Minton’s Ltd. was a major ceramics manufacturing company, originated by Thomas Minton (1765–1836) the founder. Thomas Minton and Sons pottery factory opened in Stoke-upon-Trent, in 1793. Within three years, Thomas and formed a partnership with Joseph Poulson, creating Minton & Poulson. They made earthenware and bone china. Although Poulson died in 1808, Minton continued to produce china in Poulson’s pottery until 1816. By 1824, his business was so successful he built a new site 1824.
In 1848, a young French ceramic artist Joseph Léon Francois Arnoux had come over to Britain to study manufacturing techniques. During a period of research at Minton’s, Arnux impressed Herbert Minton and was appointed Art Director: he remained with Minton Ltd. until 1892. The success of Minton ceramics was down to their innovation and continual enterprise, such as employing Arnoux, but they also had a growing portfolio of products available and were savvy enough to exhibit at major events like The Great Exhibition of 1851.
Minton Majolica was launched at The Great Exhibition under the name Palissy Ware and remains highly prized. Bernard Palissy was an innovative French ceramist originally trained as a glass painter. Palissy studied the chemistry of glazes and is best known for his ewers and dishes which are decorated with plants and animals using brightly coloured glazes. His first rustic piece was purchased by Henri II in 1555 and he became a favourite of the royal family. He was even commissioned to make a grotte rustique by Catherine de’ Medici, daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Duke of Urbino, although the project was never completed. The debt between Minton Majolica and Palissy’s ceramics is evident.
Arnoux had created the Minton Majolica as part of his brief to create new products. Referencing the work of Bernard Palissy, Arnoux created a Pre-Raphaelite-esque glaze where the fine buff unfired earthenware body was given a coat of opaque white glaze. This in turn provided a surface for over painting bright transparent glazes with metal oxides directly onto the unfired body which then gleamed more because of the white underground.
With Arnoux’s connections, his father being a porcelain manufacturer, it is no surprise Minton Majolica was also displayed in Paris. At the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle, the Illustrated London News reported:
The collection of Palissy and Majolica ware, however, is that which appears to have created the greatest sensation among Parisian connoisseurs…The care and taste with which these manufactures have been brought by the Messrs. Minton to their present state of perfection, have been amply rewarded. Within a few days of the opening of the exhibition all the specimens exhibited had been sold.
Despite the recognition of Palissy’s influence, the public soon adopted the name Minton Majolica. In the 1880s, the curators of the South Kensington Museum revived the Italian spelling “maiolica” with an ‘i’ instead of a ‘j’ for Italian tin-glaze.
Paul Comolera (1818-1897) appears in the Minton records between 1873 and 1876; he was a Parisian, trained by the sculptor Francois Rude. He worked in bronze and was also known as a modeller of birds and animals, and like Arnoux and Palissy, his observations were drawn from life.
A life-size peacock is Comolera‘s best-known work, and it was modelled from a living bird in his studio. Firing something of this size is an enormous achievement, and the colours are quite incredible. Only twelve peacocks were ever produced and the one on display in the Walker Gallery came into their collection in 1891.
The peacocks are enormously admired today and one only has to enter the Pre-Raphaelite rooms upstairs at the Walker Gallery and you will see visitors stopped in their tracks at the ingenuity of the piece. The peacocks were launched at the Great Exhibition and with the Victorian appetite for colourful ceramics the peacock proved immediately popular. One can easily imagine the peacock fitting in Lord Leighton’s House for example (in fact it would look better than the stuffed bird that is in the hall there). Surprisingly though the pieces are much admired by collectors today, contemporary sale records include sale prices at 25 and 35 guineas.
It is reported that only nine of the twelve peacocks exist, and the Walker Gallery website tells us one heart-warming story which I will quote: ‘Minton peacocks gained fame in 1878 when a ship, the Loch Ard, carrying an example of the model to the Sydney Exhibition of 1879 and the Melbourne Exhibition of 1880, was wrecked near Port Campbell at the entry to the Bass Strait off the Australian coast. Some days later, a crate found floating in the sea was, with great difficulty, hauled up the cliffs. When the crate was opened it was found to contain the peacock, still intact. For years it was kept by the Miller family; descendants of the company who were involved in the salvage of the wreck. It is now on display in the Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Warrnambool, Australia’. This is apt as the peacock is a symbol of immortality, because it was once believed the bird’s flesh would never decay.
This magnificent peacock is naturalistically modelled. As suits the bird’s character, he stands tall and proud on top of a rock, with climbing blackberries, ivy and a few mushrooms, and his beautiful tail trails behind him.
One only has to look at the detail of the all-seeing eyes on the tail, to recognise what a real mastery and achievement this is.