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Glam, Grotesque, Spectacular: The Story of ‘Majolica Mania’

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Let’s get this out of the way to start with, it’s pronounced MA-JYALL-ick-uh. Over the years, art collectors Deborah and Philip English have heard—from high-profile curators, art historians, and family friends—every possible pronunciation of the name of the ceramic art form they’ve spent much of the past 25 years collecting. 

Perched on a white couch earlier this summer in their well-appointed sitting room, taking in the impressive sight of several large museum-quality ceramics and a coffee table constructed of majolica seats with a piece of clear glass situated on top, I had the thought that the Englishes do not do things halfway. In the last two decades, they’ve amassed, in their estimation, more than 600 pieces of colorful and whimsical ceramic wares, a small portion of which are currently on view as part of a Walters Art Museum’s exhibition which the Englishes were instrumental in making happen.

The show, Majolica Mania, is the result of a near-constant effort by the Englishes and a number of other enthusiasts to get decorative arts curators in the United States to take this fantastical subset of ceramics seriously. Mounted at the Walters in collaboration with the Bard Graduate Center, the 350 works seen throughout the museum’s Hackerman House function as a survey of the art form’s breadth and depth. 

 

Phil and Deborah English at home, photo by Kelvin Bulluck
Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum

Introduced in 1851 at the first Great Exhibition in London, majolica became a global sensation in the early 20th century. Comprising both mass-produced functional wares and showy ornamental pieces created to inspire awe, majolica was, by and large, cheaper to produce than previous ceramics of the time, making them accessible to the middle class, not just the wealthy. For many collectors, including the Englishes, majolica represents the technical peak practitioners of the craft achieved during the Industrial Revolution, combining never-before-attempted shapes, vibrant glazes, and various themes.

For others who might consider the Baroque period of art history to be like the Renaissance turned up to eleven, it is over the top. Majolica fell out of style in the broader art world, commonly dismissed as frivolous or poor taste, at least in part because of its close association with the Victorians and their dubious ideas and beliefs. Even so, there has always been a devoted group of collectors who prized majolica ceramics for their colorful glazes and natural themes. But it has been difficult to get museums and art historians excited to display them. Adding to the lore, those remarkably cheerful glazes were also lead-filled and therefore cancerous to the craftspeople who created them.

Describing his endeavors years ago to get the Metropolitan Museum of Art to mount a show of majolica pieces, Philip explains the curator ended up refusing the idea, using a phrase “more graphic” than “over my dead body.” Still, the Englishes persisted, believing education would be the key to getting this work the canonical appreciation they believe it deserves. Working alongside other collectors to spread the good word as officers of the Majolica International Society—Philip is also a past president—the Englishes’ shared passion for ceramics is notable. In June of 2021, along with the promise of their collection, the Englishes gave the Walters a donation of $2.5 million to hire a decorative arts curator. (As of this writing, the position remains unfilled.)

What’s also evident in speaking with the Englishes is their partnership in all things. Married for more than 50 years, they frequently complete each other’s sentences, shifting the role of narrator back and forth with the practice of seasoned tennis doubles partners. Animal lovers, the pair have always collected what they like, and their home is full of dogs both breathing and glazed. They have also had a goal of attaining work from every country where majolica was made and collecting works from smaller manufacturers as well as the most well-known. The gift they plan to leave the Walters and Baltimore at large is remarkable.

 

Artist: Minton Ceramics Manufactory, Prometheus Vase, designed ca. 1867; this example 1873, glazed earthenware. The English Collection. © Bruce M. White, 2018
Artist: Minton Ceramics Manufactory; Artist: Paul Comoléra, Peacock, 1875, glazed earthenware. The English Collection. © Bruce M. White, 2018
Artist: Minton Ceramics Manufactory, Game Pie, 1876, glazed earthenware. Joan Stacke Graham Collection. © Bruce M. White, 2018
Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum

Suzy Kopf: Can you tell me about your background and the work you’ve done? Where are you from originally and when did you settle in Baltimore?

Deborah English: We moved up here from Fort Worth, Texas, in 1978, and we raised our family in Guilford for 15 years—it was wonderful. Lots of young parents our age, and they were all very progressive thinkers who were well connected. We both got interested in the cultural arts of Baltimore and education, and Phil was very active on the Bryn Mawr board for decades, as well as the Walters and the Symphony board. Nevertheless, it was that community where the children grew up and where we got to spend our 30s and early 40s that really anchored us to the cultural state of Baltimore. During that time, I went back to college. I had studied creative writing in Texas but did not graduate, and I got into MICA under very curious circumstances. I’d never picked up a paintbrush in my life, but they were looking for people like me who were interested in studying art and who had a background in literature. So, I started there, and I became an artist and a painter. I still do it. I haven’t been in a commercial gallery for about 10 years, but currently I’m working on a project started during the COVID lockdown that is nearly finished. It’s a lost civilization story called Time’s Breath, a book of tales with paintings and drawings.

So you’re coming to your collecting with the eye of an artist.

DE: Yes. I’m a sucker for good sculpture. If it’s not good sculpture, I don’t want it. And Phil has an extremely good eye. His mother was very artistic. I think we share that: He has an innate sense of what makes good sculpture, and I was taught it. That’s how our collection differs from a lot of other collections.

Phil, you don’t identify as an artist, so would “arts appreciator” be the right way to describe your relationship with art?

Philip English: I’m a businessman, but yes, it’s a learned appreciation. I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, and then I went to school in Dallas, which is where I met Deb. Growing up, we had some appreciation for the performing arts but not as detailed as what Deb learned at MICA. When we were lucky enough to travel, museums were always now first on the list, and also cathedrals, I love cathedrals. Stumbling into majolica was a whole series of events but it was something that opened that time period. You can explore [history] through the pieces but you can also read the history of what it was like when the British empire was at its peak.

DE: And understand why pieces were made and who they were made for and what the general perception was at the time. We learned later that it’s called material culture, but we didn’t know when we started, because we’re not academics.

You mentioned there was some art appreciation growing up, but did anyone in your family of origin collect art?

DE: My mother adored ceramics. I wouldn’t say she collected them, but because she loved them, people gave them to her. They were useful wares and she used them and loved them. I developed a love for ceramics because of that, but my parents didn’t collect anything. My father was an amateur wood carver. I don’t think your parents collected either.

PE: Yes, my parents didn’t collect anything either. Early on, I started a coin and stamp collection. It was always a little bit of a natural penchant for me.

DE: Our friend, the collector Ed Flower, swears there is a collecting gene and that he has it. I suspect Phil has it too.

PE: We started collecting a few paintings and that sort of thing.

DE: But we never thought of it as a collection.

PE: No, it’s just, we loved the paintings, and if you don’t love it, you don’t buy it. When we stumbled onto majolica, it was a crazy twist of events—we were not interested in the Victorian era at all.

 

Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum

How did you start collecting majolica?

PE: I had read an article in Forbes magazine in 1994 that showed two ladies who had collected a whole series of ceramics called majolica. We were headed to England and Deb read the article too, and we decided we’d look for a piece.

DE: I wanted a blue dish with a bird on it.

That seems attainable!

DE: Ah, but it took 10 years to get that dish.

PE: It was really a great trip; we were looking all over the place for majolica. We ran across a piece or two, but really didn’t realize what it was.

DE: And we thought, I cannot believe this is so expensive.

PE: On our next-to-last day, we found an antique store that specialized in it. Unfortunately, the dealer wasn’t there and there was a card with a telephone number to call him. Turns out he was sick with the flu but said he’d come in tomorrow. And we ended up buying four pieces from him including the monkey garden seat from the exhibition. He also gave us two books about majolica that we read the next day on the plane.

DE: We were hooked.

PE: Hooked, we were. And I said to Deb, you know, we might be able to build a collection.

DE: And I said, WHAT? What are you talking about?

So it just took buying those first few pieces for you to be in.

PE: Yes, I was in. It took some persuading for Deb… Collecting was something to focus on besides whatever troubles in the world were going on. In terms of what I want to collect, I tend to really appreciate monumental pieces; I always say they’re cheaper by the pound.

Because other people can’t find a spot for them?

PE: That’s really it; it’s hard to display them, you need space. There are very few of them; they were designed to attract people to your storefront at the international fairs. They were made as loss leaders for the world’s fairs which started in 1851. And then every year, every two years, one would happen in Paris or Sydney or Philadelphia. Common wisdom, which may or may not be true of these spectacular pieces, was that usually about a dozen were made. And no one knows how many have survived exactly—it’s been 170 years of moving around and improper storage for some of them.

 

Majolica Mania at The Walters
Artist: Griffen, Smith & Hill (ca. 1879-1890), "Shell" ware, ca. 1879-1890, glazed earthenware. Private collection, some ex. coll. Dr. Howard Silby. © Bruce M. White, 2018

Have you ever sought something specifically that you saw in a photo from one of these world’s fairs? Or do you not know what you’re going to be seeing until you attend an auction or enter a shop?

PE: Not specifically, no. What I can say is that collecting has opened up the literature and the history of the time period for me. I will read a lot of that which is not necessarily specific to the ceramic other than it’s a reflection of the culture. So that’s how I tie it in, and we both appreciate designers who have their own styles, and you could see it in the pieces of ceramic that they produce and who they produce it for. And then the potters have their own styles. And the factories have their own too.

DE: You can almost tell a Wedgwood piece instantly.

PE: Yes, Wedgwood is very formal, very rigid, versus Perret-Gentil Menton; that factory made more rough-and-tumble works that are a lot more flamboyant. They had extremely well-made glazes, those are unbelievable. And then there’s George Jones, those are so elegant.

After you acquired the first four pieces, what came next?

DE: Well, the next big event was in 1996. Somehow Phil found out that Sotheby’s was having an auction of majolica and we got the catalog. I paid attention to the estimates and then everything went for four and five times the estimate. So we came away with nothing. The collection on auction was a very tame collection. It was filled with stuff that we thought was just end-all-be-all at the time, but most of it we wouldn’t collect now, even though it’s very high quality. It was mostly serviceware and not sculptural. The Sotheby’s auction was really a turning point for us; seeing it all in person and available after we’d been doing this thinking and studying was really important. But more importantly, we met Joan Stacke Graham, who had been featured in the Forbes article and was one of the authors of the book on majolica we had been reading. She became one of our dear friends. It was through her that we came to join the Majolica International Society and really met the community.

PE: Meeting other collectors who were that interested and having a chance to get involved with a collecting society, that made a huge difference to us. We’re not joiners, but we all had the same disease.

DE: You have to have a sense of humor to collect majolica because it’s so reviled by the art world in general. You really have to be able to laugh it off. People who are super competitive and touchy will be scared off by that. That was an automatic qualifier for us, if you’re a member of the society and you collect majolica, ipso facto, we’re going to like you.

 

Phil and Deborah English at home, photo by Kelvin Bulluck
Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum

Why do you think the rest of the art world makes fun of majolica? For me, as somebody who’s dabbled in ceramics and finds them challenging, I can look at these pieces and know the incredible amount of skill that went into them. Do you think it’s the association with the Victorians, who are otherwise also mocked for their other choices, that has this effect?

DE: Very definitely that. Majolica shot itself in the foot in the long run by making poor representations of itself as the craze for it died out. The wares became cheaper and cheaper and uglier and uglier. And then when the Modernist period began emerging, tastemakers were saying, “bare is spare” and they didn’t like the ornamentation, they didn’t like dust catchers. There were a lot of factors in addition to the lead mania, frankly, even though the lead is the big story. Personal taste, after WWI and the advent of Modernism, shifted. Phil and I really grew up in a Modernist mindset, without even being aware of it. My mother would be appalled [by the way the house is decorated with majolica].

PE: We were lucky enough that we could go to museums and talk to curators. We knew people that knew people, so we made a point of getting to know decorative arts curators and inviting them to dinner whenever we were in their towns. Talking to these curators, we learned they were all raised to look down on the Victorian period, so we started inviting them to [events put on by the Society] and they were blown away.

DE: They told us they didn’t know it could look like this. Majolica was the most significant ceramic the British produced in the 19th century.  Hands down. Especially for its innovations. I attribute this theory to Susan Weber, Director of the Bard Graduate Center.

PE: But there were several generations of curators who were just taught, no… It became a question of how do we educate? How do we change people’s opinion?

You thought an exhibition could do that the quickest?

PE: Yes, we had some people on the board who literally said, if you show it to them, people will come. Which hasn’t turned out to be true, honestly. But through our daughter, Elizabeth, who went to Bard for her undergraduate degree in Comparative Religion, we got connected with Susan Weber who had just opened the Bard Graduate Center. [The Englishes started working with Weber on a lecture series and then what became the majolica exhibition, which first opened at Bard and is now at the Walters.]

 

Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum
Phil and Deborah English at home, photo by Kelvin Bulluck

You didn’t start collecting majolica until you had already moved into your current home. How much has your house, which was built during the Victorian era and then expanded by previous owners, influenced your collecting? You have very high ceilings, built-ins you’ve added, and enormous windows which are great for showcasing art.

DE: The house demands it. It says, I want a Minton cobalt jardiniere vase, now! And I want it here! It really did feel like the house was commanding it. The house we had in Guilford was more modern. It was built in the ‘20s in sort of Italian style with big rooms, big windows. And the collection would’ve looked fine in there, but there was something about the character of this house. Which is interesting because when we first saw this house, we went home laughing. We hated it. We bought it because of the property and thought, well, we’ll learn to live with it. Little did we know that it was going to whip us into training.

You’ve said a few times that when you started collecting twenty-five years ago, majolica was expensive already, but we’ve also talked about how this is an art form that’s been mocked. Is it valuable because there may be only twelve in the world of the monumental pieces? Is the scarcity what keeps the price so high?

DE: Good question.

I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

DE: It’s a small but determined group of people.

PE: It was collected in the ‘80s by a few people. But when that Forbes article was written, that started some people like us collecting… At its peak, the Society had over 500 members all over the world. Prices started rising in the early 2000s and crashed with the recession. They’re coming back up but haven’t fully recovered. The best pieces hold their value.

DE: The collecting group is so small that if, let’s say you’ve got a game pie dish, and it’s one of the great game pie dishes, but another one was on the market a year ago. Chances are, it’s not going to find a new buyer.

PE: Your generation are not collectors.

DE: Your children are.

PE: Neither of my kids collect— 

DE: Anything. They’re sort of religiously opposed to it.

Do you think collecting skips a generation? When your daughter for example sees this room, does she not want to inherit it?

DE: I think she’s very glad it’s going to the Walters, and she doesn’t have to worry about it. And so is our son.

Following up on this idea, at what point in collecting art do space and storage become an issue?

DE: We’re past that.

Is your solution having more exhibitions where the work is currently out of your house and in the museums?

PE: We keep saying we run out of space, and then we find space, and now it is getting serious. If you walk through our house, I can’t think of a room that doesn’t have a piece. We’ve been very, very fortunate with grandkids and dogs that we haven’t lost too many pieces.

I have to say, I’ve been to a few collectors’ homes, and I do appreciate, as an artist, the people who live with the work because I’m sure that’s what the craftspeople who made this work would want. They wouldn’t want it to be in storage.

PE: Yeah. Unfortunately, there are some collectors who don’t do this, which I think is a shame. But if you don’t share it…

DE: It gets kind of dead.

PE: We try to show our collection to whoever wants to come see it.

In the spirit of sharing your collection with a larger audience, you’ve offered the entire collection to the Walters so they can select what they would like. Can you talk about your choice to work with only one museum?

PE: One of the reasons we’re very appreciative that the Walters wants to take as many pieces as they have is because it will give a sense of the collector’s eye. We’ve had offers from other museums, but they only want to take the really high-end pieces and go.

DE: That knocks the head off the body of the collection. One thing that I am excited about is the Walters will take things that relate to things they already have in their collection. Whether it’s philosophically, culturally, or aesthetically. That makes me feel really good about the collection’s future. It’s comforting.

 

Majolica Mania at the Walters Art Museum

Exhibition photos courtesy of the Walters Art Museum; object photos ©Bruce M. White, 2018

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