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What is Majolica?


The word Majolica has been used to describe several types of wares over the centuries which are similar in that the colours are strong and bright but the materials and processes to achieve the effect have progressed over time.


Original Majolica

'Majolica' (maiolica) was originally used to describe wares made in Mediterranean Europe and primarily exported through the port of Maiorca. It was the first modern European pottery to achieve rich colours, opaque colours were applied over the usual red clay (terracotta) body, being opaque the glazes masked the colour of the underlying clay. The stiffness of the coloured glazes and the requirement to apply thickly so that the red clay body didn't show through meant the wares had a three dimensional feel to the decoration. Early Victorian tile makers like Minton & Co. and Maw & Co. used similar techniques to produce brightly coloured tiles albeit usually with an embossed body, early Minton majolica tiles are quite rare and sought after however they continued in production throughout the nineteenth century. Sherwin & Cotton's and others barbotine tiles were similarly made with coloured slips applied by painting, earlier examples up until the late 1880s used buff plastic clay bodies, later examples are slip painted on top of embossed biscuit.


Tin Glazed Majolica

A further early development was applying a white tin glaze on top of traditional red or buff clay to provide a clean white background on to which to apply the colours. As the colours did not need to be so opaque or thick to mask the clay colour the colours were not as raised and the process was like hand painting on to white clay. A lead glaze was often applied as the last stage in the process to give the pottery a high gloss finish. Now often called arts & crafts rather than majolica this process has more in common with early majolica than late Victorian and Edwardian majolica and was used by William de Morgan and for Dutch delft tiles.


Modern Majolica

As technology progressed white clay bodies replaced the tin glazed coloured clay bodies and bright colours were added to translucent lead glazes so that pottery similar to majolica was made in a simpler two stage process, mould the white clay body and decorate with coloured glazes. The Victorians adopted the widely known term 'majolica' for these lead glazed wares even though the manufacturing process had little in common with original majolica. The term majolica is now generally used for any pottery with embossed relief and bright glaze so included on this page are tiles hand made by barbotine and stencilled processes.

Embossed tiles with coloured lead glazed tiles did not appear in significant quantities until the late1880s earlier examples being mostly in coloured buff or red clay which was more stable and cheaper than white. The success of Sherwin & Cottons barbotine tiles in the mid 1880s seems to have pushed other manufacturers to produce similar industrially made tiles.

At first the range of coloured lead glazes were very limited, mostly greens, browns, and yellows - the most common colours in nature and the most stable in the kiln. Blues and pinks tended to be unstable, were used in small amounts and often exhibit pinpoint blow holes, bright reds were impossible. Monochrome tiles were by far the most common as different coloured glazes had slightly different melting points and viscosity, they may adversely react in the kiln. Again the problems of pinks and blues can be seen as rarely do they occur together and when they do usually in small areas separated by more stable colours. Tile makers were highly secretive about their glaze formulations, major tileries Minton Hollins and Sherwin & Cotton lead the field and the smaller Wade & Co. and Marsden Tile Works also produced amazing glazes that others could not imitate.

By 1905 most glaze colours were available but even then plain tiles in pink, red and sky blue were more expensive than the more standard colours, decorative tiles incorporating these colours were also often more expensive. Perhaps more fascinating is that some monochrome tiles were more expensive than multicolour tiles even from the same manufacturer. Boote were amongst the lowest priced of the major makers and Godwins the highest but tiles from the mid price range Henry Richards Tile Company show some monochrome tiles priced higher than multicolour tiles. George Cartlidge's portrait work is notable for its excellence in producing a range of tones from a single glaze, whilst the excellence of the sculpting and moulding is widely recognised more credit for the effect belongs to the glazes, the combination of strength of colour yet extremely high translucency was for several years unique to Sherwin & Cotton.

Some of the most dramatic colours are found on monochrome tiles and also on tube line tiles (where the high raised outline separated the colours). High raised outline tiles were for the most part too difficult to mechanically mould using the dust press process and the bright white clay outline showing through detracted from richer coloured glazes. Of the major companies only Pilkington made much of a range which the called 'cloisonné but even then they usually shied away from the more difficult colours. Some majolica tiles were moulded specifically for single colour decoration and others for multicolour, the translucency of the glaze is important in creating powerful visual impact from a monochrome glaze and the same design can vary dramatically in effect according to the glaze used. Inevitably some designs for single colour were decorated in multicolour but usually with the easier greens, browns, yellows etc.

Monochrome majolica tiles remained more popular in the USA in the early part of the twentieth century where higher relief moulding was more widely used, good relief combined with good glazes can produce bold and contrasting effects from just a single colour glaze. Monochrome tiles can be displayed very effectively and dramatically side by side, a strip or are of blocks of colour having more visual effect than the usual small dab of strong or bright colour in the middle of a tile.

Opaque enamels on moulded embossed buff clay by Minton & Co. c1860

Tin glaze, opaque enamels/stains and lead glaze Wm de Morgan & Co. c1885

Impasto barbotine by Sherwin & Cotton 1886

Moulded embossed lead glaze by The Decorative Art Tile Co. 1887

Moulded embossed lead glaze by J & W Wade 1891

Moulded embossed lead glaze by Gibbons Hinton c1900

Moulded embossed lead glaze 'Cloisonné' by Pilkington c1895

Tube Line by Sherwin & Cotton c1905

Barbotine stencil by Marsden c1900

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