Majolica? Maiolica? What is it?
We ended our last blog feeling our way towards definitions:
+ Earthenware with a range of colored lead glazes applied directly to the biscuit simultaneously, then fired
+ Developed in 1849 named ‘Palissy ware’, later becoming known as ‘majolica’ (same name as Minton’s rare tin-glazed product SEE BELOW)
+ Frequently molded in relief and naturalistic in style
By 1875 had become a huge commercial success imitated by forty manufacturers across Europe and the US.
+ Tin-glaze is applied, dipped or painted, to the biscuit and allowed to dry. Then decorated with painted brush work and fired. The result is a distinctive opaque white layer with painted decoration.
+ Tin-glazed earthenware has always been known in Italy as ‘maiolica‘, in England as ‘majolica’. In England in 1849 Minton/Arnoux produced a product in imitation of the old Italian maiolica but using Engish clays. Minton named this product ‘majolica’ after the Italian ‘maiolica’
+ Tin glaze is normal clear lead glaze with a little tin oxide added to ‘the mix’ – sand + potash + lead oxide + tin oxide. Tin is the smallest proportion in the mix but produces the wonderful opaque white colour glaze that ‘takes’ brush painted enamel decoration so beautifully.
Now it is time to try to nail some things down. One essential fact is key to understanding. Then we’ll go to the evidence. Ready for this?
An essential fact
Unpublished until Paul Atterbury co-authored ‘Dictionary of Minton’ an essential truth is that between 1849 and 1851 Leon Arnoux invented for Minton not one, but two new products both soon to be known as ‘majolica’: ‘majolica’ and ‘Palissy ware’. Both received their first public airing at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The first they called ‘majolica’
The word ‘majolica’, an anglicisation of the Italian word ‘maiolica’, was already in general use in England to describe tin-glaze maiolica in the Italian style.
‘Maiolica’ is the Italian word for tin-glazed earthenware characterised by its opaque white enamel (glaze) and hand painted in-glaze decoration.
Minton’s tin-glazed imitation ‘maiolica’ that he called ‘majolica’ was gorgeous pottery, but sadly a commercial flop.
Almost no other makers copied it. Today any item of Minton’s tin-glaze imitation Italian maiolica that they called ‘majolica’ is a rare find.
The second they called ‘Palissy ware’
The public however came to call this ‘majolica’ also. Now (1855) we have two distinct products being called by the same name. Minton’s ‘Palissy ware’ is today known as ‘Victorian majolica pottery’. Lead-glazed molded earthenware objects for the growing merchant classes, both useful and decorative, in styles both classical and later more naturalistic. Made between 1851 and 1900. Characterised by rich vibrant colors, elegant, richly sculpted sometimes whimsical even humorous designs from conservatory tables to flower holders.
Victorian majolica pottery
By 1875 coloured glazes Victorian majolica pottery had become a commercial sensation. Makers in Europe and US re-invented Arnoux’s glazes and kilns manufacturing a profusion of forms in slightly different palettes. Today the magic of majolica enraptures decorators and collectors alike.
And now for the evidence
The first they called ‘majolica’
Q. What “sixteenth century” pottery is this author referring to?
A. “…the ancient majolica”. In England the word ‘maiolica’ was usually anglicised to ‘majolica’.
Q. What do we understand by ‘majolica’?
A. A glaze of “Sand, lead, and tin.” The addition of tin turns a plumbeous or lead glaze into a stanniferous or tin glaze.
Clearly the author is talking about tin-glazed pottery. Who is the author? None other than Leon Arnoux, inventor of Minton’s ‘majolica’ tin-glaze pottery in imitation of Italian maiolica using English clays.
Another Italian maiolica expert of the era was C. Fortnum Drury, big time collector, author of ‘MAIOLICA’ published by South Kensington Museum in 1875. He explains the process by which tin-glazed wares are made.
“We shall be occupied with the glazed and enamelled wares: the first of which may be again divided into siliceous or glass glazed, and plumbeous or lead glazed. In these subdivisions the foundation is in all cases the same. The mixed clay or ‘paste’ or ‘body’ varied in composition according to the nature of the glaze to be superimposed is formed by the hand, or on the wheel, or impressed into moulds ; then slowly dried and baked in a furnace or stove, after which, on cooling, it is in a state to receive the glaze. This is prepared by fusing sand or other siliceous material with potash or soda to form a translucent glass, the composition, in the main, of the glaze upon siliceous wares. The addition of a varying but considerable quantity of the oxide of lead, by which it is rendered more easily fusible but still translucent, constitutes the glaze of plumbeous wares : and the further addition of the oxide of tin produces an enamel of an opaque white of great purity, which is the characteristic glazing of stanniferous or tin-glazed wares.
The second they called ‘Palissy ware’
References to Minton’s lead-glaze Palissy ware are few and far between. The public were calling it ‘majolica’ within a few years of its introduction. There was confusion as to the difference between the two types of pottery that were called by the same name. Many 19th century authors and compilers did not even mention colored lead glazes ‘Palissy ware’.
Evidence of two types of pottery, Minton’s ‘majolica’ and ‘Palissy’
Let us look at two extracts from the inventor himself. Here is a link to a free ebook “British Manufacturing Industries” published 1877. Leon Arnoux authors the section on POTTERY. In it he refers to ‘majolica’ and ‘Palissy’. These are the names Minton and Arnoux gave to their two new products. ‘Majolica’ because the product imitated Italian maiolica. ‘Palissy ware’ because this product imitated the coloured lead glazes of Bernard Palissy in Renaissance France. He leaves no doubt as to what he is talking about when he connects the names Wedgwood and George Jones with ‘Palissy ware’. Highlighting and comments in brackets are mine.
“Some of these makers do not devote all their attention to earthenware, but produce other classes of pottery. Amongst the sorts which are most connected with earthenware are majolica [tin-glazed imitation maiolica], Palissy [Minton’s coloured glazes ‘Palissy ware’ first shown in 1851, later also called ‘majolica’], Persian ware, and flooring and wall tiles.
Minton’s tin-glazed majolica in imitation of Italian maiolica, a beautiful product in Italian Renaissance styles was, sadly, a commercial flop.
Minton’s Palissy ware = coloured lead glazes majolica, imitated by 30 or more manufacturers including Wedgwood and George Jones, a huge commercial success. Ninety nine percent of Victorian majolica is of the coloured lead glazes type, with just a very few items made by the tin-glaze process in imitation of Italian Renaissance maiolica.