Majolica was once high-tech trend

In 1851, California had been the nation’s 31st state for only four months, and Millard Fillmore was U.S. president; Elisha Otis was perfecting his brake equipped elevator, and Robert Bunsen was tinkering with the burner that would one day bear his name; Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale,” toured America in a spectacle organized by P.T. Barnum; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” was being hailed by critics.

And an English potter was hoping that his new interpretation of a centuries-old style of ceramics would be well received at the “Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations” set to open May 1 in London’s Hyde Park.

Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, the Prince Consort, championed the industrial fair, which was based on French trade events begun in the late 18th century.

Entrepreneur Joseph Paxton came up with plans for a spectacular building made up of nearly a quarter-million panes of glass and a supporting iron framework. When this “Crystal Palace” opened its doors on May 1, 1851, it could hold 60,000 people at one time, in addition to nearly 14,000 exhibits.

American entries included a set of “unpickable” locks, a model of Niagara Falls, a McCormick reaper and a Colt revolver.

There was the Koh-i-Noor diamond (which weighed 787 carats when it was found in India); a knife with 1,851 blades; a prototype submarine; gas cookery, electric clocks, and one of the earliest versions of a washing machine. And then there was the Minton booth.

Potter Herbert Minton had high hopes for his display. His father, Thomas Minton, founded a pottery works in the mid-1790s in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire.

Herbert Minton had designed a “new” line of pottery, and his chemist, Leon Arnoux, had developed a process that resulted in vibrant, colorful glazes that came to be called “majolica.”

Joseph Francois Leon Arnoux was born in Toulouse, France, in 1816, the son of a porcelain and earthenware manufacturer. Trained as an engineer, Arnoux also studied the making of encaustic tiles, and had been appointed Art Director at Minton’s works in 1848. His job was to introduce and promote new products. Victorian fascination with the natural world prompted Arnoux to reintroduce the work of Bernard

Palissy, whose naturalistic, bright-colored “maiolica” wares had been created in the 16th century. But Arnoux used a thicker body to make pieces sturdier. This body was given a coating of opaque white glaze, which provided a surface for decoration.

Pieces were modeled in high relief, featuring butterflies and other insects, flowers and leaves, fruit, shells, animals and fish. Queen Victoria’s endorsement of the new pottery prompted its acceptance by the general public.

Bernard Palissy (1510-1590) was an artist, writer and scientist, yet he is most celebrated for his ceramics, and for the development of enameled earthenware (also called faience, from the Italian city of Faenza), and for the exuberant plant and animal forms his work took.

Palissy was born in southwestern France. Around 1540, he moved to Saintes, north of Bordeaux, married and set up shop as a portrait painter. Legend has it that he was once shown an earthenware cup (probably of Italian origin), and was so attracted to its tin-based glaze that he decided to devote his time exclusively to enameling, despite having no previous knowledge of ceramics.

The tradition of tin-glazed and decorated earthenware is believed to have originated in the 9th century, somewhere in Persia. These wares moved along trade routes to the island of Majorca, a regular stop for trading vessels traveling between Spain and Italy. When the ceramics were imported into Italy, they came to be called “Maiolica.”

Palissy eventually succeeded in creating brilliant enamel glazes. But after his death in 1590, his work was ignored for centuries. In the 19th century, private collectors and museums started acquiring original Renaissance pieces, and that helped to revive interest in traditional majolica.

When Minton introduced his wares at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, American potters also began to produce majolica.

The Griffen, Smith and Hill pottery of Phoenixville, Pa., produced some of the most collectable American majolica from 1879 to about 1893. The company was best known for the manufacture of  “Etruscan Majolica” ware. Most pieces are marked with one of the two versions of their crest. However, some unmarked pottery can also be attributed to Griffen, Smith and Hill.

The Chesapeake Pottery in Baltimore, Md., made Clifton, a pattern featuring blackberries and, later, other types of fruit and flowers. This company also made Avalon Faience, a design imitating French faience.

Photos courtesy Warman’s Majolica