Majolica – One word for two different products. How might that happen?

1.  Earthenware decorated with coloured lead glazes 2. Tin-glazed earthenware painted with enamels

Designs for the two distinct types of Minton majolica product both called ‘majolica’ sit side by side in the Majolica Box, The Minton Archive.

How did that happen? Why not simply Earthenware decorated with coloured lead glazes = Majolica; Tin-glazed earthenware painted with enamels = Maiolica?

Other blogs refer. Today we look at how it might have happened.


Majolica Product. Was LEAD the elephant in the room?

Can we imagine any circumstance under which Leon Arnoux, “the man who made Mintons” might lie?

What if there was a threat to his future well-being? Or to that of the owner, Herbert Minton? Or to their sons, daughters, grandchildren and workforce?

We guess that would do it. Yes, Arnoux does seem to have lied in 1853 when he said “Lead is very little used now…”[read more=”Click here to Read More” less=”Read Less”]

Majolica product/ Maiolica Leon Arnoux publicly states "Lead is very little used now..."
Leon Arnoux publicly states “Lead is very little used now…”, Lectures on the Results of the Great Exhibition of 1851 delivered before the Society of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce, 1852.

Lead was essential to the success of the pottery industry. Furthermore, sales were about to increase at the Minton factory due to the new ‘Palissy’ earthenware with coloured lead glazes.

But lead in the glazes is killing workers. Average life expectancy of a ‘dipper’ is 26 years only. Health care watchdogs are campaigning to reduce soluble lead levels. The pottery industry, its leaders and shareholders seem like in public to be trying, but in private they are resisting reform. Borax lacks the winning sparkle of lead, and is more expensive.

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majolica product. Alternative Facts

Anything Arnoux can do to divert attention away from LEAD, he must consider. So when asked to lecture “On Ceramic Manufactures, Porcelain and Pottery” he decides to be economical with the truth. In fact LEAD is very much used now (1852). He quotes a large amount of borax. Most noteworthy, he neglects to provide the figure for lead.

During the lecture there is no mention of Minton’s ‘Palissy ware’. The product that was to become wildly fashionable and mass-produced. The majolica of coloured lead glazes that we know and love. Minton had named it ‘Palissy ware’ but soon allowed –possibly encouraged – the name ‘majolica’ to be used for both. [read more=”Click here to Read More” less=”Read Less”]

From Arnoux’s own notebook [date unknown] a formula for a lead glaze used on majolica is reproduced in Joan Jones’ book (1993). The glaze would have been coloured by the addition of one or other metal oxide.

Majolica product / Maiolica Joan Jones, 1993
Joan Jones, 1993, ‘Minton the first 200 years of Design and Production’. This majolica product contains no tin.
That is 51 per cent red lead (a form of lead oxide) by weight. Nearly six times more lead than borax…

a little way to go before borax is substituted for lead, right Leon?

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Majolica product. Another source of confusion

That lecture, by Leon Arnoux in 1852, is interesting for another very important reason…

Majolica product/ Maiolica

Everyone today knows that the Minton factory named their majolica product with coloured lead glazes ‘Palissy ware’. Their tin-glazed earthenware in imitation of Italian maiolica they named ‘Majolica’. Minton’s ‘Palissy’ became known as ‘majolica’. Minton’s ‘Majolica’ stayed as ‘majolica’. As a result there were now two distinctly different products with the same name.

majolica n.  The Four Senses

Add two more meanings of the word to arrive at today’s four meanings, four senses of the word ‘majolica’. [read more=”Click here to Read More” less=”Read Less”]

  1. An alternative spelling for Maiolica: Any tin-glazed earthenware with opaque white glaze decorated with metal oxide enamel colour(s). Prone to flaking, reached Italy mid 15th century, Renaissance Italian maiolica became a celebrated art form. Maiolica developed also as faience (France), and delft (UK and Netherlands). Commonly known as ‘tin-glazed earthenware’.
  2. Any earthenware decorated with coloured lead glazes applied directly to an unglazed body. Hard-wearing, typically relief molded. Minton’s ‘Palissy ware’ range of new colours, also known as ‘majolica’, was introduced at the 1851 Exhibition and later widely copied and mass produced. Commonly known as ‘lead-glazed majolica’.
  3. English tin-glazed earthenware in imitation of Italian Renaissance maiolica having an opaque white glaze with fine painted decoration. Also named ‘majolica’. Also introduced at the 1851 Exhibition. Very rare. Commonly known as ‘English tin-glazed majolica’.
  4. Victorian Majolica – Majolica manufactured in England between 1850 and 1900 of Sense 3. English tin-glazed majolica – earthenware in imitation of Italian Renaissance maiolica, very rare, or Sense 2. Lead-glazed majolica – earthenware decorated with coloured lead glazes, of every conceivable form, and in style frequently naturalistic and typically with an element of High Victorian whimsy.

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Majolica product/ Maiolica Minton's 'Palissy ware'.  Impressed 'MINTON'. Coloured lead glazes. Naturalistic hen and useful pot/posy vase with foliage. Known today as coloured lead glaze majolica.
Minton’s ‘Palissy ware’ later called ‘majolica’.  Impressed ‘MINTON’. Coloured lead glazes. Naturalistic hen and useful pot/posy vase with foliage. Commonly known as lead-glazed majolica.
Majolica/ Maiolica Minton's 'Majolica'. Impressed 'MINTON'.  Opaque white tin-glaze, brush-painted in Italian Renaissance style. Known today as tin-glaze majolica.
Minton’s ‘Majolica’. Impressed ‘MINTON’.  Opaque white tin-glaze, fine-painted in Italian Renaissance style. Commonly known as tin-glazed majolica. Image thanks to Karmason Library, Majolica International Society.

Differences between the majolica products not understood

Unfortunately, the differences were not widely understood until 1999. But by then four major books on majolica had already been published.

Authors had not fully appreciated that when Arnoux in 1852 said “We understand by majolica…” he was describing only the tin-glazed product, imitation Italian maiolica.

Today, many glazes are lead-free. Nothing has been found to equal the depth and vibrancy of Minton’s lead glazes. There will never be anything better.


Areas of no confusion

majolica product / maiolica An earlier Catalogue places Minton's Della Robbia Ware, Italian Majolica and Palissy Ware in sections of their own. 1850, London Journal of Arts.
An early exhibition Catalogue of medieval art categorises Della Robbia Ware, Italian Majolica and Palissy Ware in distinct sections. Minton copied all these names for his imitation wares. 1850, Journal of Design and Manufactures, Vol. III pp. 67-73

There was no confusion (above) in the cataloguing at the exhibition of medieval art, by the Society of Arts, published in the Journal of Design and Manufactures, Vol. III (1850).

majolica/ maiolica 1858, Digby Wyatt, M., Journal of the Society of Arts, May 26, p.442. No confusion here about the separation of Majolica and Palissy.
1858, Digby Wyatt, M., Journal of the Society of Arts, May 26, p.442. No confusion here about the separation of majolica product ‘Majolica’ and ‘Palissy ware’.

There was no  confusion in the list of branches [products] that Digby Wyatt promises to examine in some little detail [English way of saying ‘in great detail’.]

Continued later…

majolica/ maiolica Minton Archives, website clip. Classification of Minton Art Materials as they were in 1871
Minton Archives, website clip. Classification of Minton Art Materials as they were in 1871

There was no confusion in the factory.

Even the 1871 Art Materials catalogue lists Majolica (tin-glaze imitation Italian maiolica) and Palissy (colored lead glazes) as distinct.


But when we come to the Catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition, confusion arises

Majolica naming confusion deliberate?

[read more=”Click here to Read More” less=”Read Less”]

Majolica product / Maiolica 1851 Industry of All Nations Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue illustration of a single Minton flower vase
1851 Industry of All Nations Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue illustration of a Minton flower vase. The text reads “Mintons… exhibit some excellent flower-vases, coloured after the style of the old Majolica. The quiet tone of colour… for their fanciful surfaces…”

If (OK, a big ‘if’) Minton had vetted the catalogue entry, would they have deliberately left the description more than a little confusing?

Or can the apparent anomalies be explained away?

The illustrated ‘flower-vase’ appears to be Minton Palissy ware [coloured-lead-glazes majolica] but the description “after the style of the old majolica” and “quiet tone of colour” sound like Minton’s Majolica (tin-glazed imitation Italian maiolica).

Majolica product / Maiolica Minton majolica jardinière and stand circa 1861, coloured lead glazes applied directly to the biscuit, shape first introduced at the 1851 Exhibition.
Minton majolica jardinière and stand. Coloured lead glazes applied directly to the biscuit. Shape exhibited at the 1851 Exhibition.
Majolica product/ Maiolica Minton Jardiniere, quiet tone of colour? Illustrated
Minton majolica jardinière. Coloured  lead glazes applied directly to the biscuit. Shape exhibited at the 1851 Exhibition.

Can this style be found anywhere in Renaissance maiolica? The wreath, yes, Luca della Robbia, but the pot? [Please tell us if you know of any Renaissance pot in this style]

Maybe  “fanciful surfaces” refers mainly to the wreath. Then, yes, “quiet tone of colour” is a fair description.

Digby Wyatt (continued)

Seven years after the Great Exhibition of 1851 Herbert Minton dies (1st April 1858). His friend Digby Wyatt’s paper is published by the Journal of the Society of Arts May 26. Page 442 – There was no confusion in the list of products that Digby Wyatt promises to examine. He is as good as his word until he reaches Majolica and Palissy ware – the sensation of the 1855 Paris Exhibition and the most successful and interesting of any Minton product – when he conveniently runs out of time. Is this co-incidence? Wyatt is content with the word ‘Majolica’ to include both products, thereby continuing the (deliberate?) confusion.

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1867 Exhibition Report by Leon Arnoux

Nine years later, in his 1867 Exhibition Report, Arnoux details materials and process for Palissy faience [ware] without mentioning lead…

[Ed. Text in brackets below is our own]

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, 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]…

and he provides some information on earthenware types.

Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867 Report on Pottery by Leon Arnoux Esq. A clear description of coloured lead-glaze earthenware and tin-glazed earthenware without mentioning LEAD or TIN
Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867 Report on Pottery by Leon Arnoux Esq. A good description of coloured lead glazes earthenware and of tin-glazed earthenware. No mention of lead or tin for clarification.
A clear description of coloured lead-glaze earthenware and tin-glazed earthenware without mentioning LEAD or TIN
A summary of what Arnoux wrote in his description of coloured-lead-glazed earthenware and tin-glazed earthenware above. (Ed. Text in brackets is our own). Mentioning lead and tin where appropriate dispels confusion.

Finally, at the end of the report Arnoux’s summary employs the word ‘majolica’ to describe both Minton’s tin-glazed majolica and Minton’s coloured lead glazes Palissy ware. Still no mention of lead or tin for clarification, so very confusing. Deliberately confusing? Hard to know.

Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, 1867. Report on Pottery by Leon Arnoux Esq. Summarising, Arnoux refers to both tin-glazed and coloured lead glazes pottery as Minton's majolica product. No mention of lead or tin.


Majolica – in conclusion

In conclusion we offer two explanations to the title question “How did one word get used for two quite different products?”

  1. To describe Italian tin-glazed earthenware the British had for a long time been using the word ‘majolica’ instead of the centuries old ‘maiolica’. Minton simply used the British spelling ‘majolica’ for his tin-glazed product in imitation of Italian tin-glazed maiolica.
  2. The lead-abolition campaign. Without it, we suggest, Minton, Arnoux, industry, and media would have had no difficulty describing Minton’s new products separately, as they did in the factory. They might have used words along these lines:

“Majolica is the name used by Minton for the tin-glazed earthenware painted with metal oxide enamels in imitation of Italian tin-glazed maiolica.”

“Palissy ware is the name used by Minton for earthenware decorated with the new range of coloured lead glazes. This product soon became known also as majolica.”

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