Victorian majolica are refined wares (usually earthenware) characterized by brilliantly colored glazes and elaborate molding in high or low relief. Typical glaze colors included varying shades of turquoise, pink, lavender, emerald green, sea green, gold, red, sapphire blue, brown and orange; many vessels were molded with naturalistic motifs including seashells, insects, plants and animals.
Victorian majolica, initially patterned after tin-glazed pottery of the Italian Renaissance, was first introduced in Great Britain at London’s 1851 Great Exhibition (Bergesen 1990:9; Dawes 1990) ftn1. It was popular by the 1860s in England (Bockol 1996:6) and enjoyed its heyday in the 1870s and early 1880s. By the 1870s, almost every British pottery counted Victorian majolica among its products, with over 130 British firms eventually producing these wares ftn2 (Bockol 1996:6; Bergesen 1990:12). Most majolica produced by the smaller British firms was unmarked (Dawes 1990:135). Majolica was also manufactured in North America (as early as the 1870s) and in Continental Europe, including Austria, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and Hungary (Bergesen 1990:87, 103; Dawes, 1880:140).
The craze for majolica in North America did not occur until after its initial appearance at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In early 1878, a Staffordshire industries publication reported great demand for majolica in America (Bergesen 1990:12), with the height of popularity in the United States falling in the 1880s (Snyder 2001:22).
Potters made sure to keep current with Victorian consumer tastes and thus design influences on majolica were numerous. These influences included Romanticism, the Gothic Revival, 16th-century French Palissy ware, neoclassicism, the Medieval Revival, Art Nouveau, the Aesthetic Movement, the Far East (China and Japan) and Italian majolica of the Renaissance (Bergesen 1990:17; Dawes 1990; Karmason 2002). Japanese inspired wares were popular in the 1870s (Snyder 2001:15). Argenta ware was a style of majolica that featured painted low relief molded designs against the natural cream-colored body of the vessel. It was developed in the late 1870s, after Wedgwood noted a shift in public taste away from traditional majolica (Batkin 2006). Many Argenta wares displayed Asian motifs such as bamboo, prunus blossoms, birds and fans (Bockol 2002: 25, 68).
The very popularity of Victorian majolica was a factor in its ultimate decline (Bergesen 1990:12). A number of small pottery manufactories were established in the 1880s to capitalize on the popularity of majolica. The overall quality of Victorian majolica declined as the potteries struggled to keep up with the large demand for these wares. What had once been an affluent and middle class market for elaborately molded and finely painted specialty tableware and ornamental forms (see Forms below) became a lower class market as ware quality declined. This deterioration in quality, coupled with an economic depression in the mid 1880s that dealt a severe blow to pottery sales, was a death knell for majolica (Bergesen 1990:13). By the turn of the twentieth century, majolica’s popularity had passed in both Great Britain and America (Bockol 1996:7). American production of majolica had ended by World War I (Dawes 1990:151).
Fabric and Ware Type
The paste of Victorian majolica is usually white earthenware, but sometimes stoneware or Parian pastes were used (Bergesen 1990: 9). Coarser grades of majolica were made with a terracotta paste (Bergesen 1990:26).
Bisque fired wares were covered with an opaque white lead glaze before being painted with or dipped in the thick, brightly colored metallic oxide glazes that created the characteristic vibrant colors of majolica. Some British majolica was glazed in solid dark green and is not to be confused with green glazed creamwares of the eighteenth century (Bockol 1996:116).
Some majolica was gilded or painted with enamels (Bergesen 1990:9). Since the interiors of hollow vessels were often glazed in a different color than the glaze used on the exterior of the vessel (Karmason 2002:68), this trait can be used as a clue for identifying majolica from small sherds.
The numerous vessel forms produced in Victorian majolica can be divided into useful and ornamental categories. Functional vessels included tablewares and toiletry-related items. The relative fragility of Victorian majolica made it impractical for everyday vessels such as plates (Bergesen 1990:22), but specialized forms were common and included butter plates, cruet stands, butter dishes, fruit and dessert plates, berry sets, salad plates, cheese dishes, and cheese stands. With new railway systems making fresh seafood available to inland areas, vessels forms related to serving seafood—oyster plates, sardine boxes, fish dishes, lobster tureens and seafood platters—became popular (Dawes 1990:36). Toiletry vessel forms included dresser sets, ash trays, smoking sets, trinket boxes, spittoons and match holders. Ornamental garden forms included garden seats, jardinières, umbrella stands and flowerpots (Bergesen 1990). Tiles and other architectural ceramics molded in low relief were also manufactured (Bergesen 1990:121; Dawes 1990).
1 Victorian majolica is not to be confused with tin-glazed earthenwares known as maiolica or majolica.
2 Many of these firms operated only briefly during the 1880s (Bergesen 1990:12).