Of which Dreams or Nightmares are made

Accompanying me around the Parisian flea market is, potentially, an integral part of Nick’s worst nightmare.  Faced with the prospect of persuading me to weed out some of the objects, ornaments, artefacts and books with which I choose to cover shelves and surfaces at home – less dusting that way 😉 – why would he want to risk the prospect of acquiring more.  And why would I want to do that?……….. Because I am a collector, that’s why!

If I didn’t collect shells and marine invertebrate cast-offs, as well as other marine rejectamenta, from the beach, I might just have to collect Majolica pottery.

Originally, Maiolica referred to ceramics from Renaissance Italy with an opaque, white glaze containing carbon dioxide, usually painted in several colours and sometimes called majolica in English-speaking countries.  (The term may derive from the island of Majorca where the pottery was first designed, then imported to Italy).  The original tin glazes with their vivid colours were first developed by the Mesopotamian potters, during the 11th century.  Now the term majolica refers to Victorian ceramics made in 19th century Britain, Europe and the USA, with moulded surfaces and colourful lead glazes.

Majolica pieces reflected the Victorian interest in the natural sciences – botany, zoology, entomology. Items were modeled in high relief, featuring butterflies and other insects, flowers and leaves, fruit, shells, animals, and fish. Queen Victoria’s delight with the new pottery helped to seal its success with the general public and Victorians became avid admirers.

All through the Victorian era, Majolica kept pace with the other decorative arts. In the 1860s it reflected the new interest in Oriental-inspired design with pieces shaped like bamboo and featuring other Asian motifs. Then, Majolica picked up Art Nouveau’s love of sinuous vines and the calla lily.  But in time it began to fall from favour and came to be seen as rather vulgar. Overproduction had not only rendered it common, but there was a glut of poorly manufactured pieces on the market. Also, the use of lead glazes had resulted in an epidemic of lead poisoning among factory workers, causing outrage amongst early union leaders.

As a child I used to enjoy the pieces of Majolica and similar pottery items that I encountered in the homes of my grandmother and my great aunts.  I loved the little cottage butter dish, the dishes and pots shaped like lettuce leaves, heads of celery and other vegetables.  There was a biscuit barrel designed around the theme of a water-mill.  My grandmother had a pale green bowl, shaped like a tree trunk with woodland creatures nestled in recesses around the bole.  She used this piece as a cache-pot for a large clay pot of the tiny-leaved plant she called Mind-your-own Business.  Others may know this as Baby’s Tears, Angels’  Tears, Peace-in-the-Home, Pollyanna Vine, Mother of Thousands, or if you are Andy Doran you will settle for nothing less than Soleirolia soleirolii.

In Paris we found a small shop with Majolica piled high, but far from cheap.  Some of the sets of special plates for serving and eating asparagus, globe artichokes, oysters or the fish sets ran into four figure sums.  I particularly like the individual pieces designed around an iris flower theme.  Majolica ceramics are not to everyone’s taste but I love the colourful, fussiness of pottery with detail and relief in the design when it is expertly executed.


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