Collecting Majolica Pottery

The history of this colorful majolica pottery and how to go about collecting it.

In 1851, a new type of Victorian pottery known as majolica was introduced at London's Crystal Palace Exhibition - an international exposition of the day's "works of industry." Potter Herbert Minton had designed the pottery and his chemist, Leon Arnoux, had developed the process that resulted in majolica's vibrant, lustrous glaze.

Majolica pieces reflected the Victorian interest in the natural sciences - botany, zoology, entomology. Pieces were modeled in high relief, featuring butterflies and other insects, flowers and leaves, fruit, shells, animals, and fish. Queen Victoria's delight with the new pottery helped to seal its success with the general public.

In order to be considered majolica, a piece had to have produced by a certain method. Very soft, porous earthenware pieces are fired at low temperatures to what's known as the "biscuit stage." The biscuit has a light yellow color which is covered by an opaque background enamel made from a metal-oxide like tin or lead. When the background glaze has dried, the design elements on the piece are painted with brightly colored metal-oxide glazes and the piece is fired again

Though majolica wasn't cheap, it was more affordable than china or porcelain, and England's middle class acquired it eagerly. What had previously been available to them was traditional blue-and-white pottery and the commonplace white ironstone pieces. During the Victorian era, there was an emphasis on home and the decorative arts. The general philosophy was that items within the home must be attractive and aesthetic first, in order to be regarded as practical and useful. Majolica fulfilled all these expectations in an affordable way and within a few years became tremendously popular.

The designs of Victorian majolica were colorful and whimsical. Its metal-oxide based glaze allowed for cobalt blues, rich greens and brilliant golds. Dishes shaped realistically like leaves or shells were popular. Teapots and pitchers were often shaped like pineapples, cabbages, or ears of corn - with each leaf or kernel modeled in high or low relief. There was no end to the imaginative forms majolica could take.

As with any item of fad status, majolica was soon copied. Other English potters imitated Minton's designs and when Minton introduced his wares at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition, American potters began to produce majolica as well. However, Victorian majolica was actually not a new art. In the fifteenth century, a similar type of Spanish pottery was imported by the Italians through a port on the island of Majorca. In Italy, the pottery was imitated and then improved. Known as maiolica, it was the most famous example of ceramic art to emerge from the Italian renaissance.

All through the Victorian era, majolica kept pace with the other decorative arts. In the 1860s it adopted the new interest in Oriental-inspired design with pieces shaped like bamboo and sporting other Asian motifs. At the end of the century, majolica picked up Art Nouveau's love of sinuous vines and the calla lily. In the early days of the new century, however, majolica began to fall from favor. Overproduction had not only rendered it common, but there was a glut of poorly manufactured pieces on the market. Also, the use of lead glazes had resulted in an epidemic of lead poisoning among factory workers, raising a war cry from early union leaders.

Collectors of majolica today are challenged by the fact that pieces often were not marked. If the age of the piece and the fame of the potter are not important however, there is a lot of majolica on the market at reasonable prices - there are also modern reproductions that are beautifully crafted and make lovely decorative accessories. Because majolica was produced in so many forms, probably the best thing a collector can do is to specialize. A set of disparate, unrelated pieces often is difficult to display effectively. Instead, go for a collection with a focus. For example, buy pieces all in a particular color, or collect only teapots (or pitchers, or platters). Or, focus on a particular motif - a collection of fish and shell designs to dress up a beach house; a set of flowery items for a sunroom.

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