Vintage View: affordable and delicious period dishes

Majolica (often confused with tin-enamelled Maiolica) is a scrumptious and affordable lead-glazed earthenware that took off in the mid-19th century and is still potted and prized in Europe and the US.

Vintage View: affordable and delicious period dishes

It was first presented by the English firm of Mintons, in the 1851 Exhibition, as Palissy ware, after the 16th century experimental ceramicist Bernard Palissy. This was quickly followed up with a showing in Paris of this jolly, accessible ceramic, causing a flurry of excitement in England, Europe, and even the Americas.

Together with classical parlour piece — fruits and vegetables, domestic and exotic (the pineapple was a Georgian obsession), were a popular theme in fine porcelain in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Minton, inspired by these polite, gentrified fruits offered up more playful earthy imaginings in majolica setting the tone for future crops.

The shapes were gleaned not from ancient mythology but from the cottage acre — cabbages, leeks, lettuce, and celery, single leaves layered up into plates, bowls, and pitchers — twisted broken boughs, birds, fishes, flowers, and quaint young animals.

The bright colours, familiar sylvan forms and high relief resulted in naturalistic, cheerful products. The ware, both in more formal ornaments and as amusing tableware in foodie forms was a hit, remaining a favourite for all classes of buyers right into the late 1890s.

Wedgewood responded with their own line of more dignified dishes, vases and jardinières, marked out by a delicate basket weave and a mossy green glaze. Within 10 years, Trent, Royal Worcester, Spode, and many of the reputable Staffordshire firms had their own line of majolica.

The rather creepy reptilian Portuguese snake and crab wall plaques that turn up regularly at antique fairs here and in the UK, are referred to as Palissy rather than majolica, but you will hear both terms bandied about.

Collectors of majolica love it for its immediacy, high shine, and bright colour undimmed by time. It’s a hefty, tough ware too, great for planting up in horticultural splendour on a dresser top. My heavily crazed, well-chipped Victorian lettuce plates are still dealt out on high days and holidays for holding side-dishes.

They cost me next to nothing, and always start a dewy eyed chat at the table (that and the cheap wine).

Vintage Portuguese majolica by Secla and Bordallo Pinheiro, are always stacked on the shelves of eBay at various price points depending on quality, rarity and condition (new BP majolica is wonderful still: bordallopinheiro.com).

Look out for flat Etruscan style English vintage vine leaf pickle dishes from the late 19th century, rarely more than €30 a piece and lovely, even shot with crazing.

Heaps of majolica tableware in various states of dilapidation are common finds at auction and often worth buying to prize out the survivors.

The Americans loved majolica for its wit, colour, and the fact it was (unlike porcelain), robust enough to bang down on a dining table and use without worry. They got into production as early as the 1850s at Griffen, Smith & Hill, and continued their romance with majolica for the next 150 years.

Twentieth century makes of this ware include the sugar coated confections of Carlton Ware of England, and in America- Barbara Elgen of New York and Dodie Thayer of Palm Beach, Florida.

Thayer was a prolific potter, hand-finishing all her Lettuce Ware, and was collected fervently by celebrities and royalty from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Socialite millionaire Brooke Astor’s collection of more than 200 pieces of Thayer sold for $74,500 (€66,488) at Sotheby’s in New York in 2012.

Fashion and interior designer Tory Burch, winkled Thayer out of retirement and has just released a collection of Lettuce Ware, with piece starting around €100 for two dinner plates and €120 for two cups and saucers, toryburch.com.

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