In Depth: The Ceramic Staircase

In both Dr Christopher Dresser and the Minton Connection and Minton Majolica: A Visual Feast of Victorian Opulence the Archive’s own source material provided an excellent jumping-off point from which these important aspects of Minton’s history could be explored in detail. In The Ceramic Staircase, however, the focal point for our latest discussion is instead one of the company’s major productions, an important design feature of the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum. Having yet to stumble across any records related to the Staircase we’re particularly grateful to Dr. Charlotte Drew, a Henry Moore Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, for bringing this magnificent installation to our attention – and in such detail too.


The Ceramic Staircase: Minton and the Reinvention of Luca della Robbia at the South Kensington Museum

Dr. Charlotte Drew · 21 minute read

Figure 1: “Victoria and Albert Museum” by Nick Garrod, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss the ostentatious design of Minton’s Ceramic Staircase (1865-71 [Figure 1]) at the Victoria and Albert Museum as something beyond the realms of our more muted, modern taste. However, the staircase was an important project that modernized and reflected the spirit of the world-renowned Italian sculpture collection within the South Kensington Museum (as the V&A was previously known) in order to raise the status of modern ceramic manufacture. This article considers the ways in which the staircase translated the industrious and decorative spirit of Italian terracotta sculpture to create an innovative design that would draw parallels between the great ceramic sculptors of the Quattrocento and their modern, British followers.

By the mid-nineteenth-century the historical, Italian Renaissance precedent for polychrome architectural ceramics could be found in abundance at South Kensington in the popular, bright, Tuscan sculptures of the della Robbia family (as well as the vast collection of Italian maiolica and polychrome relief works by Donatello and Ghiberti). Della Robbia relief was a prominent feature of the Museum’s sculpture collection and became increasingly popular amongst Victorian critics, artists and private collectors, providing accents of Tuscan colour to the private dwellings of John Ruskin, Walter Pater, George Frederick Watts [Figure 2] and William Holman Hunt,1 to name but a few.

Figure 2: Louis Reid Deuchars, after a photograph by George Andrews, George Frederic Watts, 1899, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 5223)

Indeed, the advantage of ceramic relief sculpture was that it did not need to be limited to the private homes of the wealthy elite or the public Museum. More modern ceramic sculpture could be easily and cheaply disseminated throughout the country via large public commissions, industrial potteries and smaller ceramic studios – transforming the aesthetic of contemporary British architecture and interior design. Perhaps those “fragments of the milky sky itself,” as Walter Pater described the della Robbia aesthetic in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance of 1873, “fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into the darkened churches,” could brighten even the darkest corners of London and other industrial cities in Britain for the benefit of the greater population.2 It was no wonder that various artists, architects and manufacturers in Britain began experimenting with the medium in the nineteenth century.

The Ceramic Staircase at the South Kensington Museum, built between 1865 and 1871, is one of the greatest examples of this type of experimentation. The staircase is often briefly passed over in historical discussions of Minton’s achievements, Victorian architectural decoration, and the history of the Museum building.3 The reasons for this are unclear; though the fact that it was never completed, that the processes used in its construction were not carried further than the Museum, and that it was not initially well received, might all have had an impact on the lasting notion that an exploration of its extravagant style, material and colour was somehow infra dig. to the art historian. But the staircase deserves serious thought in order to unpick what exactly it was trying to achieve in the context of the South Kensington Museum ethos – the fusion of art and industry.

Combining the Sister Arts

The staircase is a novel architectural feature of the Museum, being encased in a combination of Minton ‘della Robbia ware,’ mosaic and majolica.4 But what do we mean by ‘della Robbia ware’? In his survey of 2014, The Della Robbia Pottery, Peter Hyland tells us that “Della Robbia Ware’ was not a new term in the nineteenth century, but had been “used for centuries to describe sculptures and bas reliefs modelled in clay, fired, and then decorated with coloured enamels.”5 Thus, the term ‘della Robbia ware’ generally described polychrome relief forms in ceramic, as opposed to the flat painted surfaces of Italian maiolica pottery. It is also used in connection with architectural decoration, rather than the embellishment of pots and other household objects. Essentially, a reference to ‘della Robbia’ in the description of a particular type of ware denotes the combination of the art of Italian maiolica painting, relief sculpture and architectural decoration. Minton’s staircase demonstrated a modern exploration of the ways in which these sister arts could be combined to create an innovative form of architectural decoration for the Victorian age.

In this sense, the staircase project as a whole could be considered as a response to the inventive, innovative and industrious spirit seen within the Quattrocento artist by his nineteenth-century chroniclers. No nineteenth-century description of Luca della Robbia as an artist-workman was complete without a mention of his abilities as both a fine sculptor and as an inventor, innovator and manufacturer. Indeed, the curator of the Museum at this time, Sir. John Charles Robinson, had directly referred to della Robbia as an inventor, and to his work as a “marvel of industrial skill,” in his 1862 catalogue of the Italian sculpture collection:

[della Robbia] was undoubtedly the original founder or inventor of what may, in a certain sense, be termed a new art – that of enamelled sculpture; in other words, he first put into practice the method of applying a vitrified enamel glaze, similar to that of the Majolica ware, to works in relief on a large scale. […] This, however, involved an infinity of conflicting technical difficulties, impossible to be here described in detail; and to have reconciled and overcome them so perfectly as Luca speedily did, will ever remain a marvel of industrial skill.6

In addition, Pater, whose ‘Luca della Robbia’ essay focused more on poetic, artistic phrases such as “profound expressiveness” and the “intimate impress of an indwelling soul,” described the artist using words that conjure the idea of scientific methods and problem solving, such as “labour,” “science,” “trials,” “struggles” and “solutions.”7 Della Robbia and his work thus embodied a combination of the arts and sciences – his sculptural practice was a “marvel of industrial skill.” Victorian writers celebrated the fact that della Robbia had borrowed techniques from both Italian maiolica ware and Quattrocento sculpture to create a new fusion of these two arts in the search for an architectural ‘hybrid’ that could bring the sister arts together in harmony to “adorn and cultivate daily household life.”8

The decorative scheme of the Staircase was, in this manner, a nineteenth-century ‘industrial’ response to della Robbia sculpture, observed through the lens of contemporary scholarship. Like della Robbia himself, those involved in the design and construction of the staircase attempted to synthesise various forms of art in the creation of a modern hybrid of the sister arts of painting, sculpture and architecture. They too focused on ceramic innovation, invention and a mutual desire to find ceramic solutions to decorative, architectural problems.

The Artistic and Practical Potential of Ceramic Decoration

Work on the staircase began in 1865. The Museum’s lead designer at this time was Godfrey Sykes, who had been influenced by the Michelangelesque style of Alfred Stevens, with whom he had worked at the Sheffield School of Art in the 1850s. Sykes’s death, in the early part of 1866, meant that his assistant on the project, Francis (Frank) Wollaston Moody, took over the design of the space, assisted by his students at the central School of Art that was attached to the Museum.9

The crafting of the staircase in ceramic was supported by the Museum’s Director, Sir. Henry Cole, who supervised the commission, and by Colin Minton Campbell, who provided materials from the Minton factory in Stoke-on-Trent. There are various reasons that ceramic might have been chosen. Firstly, the staircase facilitated direct access to the vast and popular Ceramics galleries on the second floor, which were also decorated in a similar style.10 This juxtaposed the modern, architectural ceramic decoration with the popular Italian maiolica, Palissy, Delft and della Robbia ware exhibits, allowing for direct visual comparison of the historic examples and provided an excellent advertisement for Minton’s modern interpretation. Furthermore, the industrial Potteries, that had long supported and benefitted from the National Schools of Art, were one of the first British industries that showed a marked improvement in their international reputation. By 1865, Minton majolica in particular was already enjoying success for its high quality design and novel aesthetic. The company was well known for creating large exhibition pieces on the scale of the Ceramic Staircase, such as the majolica fountain for the 1862 International Exhibition, which not only commanded an imposing visual presence at thirty-seven feet tall, but was also experimentally scented with Rimmel perfume [Figure 3] providing an overwhelming sensory experience.11

Figure 3: Minton & Co., St. George’s Fountain, 1862, majolica glazed earthenware, lost [SD 1705/MS196]

There is also evidence that Cole himself was keen to use ceramics in both the exterior and interior design of the building. As Michael Stratton has suggested:

Inspired by earlier visits on the part of his associates and by his own studies of English terracotta, Cole spent much of 1858 scrutinising Romanesque and Renaissance architecture in Italy. After working his way through the cities in the lower valley of the Po, and Turin and Genoa, he went to Rome where he noted of one building: “The pilasters were of red brick but the Corinthian capitol not cut, but moulded before baked. I hope I shall adopt this system in Kensington rather eschewing the use of stone, except where stone would be decidedly best.”12

If Cole wanted his decoration to be moulded rather than carved, ceramics were the obvious choice. Equally, Stratton suggests, the decision to use ceramics “arose out of Cole and Redgrave’s passion for della Robbia ware and their concern for hygiene. Cole ranked majolica, a forerunner of architectural faïence, as a symbol of progress that equaled photography and the electric telegraph.”13 A ceramic staircase was, therefore, chosen for its combination of both aesthetic and practical advantages. Not only could the forms be moulded and painted in the popular colours of Minton majolica, but, once glazed they formed a hygienic ‘wipe-clean’ surface, ideal for a space that would see a high level of public foot traffic and hand wear. Indeed, Cole’s estimation of majolica as a symbol of progress was a legitimate one. The Victorian era saw a surge in the use of ceramics for the purposes of sanitation, thanks to innovative manufacturers such as Doulton, Minton, Wedgwood, Blashfield and Twyford. Ceramic toilets, baths, crockery, drainpipes and tiles were among the new household and public facilities that revolutionised sanitation at a time when cholera had claimed the lives of 29,000 Londoners between 1832 and 1866.14 Using ceramics to “adorn and cultivate daily household life” was not only advantageous to the spiritual wellbeing of the public, but was also important for their physical health. It is no wonder, then, that the ever-pragmatic Cole wanted to advertise the decorative potential of such a hygienic yet tastefully artistic material at the Museum.

With this in mind, the Ceramic Staircase showcased a collection of della Robbia-esque ceramic experiments that remain exclusive to this small, but important, architectural space at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The decoration of the staircase can be split into two specific areas of innovation in both art and industry that echo the kind of ceramic, artistic hybrids created by Luca della Robbia in his innovative work. These include Minton’s modern invention of ‘fictile vitrification’ (a mixture of fresco, ceramic painting and mosaic) and the more directly della Robbia-inspired application of colour to relief sculpture. After the uproar that had occurred in the previous decade in relation to Owen Jones’s colouring of the Greek Court at the Crystal Palace, this latter application of polychromy to architectural relief sculpture was a bold move for the Museum to make. But with the physical evidence for Italian polychrome sculpture displayed and promoted in the gallery next to the Staircase (rather than the conjecture that surrounded Jones’s coloured Parthenon frieze), the designers had proven, historical precedent and popular taste on their side. With these innovative technical and stylistic efforts in mind, the Ceramic Staircase can be seen as a collection of ceramic experiments in painting, sculpture and architectural decoration that, like the original works of the della Robbia family, brought the sister arts and industry closer together and celebrated the two-fold status of the Italian Renaissance-inspired artist-workman.


Footnotes

  1. For more on the Victorian reception of della Robbia sculpture see Charlotte Drew, “Luca della Robbia: South Kensington and the Victorian Revival of a Florentine Sculptor,” Sculpture Journal 23:2 (Nov. 2015): 171-183.
  2. Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry [1877] ed. Donald Hill (Oakland: University of California Press, 1980), 46. The first edition of 1873 was titled Studies in the History of the Renaissance, but the second edition (1877) and subsequent editions were titled as above.
  3. The most comprehensive discussion of the Staircase can be found in John Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum, the history of its building (London: V&A, 1982).
  4. When referring to Minton in the following study, I refer to the Stoke-on-Trent pottery as a whole rather than to Herbert Minton himself. Herbert Minton died in 1858 and his nephew, Colin Minton Campbell, took over the company and was in charge throughout the construction of the Staircase.
  5. Peter Hyland, The Della Robbia Pottery (Woodbridge: The Antique Collectors’ Club, 2014), 27.
  6. John Charles Robinson, Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages and Period of the Revival of Art: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Works forming the above Section of the Museum, with additional illustrative notices (London: Chapman and Hall, 1862), 49.
  7. Pater, The Renaissance, 52.
  8. Pater, The Renaissance, 45.
  9. Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum, 126.
  10. Now the Silver Galleries.
  11. Col. Tal P. Shaffner, The Illustrated Record of the International Exhibition of the Industrial Arts and Manufactures, and the Fine Arts of All Nations, in 1862 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Co. Ltd., 1862), 17. It was later exhibited at Sydenham.
  12. Alan Summerly Cole and Henrietta Cole, eds., Fifty Years of Public Work of Sir Henry Cole, K.C.B, 1 (London: Bell & Sons, 1884), 332, quoted in Michael Stratton, The Terracotta Revival, Building Innovation and the Image of the Industrial City in Britain and North America (London: Victor Gollancz, 1993), 54.
  13. F. H. W. Sheppard, Survey of London 38 (1975), 145. Cole had compared majolica, photography and the electric telegraph as symbols of progress in an article, “Prospects of the International Exhibition in 1862,” Cornhill Magazine 4, no.19 (July 1861): 96.
  14. See Munroe Blair, Ceramic Water Closets (Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd, 2000), 11-12.