What reached Stoke-on-Trent from Paris? Coloured glazes majolica
A money-making idea! Could a Frenchman’s success with coloured glazes majolica be repeated in England? Herbert Minton thought so. Leon Arnoux is appointed Art Director in 1848 at just the right time to make it all happen.
Yes, Bernard Palissy developed our vibrant, exciting majolica in France. The Minton factory in Stoke-on-Trent, England, subsequently developed it to perfection. The narrative about majolica reaching Stoke via Spain, Majorca and Italy, is about tin-glaze maiolica, a different product altogether.
Adding colour to glaze
Everyone loves colour. So what is the cheapest way of brightening colourless lead-glazed earthenware? It is to formulate temperature compatible coloured lead glazes. Applied to the earthenware body simultaneously and fired, the glazes fuse without running or blistering. It sounds so simple. There is the goal. However, it took nearly two millenia to achieve. Fusing colourless lead-glaze to an earthenware body had been mastered and was used across the Roman Empire to seal porous pottery surfaces. In China they discovered how to add green.
By the 6th century Chinese potters had added two more colours. So now there was green, ochre and brown – Sancai, the word means ‘three colours’.
Bernard Palissy’s five coloured glazes majolica
Independently, in mid-16th century Paris, Bernard Palissy was finding out for himself. After much hardship and many setbacks, he finally succeeded in developing five colours of lead glazes that worked together.
In 2016 research was conducted in Paris on a group of rustiques figulines attributed to Palissy or to his followers and imitators. The glaze chemistry of the items in the group was determined non-destructively using PIXE and PIGE analyses. So, we now have proof positive of the oxides used by Palissy to create his coloured lead glazes.
“The glazes are all lead silicates, the colourants being transition metal oxides-CuO [copper], CoO [cobalt], MnO [manganese] and Fe2O3 [iron] – with a small addition of SnO2 [tin] [for opacity] to some of the glazes being common.” Lead-Glazed Rustiques Figulines [Rustic Ceramics] of Bernard Palissy [1510-90]
Coloured Glazes Majolica Perfection
In Stoke-on-Trent, Minton and Arnoux, great admirers of Bernard Palissy, had determined to develop the technology in England. They achieved near-perfection, eventually able to simultaneously fuse a wide range of colours to the ‘biscuit’ body .
Their lead-glaze process, using coloured lead glazes and better kilns, was copied by all. The vast majority of Minton Majolica, and of all majolica world-wide, is decorated with coloured glazes.
Herbert Minton and Leon Arnoux admired not only the coloured lead glazes of Palissy, but also the celebrated tin-glaze maiolica of the Italian Renaissance. They had determined to develop a Minton version of both. One hit the jackpot. The other flopped.
The winner was coloured lead glazes. This was a product inexpensive to produce. Also, around this time the fashion for ‘naturalistic’ decor was growing. Flora and fauna molded in high relief worked perfectly with the coloured lead glazes.
The product that flopped – now rare and highly sought after – was Minton tin-glazed majolica made using the tin-glaze process – dip the ’biscuit’ body in tin glaze, dry it, then paint with enamel colours. The enamels are ‘absorbed’ into the unfired tin glaze. When fired, the result is a distinctive opaque whitish tin-glaze, painted in colours, usually with brush-strokes clearly visible.
Shift in Demand
Digby Wyatt commented on the change in fashion. Reviewing Herbert Minton’s life in 1858 he said “No one knew better than Mr. Minton the sacrifices any manufacturer must be prepared to make, who would enter upon the Herculean task of attempting to stem the current of fashion, however contrary to right, wisdom, and good taste… the wise manufacturer will prudently direct his efforts to the production of novelties…” Digby Wyatt, 1858
Texts seldom make it clear
From the first appearance of these new products to the present day, texts have seldom made it clear that Minton developed two distinct products. One, they named ‘Palissy’ in honour of the great man, almost immediately known also as ‘majolica’, a resounding success. The other, a commercial flop, they named ‘Majolica’.
“Thus, what today we call majolica is in most cases what Minton, and Arnoux, referred to as Palissy ware.” Dictionary of Minton
This would not matter – few care whether an object is lead-glaze or tin-glaze – except the narrative around what is majolica, and where did it originate, has been constructed around the wrong product. The overwhelming majority of ‘our majolica’ derives from Bernard Palissy’s coloured glazes majolica process in France, nothing to do with the Renaissance tin-glaze maiolica process in Italy.
Why did not Minton clarify the difference at the time? Was it a case of ‘the less said about lead the better’? Could it be that Minton, Arnoux, everyone with an interest in the lead-reliant pottery industry would wish to divert attention from any product high in lead content?
The Arnoux formula for lead glaze comes from Arnoux’s personal notebook . It is important to remember that this was a period of time when lead-poisoning of workers in the pottery industry was under attack, a battle that started in earnest in 1839 and took a century to win.
In 1852 Arnoux had been invited, following the Great Exhibition of 1851, to lecture on Ceramic Manufacturers, Porcelain and Pottery.
During the course of a long and detailed lecture he never once mentions the coloured lead glazes product Minton named ‘Palissy’ ware. Was Arnoux deliberately avoiding mention of a blatantly lead-glaze product? Or maybe the commercial promise of his new, appealing, and economical coloured lead glazes, was a subject not to mention to an audience that included competitors?
He did, however, state, “Lead is very little used now”, intimating that borax had significantly replaced lead in the industry. Judging by the proportion of Red Lead to Borax in Arnoux’s formula, above, approximately 6:1, this would appear to be a slight exaggeration.
We understand by majolica…
On the other hand he promotes Minton’s tin-glaze imitation of Renaissance maiolica, the product Minton named ‘majolica’.
On page 395 he speaks of Minton’s desire to revive 16th century majolica [meaning tin-glaze Renaissance maiolica]:
“I should like to speak about… majolica… It seemed to Mr. Minton desirable to revive a species of pottery which, in the sixteenth century, was adapted to the same use as our finest porcelain…” Leon Arnoux, 1853
On page 396 he continues in the same vein with a description of tin-glaze majolica, their own English version of which they named ‘Majolica’
“We understand by majolica a pottery formed of a calcareous clay gently fired, and covered with an opaque enamel composed of sand, lead, and tin.” Leon Arnoux, 1853
Arnoux’s brief ‘definition of majolica’ is often condensed, out of context, to become “Majolica is pottery decorated with lead and tin glazes”. Consequently, whilst this is a true statement, it does nothing to explain the difference, nor to spotlight the overwhelming importance of coloured glazes majolica versus tin-glazed majolica in 19th century earthenware.
Texts referencing Minton Palissy ware and Minton Majolica as different products
The Illustrated London News, Nov. 10, 1855, p.561: “The collection of Palissy and Majolica ware, however, is that which appears to have created the greatest sensation among Parisian connoisseurs. The reader will remember that the main difference in these wares is that whereas the Palissy ware is coloured by a transparent glaze Majolica ware contains the colour (opaque) in the material [in the unfired tin glaze covering, fired to produce the characteristic opaque whitish enamel with painted decoration fused within]… One sample of Palissy ware—being a little tea-service spread upon a leaf, the legs of the teapot being snails… [characteristic of ultra naturalistic Palissy ware].
Leon Arnoux, 1867, Report on Pottery, Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition: “Majolica [tin-glaze earthenware, opaque white surface painted in enamel colours] was produced for the first time by Messrs. Minton, in 1850, and they have been for many years the only producers of this article [in England]. The name of majolica is now applied indiscriminately to all fancy articles of coloured pottery. When, however, it is decorated by means of coloured glazes [applied directly to the ‘biscuit’], if these are transparent [translucent], it ought to be called Palissy ware… Messrs. Wedgwood, George Jones, and a few other makers of less importance, are reproducing it more-or-less successfully. To Messrs. Minton, however, we owe the revival of the ware [coloured lead glazes on biscuit, ‘Palissy ware’], which, in connection with [alongside] their majolica [the tin-glaze ware], created such a sensation in the French International Exhibition of 1855”
Also: “The Palissy faience is composed of a clay slightly coloured [buff], covered with different [lead] glazes, which have been previously coloured by means of metallic oxides [iron for yellow, manganese for purple or brown, cobalt for blue, copper for green, etc.]; these glazes of different colours being applied, some by the side of others [combined upon the same piece], or blended one into another [mottled]…”
Arthur Beckwith, 1872, International Exhibition, POTTERY, Observations on the Materials and Manufacture of Terra-Cotta, Stone-ware, Fire-Brick, Porcelain, Earthenware, Brick, Majolica and Encaustic Tiles: “The Palissy ware, formed of embossed [relief molded] biscuit covered with transparent glazes of various colours, is frequently called majolica…”
Jewett, L., 1878, The Ceramic Art of Great Britain: “Minton and Hollins have revived the art of majolica and Palissy ware, and produced the most magnificent specimens… ever attained in this description of pottery.”
Pottery and Glass Trades Review (1878), Bergesen, Majolica, p.37, “…Pottery and Glass Trades’ Review, September 1878, said of Minton’s exhibit at Paris: “There is nothing from the English side of the Channel to beat or even view with Messrs. Minton’s costly crowd of majolica and Palissy wares.””
Wolf Mankowitz, Reginald G. Haggar, Art Director at Mintons Ltd. 1929-1939, The Concise Encyclopaedia of English Pottery and Porcelain: “MAIOLICA should not be confused with MAJOLICA – the name absurdly given by Victorian Potters to earthenware decorated with coloured lead glazes […]”
Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, 1999, Dictionary of Minton: “Minton did not use the word maiolica themselves, relying instead on the Victorian version, majolica, which they used to mean wares of Renaissance inspiration, featuring hand painting on an opaque white glaze. These were therefore quite distinct from the coloured glaze decorated wares which we now call majolica, but which Minton referred to as Palissy wares.”
Carmen Pattinson, 2011, Majolica Matters, Spring 2011, Majolica – Where did it all begin?: “Because of their identical names, there has been some confusion between tin-glazed majolica/maiolica and the lead-glazed majolica made in England and America in the 19th century, but they are different in origin, technique, style and history.”
Minton tin-glazed majolica, October 2018
Lead Glaze Perfection – Victorian Majolica, March 2016
One word for two different products. How might that happen?, March 2017
Victorian Majolica/Maiolica – Quiz Questions, Answers, Evidence, January 2016
Majolica Definition – More, April 2015
Introducing Majolica, October 2014
V & A Museum Website: “The Minton company pioneered the development of majolica glazes, and the materials and processes were perfected by the art director, Joseph François Léon Arnoux (1816-1902), in 1849. These were based in part on Italian Renaissance maiolica and Bernard Palissy’s pottery, but whereas maiolica pigments are painted onto a raw tin glaze (which fired to an opaque white), Minton’s majolica, like Palissy’s pottery, used brightly coloured semi-transparent lead glazes applied to the biscuit-fired body.”
“Although Arnoux did produce tin-glazed, painted wares in the style of Italian ceramics, what is now known as majolica was a range of brightly coloured low-temperature glazes launched in 1849 as ‘Palissy Ware’. Only later did these become known as majolica ware.”
Most of ‘our majolica’ is coloured glaze decorated, using a process worked with in France by Bernard Palissy, later perfected by the Minton factory in England. It’s popularity in England and success world-wide would appear to be due to a happy combination of three circumstances.
1. A providential partnership between the resources of Herbert Minton and the knowledge of Leon Arnoux.
2. The auspicious suitability of coloured lead glazes applied to relief molded earthenware.
3. A movement in ‘buyer taste’ away from classical and Revivalist, towards styles more contemporary, with vibrant colour, naturalistic, exciting, even humorous.
Publications Quoted or Referenced in the text above:
 Victor Bryant, Ceramics in the Roman world
 Henry Morley, 1852, Palissy the Potter, The Life of Bernard Palissy, of Saintes “…I blundered for the space of fifteen or sixteen years…”
 Bouquillon, A & Castaing, J & Barbe, F & Paine, S.R. & Christman, B & Crépin-Leblond, T & Heuer, A.H.. (2016). Lead-Glazed Rustiques Figulines [Rustic Ceramics] of Bernard Palissy [1510-90] and his Followers: Archaeometry. 59. 10.1111/arcm.12247.
 In France, Avisseau of Tours, possibly known to Arnoux, had already started developing coloured lead glazes in the manner of Bernard Palissy, winning a Gold Medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851
 Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, 1999, Dictionary of Minton, “he developed a fine buff earthenware designed to be decorated with a range of transparent glazes coloured with metal oxides that could be painted directly on to the biscuit body…” The entries on MAIOLICA and MAJOLICA are comprehensive.
 W.B. Honey, 1944, Keeper of the Department of Ceramics,Victoria and Albert Museum, The Art of the Potter: “A TIN-GLAZE (or ‘tin-enamel’), once widely used on maiolica, faience, and delftware, is a potash-lead glaze made white and opaque with oxide (ashes) of tin. A second covering of clear lead-glaze was sometimes added.”
 Digby Wyatt, May 26 1858, Journal of the Society of Arts, On the influence exercised on ceramic manufacturers by the late Mr. Herbert Minton
 Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, 1999, Dictionary of Minton “Thus, what today we call majolica is in most cases what Minton, and Arnoux, referred to as Palissy ware.”
 Joan Jones, 1993, Minton the first 200 years of Design and Production
 Carmen Pattinson, 2015, Prevention of Lead Poisoning in the Glazing of Earthenware, Majolica Matters. “The investigation started in 1839 and took a battle of just over 100 years for the lead content to be dramatically reduced in glazes”
 Leon Arnoux, 1853, Lecture 23 Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851, David Bogue, 86 Fleet Street, London.
 The context lies in the previous paragraph p.395 “It seemed to Mr. Minton desirable to revive a species of pottery which, in the sixteenth century, was adapted to the same use as our finest porcelain…”, a clear reference to Italian Renaissance tin-glaze maiolica.
We thank the Majolica Society for their help with this article, first published by ‘Majolica Matters’ the informative and fun quarterly journal of the International Majolica Society, on 3rd March, 2018.
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