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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Beehive Cheese Keeper, Minton, outstanding color & detail, 1883, 13 inches high, $46,750. Photo courtesy of Majolica Auctions
Stunning gold colored urns, bright green humidors, glowing yellow jardiničres, and spectacular figural pitchers. You name it, majolica earthenware embodies it.

The goal was fiercely colored and affordable earthenware.

The stumbling block came when potters realized the bright colors they were striving for deepened when they were painted on top of earthenware with an existing clear lead glaze base. The clear glaze darkened the clay’s color.

The solution came when potters tried a base coat of white or cream tin glaze instead of the clear glaze. The result was a pure surface on which colors brilliantly leaped out.

Majolica was born. Unlimited possibilities in design. Clear-cut detail. Fish, shells, mermaids, dogs, parrots, owls, lemons, lettuce, majolica captured nature in realism.

The technique passed from country to country. During the Renaissance, the Italians imported a colorful tin-glaze from Majorca, calling it ‘maiolica.’ French potters copied the Italian ware and named it ‘faience’ or ‘fayence.’ The Dutch used the term ‘delft.’ The English called it ‘delftware.’

Bernard Palissy, a 16th century French potter, changed the glaze from tin to lead for a more luminous finish, and created colorful designs using leaves and other forms from nature.

Palissy’s style and glazing technique experienced a rebirth during the Victorian era. Potters covered the lead glaze with a clear glass overglaze to prevent the lead from poisoning food.

The English porcelain and china firm of Minton & Company exhibited the colorful, inexpensive majolica at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. It was an immediate success.

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, buyers could see beyond the dull-white ironstones, terra cotta and other wares they were used to seeing on their dining tables. Majolica added color and detail to serving food.

Even Queen Victoria welcomed Minton’s majolica. Other English potters like Josiah Wedgwood and George Jones soon followed Minton’s lead.

The earthenware’s garish colors resonated with Victorians in America and also abroad. One American critic called majolica “low, vulgar, even barbarous.”

But that didn’t stop buyers. During the 1880s, the A & P grocery chain in America even gave majolica away with a purchase of baking soda.

Griffen, Smith and Hill in Phoenixville, Pa., produced a popular line of Majolica called Etruscan. Many pieces are marked with a seal that includes the initials “GSH” entwined, and the words “Etruscan Majolica.” Some of their artists were children and accounts for the cheerfully naďve, and kitschy examples seen in the pieces. Etruscan is highly collectible today.

It’s often impossible to figure out the exact manufacturing date of American majolica. Fortunately, English potters printed, impressed or embossed registry dates on the back of almost all their earthenware.

Value depends not so much on who made the piece, but by the design, workmanship and condition. Was the piece carefully painted? Do the colors remain within the outlines of the design?

Large pieces like vases and compotes are especially desirable. It’s unusual to find majolica in mint condition. The glaze was brittle and over time usually chipped or crazed. Cobalt, lavender and turquoise glazes command strong prices.

On Oct. 27-28, 2000, Majolica Auctions in Wolcottville, Ind., featured their 19th majolica auction. Michael Strawser conducted the sale. Here are some current values.

Majolica Highlights

Dog-head humidor, with blue stocking hat; 6 in. high; $550

Syrup Pitcher, Etruscan, pink sunflower; $660

Wicker basket, Etruscan, twisted twig handle; $660

Umbrella Stand, Wedgwood, six-sided, Art Nouveau sunflower and floral design; $1,210

Oyster plate, Minton, multi-colored; 11 in. diameter; $4,125

Garden seat, George Jones maker, water lily with birds, dragonflies, and cattails, cobalt; 19 in. high; $24,200

Beehive cheese keeper, Minton, outstanding color and detail; 1883; 13 in. high; $46,750

Fish tureen, Minton, golden fish resting on a bed of green seaweed with lemon handles; 1876; 23 in. long; $57,750

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