About Majolica







When Minton & Company of Staffordshire exhibited a new line of ceramics at The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the firm called it Palissy ware. The name came from a 16th-century Frenchman named Bernard Palissy, whose vividly colored, high-relief, lead-glazed plates, platters, and pitchers had inspired Minton’s new, French-born art director, Léon Arnoux.

The word majolica was also used to describe the ware, since it had some commonalities with the tin-glazed 16th-century Spanish and Italian earthenware of the same name. Although the term Palissy ware was a more accurate description of Minton’s new line, the work quickly became known as majolica.

Before long there was a majolica renaissance in Europe and the United States. A great deal of it was made in Italy by firms such as Ginori and Cantagalli. In Germany, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory was known for its majolica. From potteries in France came the numerous designs of asparagus and artichoke plates, and serving pieces of the Alsace-Lorraine area, the 19th-century Palissy works of French ceramic artists of Paris and Tours, and the majolica of Choisy-le-Roi, Sarreguemines, Luneville, Saint Clement, and Onnaing, among others. The Massier family in Vallauris in the south of France produced the link between traditional Victorian majolica and Art Nouveau pottery. Villeroy and Boch of Germany, Wilhelm Schiller and Sons of Czechoslovakia, Mafra and Sons of Caldas de Rainha, Portugal, and Rorstrand of Sweden all contributed to the ceramic history of the latter half of the century.

What these companies shared was a vocabulary of images and style that was at once exuberant and uniform. All used bright colors splashed on reliefs of plants and animals. This was fun ware for the common man, and it sold as quickly as Minton and others could produce it.

Naturally Wedgwood and other Staffordshire stalwarts wanted a piece of this action, even though Minton had about a 10-year head start. Predictably, Wedgwood majolica was more formal than Minton’s and used humor with restraint. While some potteries were producing teapots in the shapes of cauliflowers, Wedgwood stuck mostly to basket-weave patterns and relief foliage on the outsides of its standard shapes.

In the United States, a similar fascination with majolica took hold around the same time as the Minton debut. As in England, potteries coated their ware with clear glazes, so that the pieces positively shined. Griffen, Smith & Hill was one prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”

Other American companies known for their majolica in the second half of the 19th century were Morrison & Carr, Chesapeake Pottery, and Edwin Bennett. They produced relish dishes, ice cream platters shaped like straw hats decorated with ribbons, and teapots in the shapes of cabbages.

One of the most popular majolica forms was the pitcher, which was designed in forms of  bamboo, foliage, ears of corn & seated animals. Syrup containers were decorated with fat sunflowers or clustered leaves and flowers featuring pewter lids.

There were platters and plates, or course, with Begonia leaf-shaped plates being a collectible subcategory all its own. Sardine boxes, tea sets and cigarette holders were also produced—many were topped by African-American figurals, known then as now as blackamoors. And animals from bulldogs to pigs were molded to store tobacco.

If there was a dark side to the sunny look of majolica it was the process of making it. In 19th-century America, young girls did much of the painting, usually earning as little as 25 cents for a 12-hour day. This was well before child-labor laws, so the idea that these children were expected to work long hours and handle lead glazes was not seriously questioned until the first part of the 20th century. Not surprisingly, the difficult conditions produced work that was often sloppy, as anyone who has seen a majolica vase with colors radically out of register or running down the side can attest.

At the close of the reign of Queen Victoria in 1901, majolica production was at an end. Production, which had increased since 1875 but with fewer original examples and with less artistic enterprise, was finally overcome by the fatal effects of plumbism, or lead poisoning. Labor and management could not resolve workers’ demands and factory doors were closed. By the 1890s, the majolica craze was ending in the United States as well. The technique felt overly  baroque & somewhat garish compared to the ascendant Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. While majolica persisted in Europe, pieces from the 20th century are generally thinner and feature less dramatic relief than those from the century before, which makes them less interesting to collectors.


The Minton, “St. George” majolica fountain in the International Exhibition of 1862.



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