual quality that sometimes displayed the underbelly of a nightmare.

Procession, 1911
The Clown, 1912
Six Women–Adagio, 1912
In 1912  he began traveling and working in the U.S. and Europe. He was fortunate to have two paintings– including "Six Women–Adagio," shown above–selected as part of the infamous NY Armory Show of 1913 which introduced Modernism to the United States. By 1914 he had his first one man show in New York.

Catalog to the 1913 Armory Show
In 1915 he joined the British Ambulance forces as a driver to fight for his country during the Great War. Unfortunately he served only five months before he was exposed to mustard gas which resulted in a nervous breakdown and a medical discharge from the army. He settled with his wife Gertrude in California and began to experiment with sculpture and painting in abstraction and in the cubist style.

Landscape with Bridge, 1916
Vorticist Landscape, 1916
Finding the style unsatisfactory he destroyed most of this work–over 200 paintings–and returned to his pre-war work of dream-like surrealism.

Landscape with Field, 1918
Manigault's signature
In 1918, he painted “Still Life with Flowers.” It’s a highly stylized work owning much to the influence of his teacher Kenneth Hayes Miller. It consists of a table set in front of a dark drape; wine bottle; a vase of fanciful flowers; a bird perched on a basket of fruit; a dish and a majolica compote, all arranged carefully on Eastern textiles. The painting is meant to exist in a three dimensional world yet features a distorted, flattened, two dimensional perspective. This is no doubt a result of his experimentation with abstraction. The use of shadow and color has an other worldly quality to it—brilliant, unnatural color and shading that discards the laws of the realists. The items on the tablescape seem to be illuminated from within instead of by a conventional light source. Although brightly colored, the painting has a slightly sinister quality to it.

Still Life with Flowers, 1918
The majolica compote shown in the painting is of a begonia on wicker design. Potted by an unknown English manufacturer it was part of an extensive line that featured bread plates, tea sets, a cheese bell, ice cream and dessert sets as well at cake stands, butter chips and mugs. The degree of craftsmanship is generally good so the likelihood is that it was created by one of the larger Staffordshire potteries like Adams and Bromley. To the best of my knowledge it is not a registered design.

Commonly found today, the pattern is inexpensive and a good candidate for those who would like to assemble a complete dessert service in majolica at a reasonable price.

Manigault's health was greatly weakened by his wartime exposure to mustard gas. He suffered from depression and often didn't have the energy to work on his art. He struggled with odd jobs in the last years of his life.

Bananas and Apples in a  Compote, 1922
He died in San Francisco in 1922 at the age of thirty-five. His cause of death was attributed to starvation from fasting and neurasthenia. He believed fasting brought about hallucinatory images he could incorporate into his artwork. He has been called the first martyr to Modernism.

He is buried in his hometown of London, Ontario.

Because of his short life span and propensity towards destroying art work with which he was not fully satisfied, Manigault's reputation faded in the years following his death. Very little of his post war work has survived. His inclusion in the 1913 Armory Show would forever label him as a Modernist though the reality is that he never developed a distinct style of his own, experimenting throughout his life with one influence and another during his most creative period. Manigualt's adult career never fulfilled the promise of his pre-war potential. Still, what remains is sought by savvy collectors of visionary modernist American 20th Century painting.

The Willets Manufacturing Company

In a follow up to our last post on new discoveries in American majolica, I thought we'd take a closer look at the Excelsior Pottery of the Willets Manufacturing Company.

The business that ultimately became the Willets Manufacturing Company began as the Excelsior Pottery of the William Young & Sons company. William Young was an English potter trained at Ridgeway who emigrated to the Trenton area in pursuit of fortune. In 1857 he established the Excelsior Pottery. He maintained it in operation under his name until 1879. That year it was sold to the Willets Manufacturing Company.

Until recently, the Willets Excelsior Pottery was best known for its production of American Belleek. Initiated in the U.S. in 1882 by the nearby Ott & Brewer Pottery, American Belleek wes intended to bring the elegance of Belleek porcelain to the U.S. In 1886 the Willets brothers, hired William Bromley Sr. from Ott & Brewer to initiate their own line of Belleek wares which went into production in 1887. In addition to imitating the shell formed designs of Irish Belleek, he used the porcelain base for elaborate hand painted decoration. This art pottery remained in production at Willets until the company was sold in 1912. Willets' successor, The New Jersey Pottery company, continued its manufacture for another two years before ceasing production entirely at the beginning of WW1 in 1914.

Willets American Belleek pitchers
Willets American Belleek cup & saucer
Willets American Belleek cream soup
Willets hand decorated American Belleek
Willets hand decorated American Belleek

Willets hand decorated American Belleek

American Belleek was not the only pottery created at Willets. They had a large pottery presence in Trenton, well known for their high quality art pottery, sanitary wares, dinner and dessert ware and white ironstone.

Willets ironstone basin and pitcher
Willets chocolate set

Willets partial toilet set
Ad from Crockery and Glass Journal, February 1882
Willets advertisement from Crockery and Glass Journal 1883
What was not known until recently was the company's contribution to the dialogue on American majolica. Although their other work was marked, their majolica was not.

This is why their fan themed work was until recently attributed to Eureka. Let's take a look at the list of majolica wares from an ad in Dr. Laura Microulis' lecture that appeared in Crockery and Glass Journal.

Most significant for our purposes is the presence of the "Fan Ice Cream Sets" described as consisting of a "large Double Fan dish and 12 small Fan Ice Cream dishes." These would certainly be the fan dishes until recently attributed to Eureka.

Fan butter pats
In addition, the ad describes a "Fan Tea Set" consisting of a teapot, cream pitcher and sugar bowl. These would most likely refer to the fan tea set also previously attributed to Eureka.

These pieces have matching pieces in the same design. The jugs are mentioned in the ad as having been manufactured in four sizes and came in three different color grounds: grey, white and yellow.

Considering the high level of craftsmanship exhibited by the Belleek wares these majolica wares are considerably less well made. The designs however are innovative and a good representation of the then current fashion for the Aesthetic taste.

So, what about the other pieces mentioned in the ad? Until more substantial evidence surfaces that allows us to attribute the pieces we can only venture to guess what designs were created by the company.