Majolica Mania

Majolica Mania is due to open at the Bard Graduate Center in New York on September 24 and travels to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in January of 2022. This magnificent exhibition and publication will create a new awareness and appreciation for 19th century majolica, which was wildly popular with the Victorians. Louise Irvine is reappraising the Wiener museum’s majolica collection in the light of this new enthusiasm.


The WMODA majolica collection is featured in our Pottery Pioneers gallery and the showstopper is the monumental Minton Mermaids jardinière, known as the Flower Bearers, which stands 24 inches high and 40 inches wide. This spectacular piece, attributed to Albert Carrier-Belleuse, was formerly in the Warner Brothers collection and can be seen in their musical Annie. In the 1982 movie, it stands on the dining table in the home of billionaire Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks to display his affluence.  Minton used the Mermaids jardinière to represent their manufacturing excellence at several world fairs in the late 19th century, including the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. The Flower Bearers was made in a smaller size with different glaze effects.

Minton officially introduced their vibrant lead earthenware glazes, perfected by art director Leon Arnoux, at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Ten years later, Minton artists surpassed themselves with a majolica fountain 36 feet high featuring St. George and the Dragon made for the 1862 International Exhibition in London. Majolica ware was known initially as Palissy ware after the French Renaissance potter, whose rustic animals cast from life were widely imitated in the 19th century. However, the popular new glazes became better known as majolica ware after the maiolica designs of the Italian Renaissance. A monumental Renaissance style vase in the WMODA collection, standing 38 inches tall, features masks of satyrs with swags. The smaller Comedy & Tragedy urn, which stands 20 inches tall, was inspired by a Piranesi engraving.

Revivalist classical motifs, such as theatrical masks and putti, appeared on many Minton designs. Chubby children, with and without wings, cavorted on Minton flower holders, fruit bowls, candlesticks and wall brackets, as can be seen at WMODA. The catalog of the 1862 International Exhibition shows a Bacchanalian ewer by Hughes Protat, the modeling master at Stoke School of Art, who was responsible for several majolica pieces, including the lively Tower and Taverner jugs.


Majolica at the Movies


Many British potteries capitalized on the craze for majolica ware during the 19th century. Wedgwood threw their considerable resources behind the development of majolica wares in the 1860s. Many of the artists who worked for Minton also produced designs for Wedgwood and Leon Arnoux provided technical advice. Hughes Protat designed a vase flanked with mermaids which was produced with hand-painted decoration in Queens ware and as a majolica clock. Wedgwood often adapted designs previously made in different ceramic bodies for their colorful majolica glazes, for example the pair of Bacchanalian statues at WMODA, which were modeled after Clodion, can be found in black basalt ware. Wedgwood generally focused on decorative functional wares and the WMODA collection has some striking Wedgwood majolica table centerpieces featuring satyrs, nymphs and putti.

George Jones

In 1862, George Jones began manufacturing pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. Previously, Jones served his apprenticeship with Minton and was a salesman for Wedgwood before becoming a china merchant. He began making majolica ware in 1866 and won a medal the following year at the Paris Exhibition. The accolades continued throughout the 1870s at international exhibitions in London, Vienna and Sydney. Flora and fauna motifs predominate in the George Jones pattern books and their cheese keepers, exuberantly decorated with waterlilies and butterflies, are among the most striking designs at WMODA.

Practical Pottery

Majolica ware reflected the Victorian interest in the natural world and included botanical and zoological motifs, often with a humorous twist, sometimes verging on the macabre. Food fashions prompted majolica serving pieces for seafood and game, often modeled in the form of the animals which appeared on the dinner menu. Wedgwood made game pie dishes adorned with hares, quail and pheasants, creating a feast for the eyes. George Jones produced trompe l’oeil designs featuring seafood good enough to eat, including a lobster topped tureen and sardine dishes. Other majolica tabletop items at WMODA items include salt cellars, spoon warmers, oyster trays and fruit bowls. Majolica was also used to make whimsical teapots for the English ritual of afternoon tea which became popular during the Victorian era. For the gentleman’s study or smoking room, there were majolica inkwells, tobacco jars, cigar rests, spill holders and match stands, which could be brilliantly illuminated by majolica candlesticks festooned with fanciful motifs.

Abundance of Nature

The abundance of nature was enjoyed in the glasshouses and conservatories, which enhanced stately homes and suburban villas alike during the Victorian era.  Minton produced majolica fountains and ornaments for the royal residences at Windsor and Sandringham. Herons and storks were fashioned into Minton umbrella stands and flower holders while cranes decorated their Japanese style jardinières. Japanese art was keenly promoted in Britain by Christopher Dresser, who designed a striking majolica jardinière with fish and insects for Wedgwood. George Jones adapted their waterlilies and butterflies design used on their cheese domes to include birds and bulrushes, which appeared on jardinières and garden seats in turquoise or midnight blue majolica glazes.

The Doulton pottery in Lambeth, London made their own version of lead glazed majolica which they called “Modelled Faience”, a Victorian misnomer as it was not true faience, which is a tin-glazed earthenware. A catalog of 1898 shows a range of jardinières in opulent Renaissance and Indian styles. The vases and pedestals could be purchased separately, and different combinations have appeared at auction. Doulton’s Indian style tables and pedestals added an exotic note to lush tropical plantings.

European Majolica

Several European factories produced rustic Palissy style designs, notably Mafra in Portugal and Georges Pull in Paris. One of the most bizarre majolica pieces in the museum is by Georges Pull and depicts a startled boy being attacked by a lobster. Sarreguemines produced some striking majolica style designs in France. Wilhelm Schiller produced a variety of majolica designs in Bohemia in the late 19th century and WMODA has a large figure group depicting putti riding on seahorses.

Majolica reached the peak of its popularity in the 1870s, but demand fell dramatically in the 1880s, mainly due to the influx of cheaper imitations which flooded the market to saturation point. Gradually it was realized that the lead glazes needed to produce majolica’s brilliant shine and vibrant colors were harmful to the pottery workers. Reforms limiting the use of lead eventually led to the demise of majolica ware in the early 1900s. To honor those who became ill or died as a result of working with toxic glazes, the Walters museum and the Bard graduate center have commissioned a ceramic memorial by contemporary artist Walter McConnell for the Majolica Mania exhibition.

Read more about the Majolica Mania exhibit in New York and Baltimore.

Bard Graduate Museum - New York

The Walters Art Museum - Baltimore