In Depth: The Ceramic Staircase

Della Robbia Ware: Introducing Polychrome Relief Sculpture

The most obvious example of della Robbia-inspired relief sculpture on the Staircase comes in the form of a visual quotation of a della Robbia foliage border, a motif that the Minton factory could have extracted directly from the Italian sculpture collection [Figures 8 & 9].

Figure 8: “Victoria and Albert Museum” by Nick Garrod, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Figure 9: Luca della Robbia, Stemma of King René of Anjou, c.1466-78, glazed terracotta, d: 335.3 cm., V&A, London (6740:7-1860)

As well as using motifs from Renaissance paintings in the majolica work, Minton used this borrowed della Robbia motif in many of its ceramic roundels and medallions, quoting the work of its Quattrocento predecessor. Whilst Minton’s foliage border is perhaps a little fuller and more contained within its architectural frame, it certainly echoes the bright but naturalistic greens, yellow and browns of the della Robbia originals.27

Aside from this obvious allusion to a recognizable della Robbia-esque foliage border, the relieved figures of the Staircase are, without exception, white. It is important to note that the style of the high relief sculpture, the atlante and caryatid figures beneath the balustrade, for example, is more Michelangelesque High Renaissance, verging on Baroque, than della Robbia-esque. For example, their Antique Bacchanalian subject matter and stocky musculature are reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Day and Night (c.1524-33, Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence), rather than the draped Biblical subjects and lower relief of della Robbia’s work.28 Foliage is rendered in various different ways. The garlands below the balustrade and the arabesques are more traditionally stylized (after Raphael’s examples) and contrast to the naturalistic depiction of corn in various panels, which better follow Robinson’s idea of a della Robbia ‘truth to Nature’ [Figure 10].29

Figure 10: Minton & Co., Ceramic Staircase, example of corn panel, 1865-71, glazed earthenware, dimensions unknown, V&A, London

But it is the manner in which polychromy is applied to ceramic architectural relief that the Staircase sculptures best follow the della Robbia precedent. In his catalogue of Italian sculpture, Robinson ‘gently’ introduced the idea of polychrome relief sculpture to readers, beginning with Luca della Robbia’s marble works, then his all-white terracotta imitations of marble works, followed by “the use of two enamel colours only, viz. blue and white,” which “was the earliest mode; but the introduction of other tints in accessories and details, at first very sparingly applied, very soon followed, and afterwards (by Luca himself) a full system of chromatic decoration was introduced.”30 Looking at the Staircase with this comment in mind, it is apparent that there exists a similarly gradual polychromatic development from monochrome relief to a “full system of chromatic decoration” on the ceiling. If one follows the decorative scheme of the staircase from floor to ceiling (a direction in which visitors may well concentrate their attention whilst climbing or descending a staircase), the high relief sculpture below the balustrade is gradually mixed with the flat surface paintings as they move further up the wall, allowing sculpture and painting to merge as part of the same versatile ceramic material. A more muted polychromatic design is utilized in conjunction with the high relief below the balustrade, echoing those earlier della Robbia productions described by Robinson, such as the Adoration of the Kings (1475-1500, V&A, London [Figure 11]), in which only the background is coloured in a cool shade of blue.

Figure 11: Luca della Robbia, Adoration of the Kings, c.1475-1500, enamelled terracotta, 41.91 x 60.96 cm., V&A, London (651-1865)

Rather than a cool shade of blue, however, Minton has used the more earthy, Oriental tones of celadon or jade green that were popular at the time in Mintonware and Wedgwood Jasperware [Figure 12].

Figure 11: Wedgwood, Vase, c.1785, jasperware, 27.3 x 12.7 cm, V&A, London (1421-1855)

This use of predominantly white or monochrome relief was a departure from Minton’s usual majolica aesthetic, in which figural supports and decorations were often realized in flesh tones and bright colours [Figure 12].

Figure 12: Minton [Victor Etienne Simyan, designer], Vase, 1867, majolica glazed earthenware, 121.9 x 52.6 cm., V&A, London (1047:1, 2-1871)

It suggested a closer relationship with the earliest della Robbia originals found at the Museum, or indeed, with a cheaper imitation of marble, and formed a real contrast between the modestly coloured relief sculptures and the extravagantly coloured frescos on the ceiling, balancing the polychromy of the over all architectural design.

Furthermore, viewing (and touching) distance appears to be an important factor in the over all polychromatic composition of the Staircase design: the closer the viewer could get to the design for tactile inspection, not only did the sculptures project invitingly further from the wall, but their combination of colour and relief was more muted and balanced. Every monochrome relief sculpture (save for the della Robbia foliage borders within the roundels) was within reach of the visitor. By contrast, the ceiling paintings, out of reach both physically and conceptually, were realized in sumptuous colours, providing a visual sensation, rather than a tactile one. From a practical point of view, perhaps we can again bring the concept of hygiene into this. The surfaces most likely to be touched or dirtied, those that invitingly projected out of the wall towards the visitor at waist height, were not only non-porous but also a clinical, cold shade of white that would emphatically reveal any dirt, thus highlighting its absence.

Minton’s Staircase demonstrated that, through cheap and hygienic ceramic decoration, permanent frescoes in the manner of the great artist-craftsman Raphael, and polychrome ceramic relief after della Robbia, could be combined to form a new, innovative type of decoration. The combination of painting and sculpture within an architectural space was justified through its allusions to the work of della Robbia, whose aim, it was suggested, had been to apply his talent as a sculptor and painter to “the humble art of pottery.” Displayed alongside the originals in the Museum, Minton’s similar ceramic hybridization of sculpture and painting promised a modern, versatile platform for architectural ornament that could colourfully (and hygienically) decorate the public spaces of the modern city.

With its ambitious exploration of the ceramic material in the solution of decorative problems, the Ceramic Staircase demonstrates Minton’s and the Museum’s ‘industrial’ interpretation of the Italian Renaissance artist-workman. It showed what modern industrial Potteries could create in collaboration with the modern artist-workmen connected with the Schools, and how art and industry could be combined to make something new for British manufacture, using Renaissance precedents found in the collections for support. Of the few published reviews at the time of its construction, the majority were not, however, positive. The Athenaeum went as far as to describe the decoration as “monstrously rude and common in style.”31 It was even more disliked in the early twentieth century. In 1912, it was boarded up by Museum director, Sir Cecil Harcourt-Smith, in response to “the Board’s view that the decoration […] of a Museum should be as unobtrusive as possible, and should in no way overpower the effect of the objects exhibited.”32 The Staircase was restored to its original state in 1995-6 as part of the project to restore the Silver Galleries (formerly the Ceramics Galleries) and now forms an important part of the Museum’s collections – showcasing industrial, technical, artistic, stylistic, ceramic, sculptural and even social experimentation that actively sought to improve further the reputation of the British pottery industry.

About the Author

Dr. Charlotte Drew is a Henry Moore Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Bristol. Her current book project, Invention and Industry: The Victorian Renaissance of Ceramic Sculpture, explores nineteenth-century British sculpture and sculpture criticism from the perspective of ceramics. Her research considers the critical, artistic and industrial responses to Quattrocento ceramic sculpture in Victorian Britain, including texts by Ruskin, Pater and Symonds and artistic collaborations between Minton, Doulton and sculptors of the period. Charlotte’s AHRC-funded doctoral research contributed to the Displaying Victorian Sculpture project at the Universities of York and Warwick and the Yale Centre for British Art. The project culminated in the Sculpture Victorious’ exhibition at the YCBA and Tate Britain (2014). She has published articles on her subject in the Sculpture Journal and the Journal of Art Historiography.


  1. Examples of Minton’s ‘della Robbia’ ware are cited in Atterbury and Batkin, The Dictionary of Minton, 70.
  2. A copy of which could be found at Sydenham.
  3. Robinson, Italian Sculpture, 47.
  4. Robinson, Catalogue of the Soulages Collection, 50 (footnote). Robinson’s description is repeated in an 1864 article for the Gentleman’s Magazine: “The colours [of Luca della Robbia’s earlier works] are simply blue and white. In his after-work we find green, maroon and yellow, but still rather sparingly employed compared to the white and blue.” Anon, “Art Applied to Industry.- III,” Gentleman’s Magazine 1 (May 1864): 564.
  5. Anon, “Modern Ceramics at the South Kensington Museum,” 184.
  6. See Physick, The Victoria and Albert Museum, 254.


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