After its showing at the Bard Graduate Centre Gallery, New York, and the Waters Art Museum, Baltimore, Majolica Mania has come home to Stoke-on-Trent. It’s now at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery until the end of January, the first major exhibition of majolica in nearly four decades. It examines the remarkable range of this exuberantly-modelled and brightly-glazed pottery, featuring objects from private collections in the United States, the Potteries Museum’s own collection and the Minton Archive.

What is majolica? It is earthenware with a moulded surface decorated with areas of transparent, coloured, lead-based glaze. Minton, it’s inventor, at first called it Palissy Ware, in reference to its source of inspiration in the 16th-century ceramics of Bernard Palissy, but because the company at the same time exhibited imitations of Italian tin-glazed maiolica, there arose some confusion and the name majolica came to be attached to this type of ceramics. Both types – tin-glazed maiolica and lead-glazed majolica – reflected Victorian historicism and the contemporary fascination with French and Italian Renaissance ceramics.

First introduced at the Great Exhibition in 1851, majolica became so popular that it was copied in quantity by manufacturers other than Minton. Wedgwood made it about ten years later and the other potteries included William Brownfield and Sons, George Jones, John Adams and Son, Joseph Holdcroft and Wardle and Co.

The stylistic and technical innovations were largely the work of one man, Léon Arnoux, a French potter and ceramic chemist who came to England to escape the 1848 revolution and went on to become Minton’s art director. Several French artists were attracted to Minton by the excellent salaries on offer and the prospect of greater political stability in England. By the 1870s Minton valued Arnoux so highly that they were paying him the fabulous sum of £1,200 p.a.

Majolica lent itself to extravagance in which function was decidedly second to appearance and it was particularly suited to display, even when applied to objects ostensibly designed for use. It had obvious architectural applications in tiles and panels with coloured relief modelling, and Herbert Minton’s association with Henry Cole provided the opportunity for majolica reliefs to be used in the rapidly expanding South Kensington Museum. It was widely applied to commercial buildings and domestic interiors. The well-preserved building below is The Crown pub in Belfast.

In the decades before the American Civil War about half the pottery exported from Stoke-on-Trent went to Amercia and by the 1870s many American manufacturers were making majolica jugs, spittoons, tea sets and other tableware, often copying best-selling English models. There had been a flow of British potters to the USA since the 1840s in search of a better life and they were able to apply their expertise to the American industry. US manufacturers included Griffen, Smith & Hill (below), Chesapeake Pottery, New York City Pottery, Morley & Co., The Eureka Pottery Co., Arsenal Pottery, Edwin Bennett Pottery Company, and Peekskill Pottery Works.

By the 1870s the popularity of majolica was beginning to wane in Britain, hastened by a growing awareness of the toxicity of the lead glaze. By the end of the century there was widespread public and political concern about lead poisoning and a search began for a safe substitute. Although the potters benefited from the increased attention being paid to their health, lead substitutes like borax failed to impart the same brilliancy to the majolica glaze.

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