Victorian Views of Nature Revealed in Majolica
Jeffrey B. Snyder
For Victorians, the nineteenth century was an age
of exploration. Advances in industry and technology allowed adventurers
and explorers to travel farther and see more of the world than ever before.
Victorians developed a fascination with the natural world, a fascination
that is evident in the majolica wares produced from 1850 on into the early
twentieth century. Majolica wares, the low fired earthenware ceramics decorated
with low and high relief figures and vibrantly bright glazes first introduced
to the public by famed English potter Herbert Minton in 1851 at London's
Crystal Palace Exhibition (the first world's fair), offer us today a glimpse
into the fascinations, humors, and culinary delights of the Victorian era-for
the portions of the natural world the Victorians were not cataloging and
sampling, they were eating! Advances in the sciences of botany, horticulture,
marine biology and conchology, zoology, ornithology, and even humorous
intimations of the theory of natural selection make their appearance on
majolica. The increasingly varied Victorian diet is well represented in
majolica dish forms. The passion for oysters, for example, more readily
available at the market place with improvements in transportation technology,
is evident in majolica oyster plates fashioned as replicas of the food
Additionally, the Industrial Revolution in England and America at this time was providing an abundance of new goods and economic opportunities. It also helped create a new social force, a relatively affluent and growing middle class seeking to purchase the finer things in life. Majolica, with its allusions to antiquity and striking colors became popular in England in the 1850s, and in America in the 1880s. Majolica was also a welcome change in the dining room from the well-known blue and white transfer printed wares, creamwares and ironstones that the previous generation or two used. With a design philosophy stressing visual impact over function, majolica stood out among these staid patterns.
Herbert Minton's early majolica designs of the mid-nineteenth century imitated both Italian antiquities the elite were collecting and the middle class could only covet-until majolica gave them reasonably priced substitutes for both their tables and their homes-but also the French pottery of naturalist Bernard Palissy (1510-1590). Palissy's ware was encrusted with very detailed animals and plants, an attention to detail and natural themes that resonated well with mid-nineteenth century popular thought. Palissy's authentic work was also purchased by wealthy antiquarians and envied by those who only dreamed of such luxury items. Again, majolica wares gave middle class Victorians wares with the look on antiquity sure to impress friends and lend an desirable air of opulence to their homes without breaking their bank accounts.
Bringing the Natural World Inside
During the Victorian era, "conspicuous consumption," the display of wealth in the form of material goods scattered throughout the home, was a way of life for well-to-do Victorians. Victorian homeowners in industrialized cities, seeking new expressions of wealth that were in tune with the fascination for Nature of the day, built hothouses and indoor conservatories to bring the natural beauties of the world into their homes. This trend necessitated a wide range of opulent garden accessories, from pedestals and garden seats to jardinieres and small planters. Majolica was ideal for the purpose; if the roses, geraniums or narcissus refused to bloom, the bright ceramic pots and ornaments would nevertheless lend a grace note to the room and keep it suitably cheerful.
The hothouse trend created a secondary craze for strawberries -- home grown, with any luck. Tableware created specifically for serving the fruit was manufactured in many elegant styles, generally decorated with painted or molded strawberry plants. Typically, they included bowls for sugar and small creamers. Many pieces not made specifically as strawberry servers were also decorated with the strawberry motif.
The Formal Dinner, Nature's Bounty in All Its Splendor
By the 1850s, Victorian food consumption was evolving into a social ritual. The formal dinner party was the pinnacle of that evolution. The formal dinner, successfully completed, could raise the social status of the triumphant host and hostess. This meant possibly gaining access to higher social circles and future success in the business world as well. Etiquette books of the day spent many pages instructing women on how to successfully manage every aspect of the formal dinner, from the proper seating of guests by social rank to the use of all the right wares during a meal of up to ten courses.
On such an occasion majolica was served with the following fare: English majolica was to be used first for the 'flying dishes,' oyster or marrow pates. The decorative motifs on the majolica for such a meal must include fish, shells or marine plants, and for hostesses with the best possible taste, a combination of all three. A majolica salad set was recommended next for the salad, beetroot, vegetables, and mustards. The preferred majolica salad dish had a tall shape with paneled sides featuring raised images of lobsters, vegetables, and other appropriate and tasty items. Majolica was also used to serve sardines, celery, anchovies, plain butter and cheese. Special majolica sardine dishes emphasized that this delicacy of the latter half of the nineteenth century was being served and ensured that this treat did not go unnoticed. Majolica dessert dishes (or glass) appeared again at the meal's end when two ices, cherry-water and pineapple cream, with whatever fruit was in season were served.
It should be noted here that majolica wares were specified for courses that did not demand much hard use. A low-fired earthenware, majolica was not particularly durable. Aside from the pieces listed, majolica was also handy for small accent pieces.
While after 1850 a footman carried whatever dish was currently being served to your side and whisked it away to keep the table clear of serving dishes, little individual table pieces remained to add to the sumptuous effect. While the eighteenth century had been an era of more communal dining, particularly in America, the nineteenth century stressed individuality. At the table individual butter plates and individual table salts were provided. A sugar bowl, cream pitcher and syrup pitcher were also present, many in the shapes from the natural world, ranging from delicate leaves to ears of corn. These items were all produced in majolica. They were relatively low in cost and yet bold and distinctive.
The Game Pie Dish: a Majolica Dish of Particular Significance
In England, game pie dishes (readily found produced
in majolica) were introduced simply to fill an early nineteenth century
void (a sad lack of pie crusts caused by the scarcity of flour during the
Napoleonic War) but what they contained made them special and impressive.
From 1671 to 1831 English law had restricted the hunting of game to the
aristocracy and the gentry. Until 1881 no tenant farmer could kill game
stocked by the rural landowner for his hunting pleasure, even to prevent
the loss of the farmer's crops. In an increasingly industrialized island
nation, with public grazing land and forests rapidly diminishing, hare,
partridge, pheasant, and grouse were hard to come by and much sought after.
The poor supplemented their income trapping game for London's black market.
Game was considered a great delicacy and a thoughtful gift, and black market
game was best; the animal in question was always in better condition as
it had been trapped with wires or nets for secrecy rather than riddled
with bullets from noisy firearms.
Class friction in rural England was aggravated by the restrictive access to this coveted food. Well aware of the tension, rural landowner who stocked game on their property for their own enjoyment sometimes invited neighbors on "hunts." Allowing the neighbors to kill and carry off a small amount of the estates' game helped ease the social tension. The surrounding farmers would chafe less under the laws forbidding them from killing the landowner's animals when they strayed from the estate, creating a nuisance and causing considerable crop damage, when they were sure that from time-to-time they would be allowed to eat a few of these tasty pests themselves.
The presence of the majolica game pie dish, draped with images of sumptuous game animals, at the dinner table suggested the host and hostess either owned vast tracts of property on which to hunt or had the high connections necessary to legally obtain these much-appreciated delicacies. Certainly polite company would not entertain the idea that their hostess had procured them through disreputable means. Even if she had, it meant the hostess thought highly of her guests . . . and her guests knew it.
The Troublesome Charles Darwin
In 1859, Charles Darwin, the most disconcerting grandson of the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood's, unsettled or offended many Victorians who read or heard of his treatise on natural selection as proposed in The Origins of the Species. Many resented his nudging the human race from the self-erected pedestal that placed humanity half way between the angels and the animals. A number of majolica potters took a satirical stab at Darwin's theory with a variety of majolica monkeys potted in comical, and always-subservient poses. While Darwin put the monkey in the man-relating man and beast-majolica manufacturers put the monkey back in what many perceived to be its proper servile, and entirely unrelated, place.
Nineteenth Century Artistic Movements Revel in the Natural World
The Romantic Movement of the first half of the nineteenth
century looked longingly back to an imagined pristine world of the pre-Industrial
age or out from the growing cities and towns toward the wonders of nature
and their meaning. Nature's landscapes were imbued with moral as well as
emotional impact. Flowers were morally uplifting. Groves of trees created
no mere forests; they were God's first temples. The messages carried within
the Romantic decorative motifs were expected to be discernible by all.
With images of the natural world adorning majolica tablewares, meals were
to become both uplifting affairs.
Japanese decorative motifs were incorporated into English majolica after the South Kensington Exhibition of 1862 and the Paris Exhibition of 1867. Exotic Japanese flora combined with surprisingly simple and open designs never imagined by Western artists, caught the English popular imagination as Chinese export porcelain had a century before. In majolica this fascination was expressed in stork, fan, prunus blossom, and pine branch shapes. Most of these motifs appeared on Argenta wares, majolica glazed with cream-colored grounds. These were very popular at the time but were made under the intense pressures of the early 1880s American majolica craze. As a consequence, even the better potters poorly manufactured many Argenta pieces.
While the Industrial Revolution brought lower prices and social change to the Western world, it also brought the ugliness of a mechanized world. The Aesthetic Movement was another social and artistic reaction to that ugliness. The Aesthetic Movement celebrated the cleanness and simplicity of the natural world with its sunflower and peacock motifs. Adherents of the Aesthetic Movement favored simplicity of design, largely shunning the cluttered flamboyance of earlier majolica. During this period, manufacturers produced Argenta ware emblazoned with peacocks and sunflowers.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Arts and Crafts styles came into favor. Arts and Crafts motifs were characterized by curved designs taken from the natural shapes of flowers and plants. Gone were fancy embellishments and excessive decorative techniques. This was highly stylized nature, graced with a simplicity of design. Japanese art was influential during this period as well.
The end of the Victorian majolica years overlapped the beginning of the style called Art Nouveau, a gracefully fluid, stylized evolution of natural art motifs. The soft glazes of majolica were remarkably well suited to Art Nouveau's fluid lines. The new worldwide popularity of this French style gave majolica manufacturers their last impetus to create fresh, original designs (especially among European majolica manufacturers), but it was not enough to curtail majolica's continuing decline. By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, majolica had progressed from its origins in 1850 in the complex and realistic natural forms derived from Palissy's work to the fluid, impressionistic view of nature represented in Art Nouveau.
Throughout the Victorian age, potters in England, Europe, and America produced wide ranging and fascinating views of the natural world, as they perceived it. These wares provide the collector with intriguing glimpses into the beliefs and passions of the inhabitants of the Victorian world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeffrey B. Snyder is and experienced writer, editor,
and public speaker. He is the author of Marvelous Majolica and the coauthor
of Majolica: British, American & European Wares. Both books are available
through Schiffer Publishing, 610-593-1777.