In Depth: Minton Majolica

Earlier this year we updated our online catalogue to include both a large collection of designs by Christopher Dresser and a folio box bursting with incredible majolica illustrations. Having adapted work found within the archive to help describe Dresser’s connection with Minton we have this time been able to call on the knowledge of Claire Blakey, former curator at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and speaker at this year’s Annual Archive Ceramics Lecture, to provide us with an in depth description of one of Minton’s great achievements.

Minton Majolica: A Visual Feast of Victorian Opulence

Claire Blakey · 4 minute read

The Minton factory was the shining nineteenth century example of art uniting with industry, combining an investment in design alongside the development of pioneering ceramic technology. Nowhere was this more apparent than in its development of majolica glazes. Showcased at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace, London, these colourful and exuberant wares influenced production in the Potteries and beyond. The design process behind them is an illuminating story, giving us a glimpse into how the factory operated. The Archive allows us to expand this story further, and to view the original designs first hand.

Majolica is the term used to describe pottery made of an earthenware body coated with semi-translucent coloured lead glazes. It was developed at the Minton factory in the late 1840s by Léon Arnoux, who had come to the Potteries in 1848 seeking employment. Arnoux came from a French pottery family, and trained at Sèvres as an artist, designer and modeller. He went on to manage his father’s pottery factory in Toulouse.

Photograph of Léon Arnoux [SD 1705/MS3197]

Herbert Minton, director of Minton, was keen to acquire his services. He was not interested in earthenware at this point, rather he wanted to exploit Arnoux’s knowledge of French porcelain to develop a hard-paste porcelain body at Minton, to compete with the French and German porcelain factories. Happily for the potters of Staffordshire, despite Arnoux’s experimentation, he found that the bone china body developed in the Potteries could not in fact be bettered. Herbert Minton encouraged Arnoux to experiment with coloured glazes on an earthenware body. Arnoux went on to develop low temperate coloured lead glazes, normally used on a cane-coloured earthenware body: majolica was born.

Its official unveiling came at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Arnoux had been appointed Art Director of Minton in 1849 and oversaw the majolica stand. This was a visual feast of Victorian opulence. It was a commercial and a critical success. The Art Journal in 1856 reported : “The Minton Majolica is one of the most successful revivals of modern pottery; the spirit of the early works is evidenced in the reproductive style and there is both in the materials and manufacture in the models, in their manipulation and in their decoration, a very marked and acknowledged superiority.” Minton was awarded a Council medal at the Exhibition for their “New Application & Beauty of Design”.

Certificate signifying the award of a Council Medal to “Mssrs. H. Minton & Co.” [SD1705/MS4506]

Minton majolica can be divided into two main types: wares inspired by the natural world (naturalistic), and those inspired by historical wares (revivalist). The naturalistic wares included exotic animals and plants. Some of the very large objects, such as fountains, were made specifically for international exhibitions, as a way of showcasing the talents of the company. The revivalist majolica was inspired by various historical styles: from Limoges enamels to Italian Renaissance maiolica, and from Hispano Moresque wares to Henri Deux faience. Some of these wares did not use majolica glazes, but they fall under this category for design purposes.

Pottery designers, artists and modellers working at the Minton factory were in the enviable position of having direct access to some of the historical wares they were seeking inspiration from. Herbert Minton’s connections to Henry Cole, led them to be able to access the decorative arts collections held at Marlborough House in London. These collections were later to become part of the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Majolica was soon being made by other pottery factories, including George Jones, Wedgwood and Brown-Westhead, Moore & Co. . It remained popular until the final decades of the nineteenth century, when over exposure from cheap imitations led to a decrease in its popularity. The final death knell came in the 1920s with the legislation banning lead glazes.

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery has one of the best collections of Minton majolica in the country and many of the finest examples are on display in the ceramics gallery. The designs held at the Minton Archive provide the perfect complement to this collection.

About the Author

Claire Blakey is Project Curator at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, where she is involved in the redevelopment of the museum for its reopening in 2020. She previously worked as a Curator at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, where her exhibitions and research included 19th century Staffordshire pottery and Italian Renaissance maiolica. Claire is currently working on a research project on Minton majolica and the influences of Italian maiolica on the design process. You can find her on Twitter @blakey_claire.