THE SECRET LIFE OF MAJOLICA

May 1, 2019

Anyone who’s ever looked to spruce the spring table is likely no stranger to majolica, the brightly-colored earthenware pottery that assumes some of tableware’s most whimsical forms. From ivy-wrapped pitchers to melon-shaped soup tureens, majolica makes it easy for virtually anyone to tap into their inner Mad Hatter host or hostess. And with near infinite options to choose from, shopping for majolica isn’t unlike an adult easter egg hunt. To say that collectors go nuts for it, may be a bit of an understatement.

Whether you’re considering investing in majolica for the first time, or you’re fifteen or so pieces deep, majolica’s story is one worth exploring. A rich history, full of rises and falls, makes majolica one of the most intriguing collectibles on the market. Ahead, discover majolica’s Renaissance rise and Victorian rebirth, along with tips for the best ways to authenticate your antique majolica finds.

Photo courtesy of Le Louvre French Antiques 

Maiolica: The Precursor to Majolica

Most of what we think of majolica today—Trompe l’oeil plates, figural soup tureens, cabbageware—is actually Victorian majolica. However, the process used to make majolica (which involves painting a white tin glaze over earthenware pottery surfaces), dates back much further, to the 9th Century. These earliest pieces were not known as majolica, but Maiolica.

Unlike later Victorian majolica, Maiolica is one-dimensional. It typically features a white background over which religious or mythological scenes are hand-painted in colorways of yellow, blue, and green. Maiolica originated in the Middle East, eventually making its way to Spain. In the 13th Century, Spain began exporting it—platters and albarellis were popular at the time—to Italy. Since the pottery was shipped out of the Spanish port of Majorca, the name “Maolica” stuck.

Throughout the Renaissance, Maiolica flourished in Italy, reaching the height of its popularity in about the mid-15th Century. Maiolica resonated for many reasons, but chief among them was its vibrant color. Applying and firing the white tin glaze to Maiolica created a chemically adhesive surface for colored paints to adhere to. Not only did this allow for brighter colors, but it allowed artisans to create extremely detailed pictorials on majolica’s surfaces.

Photo courtesy of Boston Vintage Studio

Victorian Majolica

Customary ebbs and flows led to a downturn in Maiolica demand after the 15th Century, but by the 19th Century it was back in vogue thanks to Europe’s leading ceramic factory, Minton Company. Located in London, Minton Company used traditional Maiolica techniques to introduce an updated take on Maiolica, known as majolica, in 1851.

Unlike the Maiolica from the Renaissance era, Minton’s majolica was three-dimensional, created via relief-molds. Their 3D tiles, in particular, were quickly adopted and integrated into London’s landscape. To this day, London pubs, train stations, and even the Queen’s Dairy at Frogmore all showcase majolica tiles from the era.

Ten years after Minton introduced majolica commercially, their patent expired, opening the floodgates for other manufacturers like Wedgwood and Holdcraft. Like Minton, these newer manufacturers capitalized on Victorians’ proclivity towards nature and focused on producing wares with botanical or animal themes.

Among the more curious subcategories of Victorian majolica was Palissy ware. Inspired by the 16th-century French potter, Bernard Palissy’s anomalous snake-platters, Victorians began manufacturing majolica adorned with hand-formed amphibians, caecilians, and the like. This is also around the time the lobster—now ubiquitous with majolica—first made an appearance in the medium.

Photo courtesy of Boston Vintage Studio

1970s Revival

Just as the rise of Art Nouveau led to the demise of Victorian style, it also led to a loss of interest in Majolica. By the 1920s, the majority of the molds used by Minton, Wedgwood, and others had been destroyed. The market for majolica remained mostly quiet throughout the Mid-Century, resurfacing only in the 1970s as the public began emerging from decades of self-imposed minimalism and found the decoration and whimsy of majolica to be a refreshing counter.

The ’70s revival was also due in large part to the London dealer Jeremy Cooper. Cooper famously organized an English Majolica exhibition at the Smithsonian Design Museum in New York in the 1970s. The exhibit featured over 70 artifacts from top turn-of-the-Century Majolica makers.

Photo courtesy of Majolicadream

Determining Majolica’s Worth

As collectors’ interest in majolica piqued, so did an interest in 19th Century majolica’s value. Since the majority of early majolica is unmarked, it can be difficult to assign value to it (many reproductions are near indistinguishable from originals), but a few hallmarks can help guide dealers to a piece’s age, and ultimately, its worth.

Look for a Serial Number

While it’s true that most 19th Century majolica is not officially marked, many European manufacturers like Wedgwood did press pieces with a series of numbers before firing. In some cases there may not be numbers, but there may be an engraved emblem or mark.

Look for “Hazy” Colors

It may sound counterintuitive to what you’d think, but dealers advise that you side with majolica that has more subdued color than rich color if you’re looking for the real deal. The quality kilns and glazes that were used in the 19th Century typically resulted in hazy colors, while today’s inferior kilns and glazes produce colors that are much brighter.

Look for Precision

While modern day majolica is by no means shoddy, it is more common to find drips and streaks in its glazing. In the 19th Century, artisan-level craftsmanship was applied to every piece, resulting in far less flaws.