Majolica Mania’s three volumes form a somewhat odd beast and none the worse for it. Created to accompany another of the Bard Graduate Center’s pioneering exhibitions, it is not an exhibition catalogue, for the emphasis falls upon individual scholarly essays and it has no catalogue entries. At the same time its lavish, much-needed illustrations — quite a few pages have only fine color photographs — make it unlike most collections of art-historical essays.
The substantial introduction by Susan Weber, the exhibition’s chief organizer, explains that the exhibition and the three volumes that accompany it tell
the story of how a new type of earthenware—one highly modeled and boldly colored with lead glazes—captured the attention of the British upper classes in the early 1850s, and became a commercial sensation among the middle classes in Great Britain and the United States soon after. Made of porous, lowfired clay that could be transformed into myriad shapes and styles, majolica inspired novel and imaginative wares in both useful forms and purely ornamental ones. Bold, experimental, eccentric, and gloriously colorful, the ware appealed to a cross section of classes and budgets, and by the end of the nineteenth century, could be found in all types of homes. Indeed, it was seen at the time as a profoundly egalitarian product. 
The émigré French designerchemist Léon Arnoux (1816–1902) formulated these brightly colored glazes that define Majolica ware for Minton & Co., which first revealed its new products at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where it displayed a range of objects ranging from the 26-foot tall St. George’s Fountain to household objects, such as vases, pitchers, and tableware.
The St. George’s Fountain Robert Dudley, lithographer; Illustrated London News, (August 30, 1862). Click on images to enlarge them.
Game Pie. Minton & Co. 1876. 11 ⅜ x 18 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches. Collection of Joan Stacke Graham.
One reason for majolica’s popularity lay in the way it created a kind of art for the people when, particularly in its early years, Minton deliberately based its objects upon “historical examples held in public and private collections. The curators of London’s South Kensington Museum (renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1899) and its predecessors eagerly acquired Italian tinglazed maiolica, ceramics by the della Robbia family, and works by French potter Bernard Palissy (1509–1590), the three major foundational sources for British majolica” (2). Eventually, Minton and its competitors created a much broader range of objects, moving from classical and Renaissance sources to Eygpt and Japan for sources of inspiration.
Japanese Boatmen designed by Johann Hasselmann Hénk. Minton & Co. c. 1875. 6 x 13 &frac48; x 2 ¾ inches. Collection of Joan Stacke Graham.
The first volume, which sets this Victorian ceramic art in multiple contexts, follows Weber’s introduction with Paul Atterbury’s historical overview and Rebecca Wallis’s discussion of classical and Renaissance art as initial sources and inspiration for majolica ware. Two of the most interesting essays are Julius Bryant’s “Prince Albert, South Kensington, and the Victorian Taste for Renaissance Revival Ceramic Architectural Decoration,” which discusses the use of majolica in the V&A’s main restaurant and in the royal diary at Windsor, and Miranda Goodby’s “‘The Fearful Malady of the Clay’: Working Conditions in the nineteenth-century Staffordshire Potteries,” which explains that working with both clay and lead-based glazes that gave majolica ware its brilliant colors drastically shortened the lives of many workers.
Left: The Dairy at Windsor Castle. Right: Majolica bas relief tiles in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Gamble Room. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Gaye Blake-Roberts and Susan Weber’s “From Teapots to Flowerpots: The Use of Majolica in the Victorian Home” discusses the role of majolica in the daily lives of the middle and upper classes, explaining, among other things, the way objects made of this ceramic fit into changing ways of serving food and setting tables. Jo Briggs introduces us to the way majolica crossed the Atlantic, and Martin P. Levy explains how majolica was promoted and sold while Ben Miller examines the rapid rise and sudden fall of the fashion for it. Kathleen Eagen Johnson’s discusses the role of Edwin AtLee Barber and the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art in creating American forms majolica, forms that often emphasized nature rather than earlier art. The first volume closes with Sequoia Miller’s “Contemporary Ceramics and Majolica.”
The second volume concentrates on various British manufacturers, such as Wedgwood, John Adams & Co, the Worcester Royal Porcelain Company, George Jones, and William Brownfield & Son(s), which rivaled Minton, the inventor of modern majolica, and the third concentrates upon this form of ceramic art in America, where much of the majolica work seems cruder than that produced in England. All these essays are well written and magnificently illustrated, but there is far too much repetition of the origins of Majolica as a ceramic material, the role of Henry Cole and the Victoria and Albert Museum in popularizing it, and its sudden descent into unfashionability. Nonetheless. such repetition seems a very small flaw, if it is one, since most readers will most likely focus on individual chapters.
Weber, Susan. Majolica Mania: Highlights. New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2021.
Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850–1915. Ed. Susan Weber, with Catherine Arbuthnott, Jo Briggs, Eleanor Hughes, Earl Martin, and Laura Microulis. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021.
Last modified 9 December 2021