The Colorful History of Majolica

majolica plates

The earliest examples of majolica—brightly colored, low-fired earthenware—first emerged in the 1400s amid the Italian Renaissance. The use of a colorful tin glaze on ceramics was an innovation that Italian ceramic artists adopted from techniques they observed on Spanish imports. Over the course of the centuries that followed, majolica fell in and out of favor due to the changing tastes and styles of each era, but it reached its zenith during the 19th century when Europe’s leading ceramic factory, Minton Company, commercially introduced majolica wares in 1851.

Minton’s desire to capitalize on a newly emergent middle class became a successful undertaking, and although the style proved to be wildly popular in the 19th century, it lost momentum around the year 1900 in favor of the romanticism of the Art Nouveau movement. By the 1970s, majolica experienced a renaissance among savvy collectors, thanks in large part to London dealer Jeremy Cooper, who is credited for helping revive interest through a series of exhibitions dedicated to the history of the style. Majolica’s vibrant, whimsical aesthetic provided a welcomed diversion from the minimal, zen-like Bauhaus principles that resonated with the period, and the colorful earthenware restored favor of a modernist style. Here, we explore the history of majolica to understand why its signature style has ebbed and flowed in style, and still resonates with collectors of decorative art.

What is Majolica?

Rare Minton majolica tea service including the "Cat and Mouse" flat iron teapot

Minton majolica tea service. Sold for $37,500 via Freeman’s (October 2014).

Majolica is a tin-glazed earthenware that includes planters, tableware, tea sets, jugs and other decorative objects. Majolica makers usually focused on five signature colors: cobalt blue, antimony yellow, iron red, copper green, and manganese purple, and a white tin enamel was often used for highlights. Majolica was known for its colorful, fanciful charm, and many objects were designed to be “fit for purpose.” For example, a box of sardines might display a small fish as the finial, and as a result, there was much humor and visual pun associated with the style. Majolica was also known for its audacity of scale, where garden ornaments would include forty-inch-high pedestals, among other large components.

Majolica Motifs and Themes

There are many different themes and stylistic sources that are evident in the works of majolica. Popular themes include those of antiquity and natural history, both of which were of interest during the Victorian era. Other popular motifs include exotic creatures both imagined and real and agrarian imagery. In the works of French potters, current events and social commentary are prominently featured.

Subject matter depicted on the facade of Majolica wares derive from a variety of sources, including:

  • Roman and ancient Egyptian sculpture;
  • Chinese Sancai porcelain, a versatile type of decoration on Chinese pottery that uses glazes or slip in brown, green, and off-white;
  • The works of Italian sculptor Luca della Robbia;
  • Meissen and Sèvres porcelain;
    French animalier sculpture;
  • Renaissance art;
  • Neoclassical and Rococo sculpture;
  • Neo-Gothic work of English architect and designer Augustus Pugin;
  • Art Nouveau in Europe
  • Chinoiserie

A Brief History of Majolica Pottery

Italian Majolica Vase

Italian majolica vase. Sold for $23,750 via Doyle New York (October 2011).

Originally produced in the 15th century, Majolica was introduced into Italy from Moorish Spain by the way of the island of Majorca, the geographic location from which it derives its name. Victorian-era majolica originated at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and differed considerably from Italian Renaissance maiolica, which bore religious, mythological themes and wasn’t molded or three-dimensional. Victorian majolica reflected the scientific and social advances of the era, and was widely used by the English upper and middle-classes.

After its 1851 debut at the Great Exhibition, majolica was an instant sensation. Manufacturers like Minton began to produce the decorative tiles for the interiors of taverns, train stations, and other buildings across England. Perhaps the most monumental figural work was Minton’s Saint George and the Dragon fountain, which was produced for the London International Exhibition of 1862. It measured 36 feet high and 29 feet in diameter. Though Queen Victoria adored the piece, her grandson’s wife, Queen Mary, who despised the look, and had it destroyed in the 1920s.

Porcelain company Wedgwood began producing its own line of majolica once Minton’s patent expired, approximately ten years after its inception. From there, the style was adopted by factories across Europe, the United States, and Australia, and it solidified itself as an official worldwide phenomenon. By the turn of the 20th century, Majolica’s popularity faded as the style went out of fashion, followed by a decline in production values and fewer factories producing wares.

turquoise ground fish platter

Wedgwood majolica fish platter. Sold for $1,875 via Christie’s (April 2011).

With the revived interest in Victorian-era arts and crafts in the 1970s, production again commenced, and collectors credit this in large part to London dealer Jeremy Cooper. Cooper organized many exhibitions dedicated to the craft including “English Majolica” at the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, an exhibition that featured over 70 examples from top Majolica makers.

Today, Majolica comes in a variety of forms, pulling from many of the original motifs that appeared throughout the Victorian era. Rural themes and botanical elements in particular were appealing to those who lived in cities polluted by the effects of the industrial revolution. Collectors choose their preferred majolica for a variety of reasons including size, manufacturer, date of origin, pattern, style, subject, and prize.

Making Majolica Today

Unlike original majolica wares that were made using a tin glaze, modern makers use commercially-produced frit—a ceramic composition made in a special fusing oven, quenched to form a glass—in their glaze recipes. Recent advances in commercial ceramic material production have made it easier for artists to replicate the colors and styles of traditional majolica. This, however, has also made it difficult for collectors to differentiate authentic, original wares from modern reproductions.

There are a variety of benefits for working with majolica. The materials used to make it are rather inexpensive and can be fired at relatively low temperatures which helps the colors come out brighter and better showcases intricate brushwork. The viscous consistency of the materials used ensures the glaze won’t move around much throughout the firing process which can help prevent sloppy glaze application.

How to Determine if Majolica is Authentic

Pair of Minton Blue Majolica Monkey Candlesticks

Minton majolica candlesticks. Sold for $375 via Doyle New York (September 2013).

An original piece of majolica could be worth upwards of $1,000, but collectors are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish authentic pieces from modern replicas. Demand was low during much of the 20th century, and original majolica pottery typically sold for a few hundred dollars. With the renewed interest in Victorian arts that emerged in the 1970s, however, modern collectors were reintroduced to the allure of the style, which drove more demand for original examples—and thus, drove up the value. But, with this renewed interest, also came more modern replicas.

Markings can be misleading. While examples from larger 19th century manufacturers like Minton, Wedgwood, and George Jones generally bear the maker’s signature mark, smaller manufacturers like Joseph Holdcraft generally do not. A better indication of value is analysis of glazing methods and techniques. Modern versions use far cheaper glazes and kilns, and as a result, the colors are much brighter and fresher. Artists from the 19th century also worked with great precision and skill, so there are very little missteps, where newer versions are more prone to dripping and sloppy glaze application.

Herbert Minton set out to produce a visually striking, artful style of pottery, and though the value of and demand for majolica has ebbed and flowed since its Victorian revival in 1851, the essence of this vibrant style has remained generally true to its roots. Rural motifs like fruits, flowers, fowl, and game became especially appealing to those who lived in cities disrupted by the Industrial Revolution, reflecting a nostalgia for a simpler, slower pace. As Victorian majolica was produced, each piece took on its own personality and distinct style. Today, collectors revel in the different sizes, shapes, and colorful compositions, making these fanciful pieces an excellent adornment in modern homes.

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica | The Artstor Blog | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | PBS