Eric Knowles Eric Knowles, Antiquarian

Minton's Masterpieces

The 'Masterpieces of Minton' sale is a unique opportunity to purchase a piece of Minton history. Eric Knowles looks at what is on offer, and tells us a little of the Minton story.

The title of the Bonhams auction catalogue reads 'Masterpieces of Minton', and as one who has had the benefit of being able to preview what is on offer I am able to assure you that Bonhams could never be accused of overstatement. The auction is a result of the decision by Royal Doulton PLC, the owners of Minton, to rationalise their extensive Minton museum collection, and they have selected 500 pieces that offer a representation of the wares from the years 1820-1870. The frustrated museum curator within me (that never was) is also pleased to report that the Minton visitor centre has retained a far more extensive and representative collection for us all to enjoy. Founded in 1793, the Minton factory achieved tremendous critical acclaim as Europe's most innovative and successful china works of the entire 19th century. Praise for Minton's virtuosity came from Queen Victoria herself when in 1854 she marvelled at the Minton display at the Great Exhibition held in London's Hyde park. "Beautiful china... beautiful designs," exclaimed she who was not always amused. The seeds that were to lead to eventual international acclaim had been sown in 1793, when Thomas Minton had served his apprenticeship as a copper plate engraver, working for Thomas Turner at his Caughley porcelain works in Shropshire. After moving to London he returned to the North to be nearer to his regular customers such as Josiah Wedgwood, Josiah Spode and the Adams brothers.

It was perhaps only natural that his early production featured blue transfer-printed pottery. Thomas Minton still enjoys continuing distinction for creating the most enduring and popular design of all time - the Willow pattern.

The reproduction of cream coloured pottery and white bone china began in 1798, and a knowledge of the shapes and designs is essential as Minton refused to mark his wares at this time. During the mid 1820s the company began to introduce a series of finely-modelled figures in bone china that featured royal, theatrical, political and historical subjects. Other figures were produced in the manner of the 18th century Chelsea and Meissen porcelain, and they similarly benefit from first-class modelling and highly-detailed colourful costumes. The factory also produced figures in white biscuit bone china (unglazed bone china) to commemorate topical personalities of the age, such as William Wilberforce and Hannah More, the great anti-slavery and social reformers.

Thomas Minton died in 1836 and was eventually succeeded by his second son, Herbert Minton, at a time when factory fortunes were escalating at a dramatic pace. Herbert was naturally keen to maintain the momentum and sought a partnership with Robert Boyle, trading as Minton and Boyle until the partnership dissolved in 1841. In 1845 he entered into a new partnership with his nephew Michael Daintry Hollins which continued until 1868. It was during this period that the factory sought to supply the growing demand for French-style 'Sevres' porcelain and other items that reflected the rococo revival. Herbert Minton was unquestionably the right man in the right place at the right time. Here was a man of vision keen to follow the path of excellence and innovation in pursuit of both beauty in design, without taking his eyes off the account ledgers and the need for profit. It was Herbert Minton's china that had so enthralled Queen Victoria at the Great Exhibition, and under his guiding hand the company embarked upon the production of Parian ware, Majolica and the encaustic floor tiles which emulated those that had adorned churches and cathedrals since the early middle ages. Herbert Minton was quick to secure the services of eminent designers such as August Welby Northmore Pugin, the godfather of the Gothic revival, and Leon Arnoux, the celebrated French potter who introduced brightly coloured Majolica glazes.

After Herbert Minton's death in 1858, leadership was passed to his nephew, Colin Minton Campbell. It was indeed fortunate that the new man at the helm shared the same virtues as his uncle, and was keen for the firm to lead by example rather than follow public taste. Campbell was quick to recognise the genius and potential offered by radical designs supplied by Christopher Dresser and reflected in the stunning range of 'Cloisonné' vases.

It was Campbell who first acquired the patent rights for the 'acid bath process' in 1863, whereby hydrofluoric acid is used to etch a pattern into the glaze prior to being filled with 22 carat gold. However, the ultimate contribution to Victorian ceramic designs was Minton's pâte-sur-pâte technique (literally 'paste-on-paste'). Efforts to produce and market this magical ware began in 1870 with the arrival from France of the technique's greatest exponent, Louis Marc Emmanuel Solon. Pâte-surpâte involved the careful application of successive layers of slip (a form of liquid clay) in order to build up the desired image. The finished results are breathtakingly beautiful, featuring classical maidens attired in diaphanous gowns or small cupids with gossamer wings.

Minton showed themselves to be one of the few English potters that understood and then embraced the Art Nouveau style that had begun to permeate British and European design during the 1890s. In 1902 the company launched their highly original secessionist ware that was inspired by the avante garde approach of the Viennese secessionists - a group of radical designers, architects and craftspeople.

There is little doubt that Minton's new ware represented an astonishingly brave attempt to incorporate organic and often abstract design into a commercial range of pots. The company appear to have been less eager to embrace the streamlined or cubistic elements of Art Deco that evolved throughout the jazz age of the 1920s and 1930s. A series of vases that incorporated geometric elements, designed by Reginald Hagger and retailed as 'Les Vases Modernes', enjoyed some popularity, as did the cube teawares that began to surface in Lyons corner houses or on board Cunard's luxury liners. Stylish bone china figures modelled by Doris Lindner and Eric Owen were also introduced during the 1930s. The earlier years allowed only for undecorated wares for the home market, then in 1952 restrictions were relaxed in time for the company to create some of the more tasteful commemorative wares that celebrated the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

The success of the presentday Minton factory has largely centred upon their extremely prestigious bone china tableware that often incorporates acid cutting and raised gilding of superb quality. The most successful printed design is their Haddon Hall by John Wadsworth, introduced in 1949. Throughout their history Minton have associated themselves with many famous freelance designers, and although not represented in the Bonhams auction I can't help but think that the octagonal boxes, trays and vases designed in 1987 by the late and much lamented fashion designer Jean Muir are well worth collecting. Just remember you read it here in Period House first!


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