This article has its origins in a paper I read at the annual conference of the Association of Art Historians (AAH) in 1992. The rather fancy title I then gave it was The Subversive Plate: Mintons Secessionist Ware, Art Nouveau Art Pottery for a Mass Market or The Democratic Dish. You may think this sounds not just fancy, but a downright candidate for Pseud’s Corner. However, it was a serious attempt to signal some of the important social and aesthetic issues surrounding Art Nouveau, and that are particularly focused in Mintons’s contribution to it in the form of Secessionist ware.
There are also intriguing issues around its authorship: its first catalogue attributes the design to two men jointly. Even its very name offers food for thought. Beyond all that, I would argue that Mintons Secessionist ware made a dazzling, highly original and totally hard-core contribution to international Art Nouveau – hence my title here. By hard-core, by the way, I mean that the best Secessionist wares are defining examples of the Art Nouveau style. For the collector all of the above adds layers of complexity and interest to a range of pottery whose intrinsic visual qualities are themselves of compelling force. Last, but not least, Secessionist ware has a special place in the history of Mintons, since it is very likely that its success (it sold widely at home and abroad) saved the company from bankruptcy in the early twentieth century.
At this point I must acknowledge the principal sources of the factual information given here. In 1985 Grant Muter’s ground-breaking article ‘Leon Solon and John Wadsworth: Joint Designers of Minton’s (sic) Secessionist Ware’ appeared in the Journal of the Decorative Arts Society No.9. In 1990 the Antique Collectors Club published the invaluable Dictionary of Minton by Paul Atterbury and Maureen Batkin, followed in 1993 by Joan Jones’s magnificent history, Minton: The First Two Hundred Years. These are the twin bibles of the Minton collector. Note that from1873 the name Minton was changed to Mintons ( without apostrophe), and since we are dealing with that period, I have generally used that form. In 1992, Phillips auction rooms, Bond Street, London, saw the sale of a quantity of ceramics, designs and paintings from the estates of John Wadsworth and his son Philip. The catalogue remains a useful source. I would also like to acknowledge here Alan and Judy Bell of Pear Tree Decorative Arts, for long the leading dealers in Secessionist ware. Their knowledge of it is second to none and all collectors owe them gratitude for their tireless scouring of the country for examples.
As you will have gathered, Mintons Secessionist ware was a range of pottery in the Art Nouveau style, stated to be jointly designed by Léon Solon and John Wadsworth. It was produced by Mintons of Stoke on Trent, one of the leading English ceramics manufacturers, founded in 1793. It is characterised by bold Art Nouveau designs of highly stylised, often powerfully organic plant forms, applied as either moulded or slip-trailed raised outlines. These are filled by transparent lead (majolica) glazes in a palette of sludgy greens, yellows and reds, and soft blues. From the beginning too appears a strong purple and blue combination which always seems to me to have a particularly intense Art Nouveau character. Secessionist ware was produced by Mintons from approximately 1901 up to, according to Joan Jones, at least 1920. She states that ‘Sales of Secessionist wares remained high until Wadsworth left in 1915. The last catalogue was printed in 1919 with amendments written in by hand in 1920’. This is evidence of its great success.
The precise origins of Secessionist ware are slightly shrouded in mystery. Equally puzzling is the question of the respective contributions made to this highly distinctive work by its two named designers. These issues come together in the first catalogue of Secessionist ware whose cover (fig 2) gives the name of the range and states the joint authorship of Solon and Wadsworth. The catalogue is important in establishing the identity of Secessionist ware since the mark which actually includes the range name is excessively rare and appears to have been put on only a few early pieces. Fig 3 shows how it appears on most pieces, while fig 4 is another relatively rare early Secessionist mark. The catalogue, which was illustrated with black and white photographs, is reproduced in its entirety in the Dictionary. It is not dated, but all the authorities give its date as 1902. There is circumstantial evidence that it would have been late in 1902. Production must have begun the previous year since, for example, the toilet jug illustrated here (fig 5) has the full mark (Fig 3) and a clear date stamp for 1901.
Looking through the catalogue, it is striking how remarkably homogeneous in style the range is and largely remained – Secessionist ware is always instantly recognisable. I have always felt therefore that surely one or other of the two named designers must in reality have been principally responsible. This question is particularly addressed by Muter, as the title of his article indicates. He concludes that ‘Solon designed most of … the first catalogue, but the tableware and possibly some of the embossed wares were designed by Wadsworth’. Without going into the whole argument in detail, my own view is more or less the opposite, that Wadsworth was probably responsible for the whole lot, although jumping off from the previous work of Solon.
Léon Solon (1872-1957) was to the manor born. His father was the famous Mintons designer Louis Marc Solon and after training in London, Léon, in 1895, aged twenty-three or so, returned to Stoke on Trent to a job at Mintons. At this time the firm was in dire financial straits. In 1898 it was advised by its auditors to call in the receivers, but refused. In September 1901 it was actually put up for sale, but found no takers and soldiered on. Jones says ‘Despite or perhaps because of the financial position the decision was made to participate in the new art movement [ie Art Nouveau]. The designer chosen to implement this was Léon Solon’. This would probably have been in 1898. Art Nouveau was then moving towards its height as an intensely fashionable international style in architecture and design, so the decision did indeed make sense. By that time Solon was the master of an Art Nouveau style that reveals, as Jones points out, the influence of the poster art of Alphonse Mucha, and the absolute signature of this style was, and evidently continued to be, the languid Art Nouveau maiden.
In the late 1890s Solon seems to have designed Art Nouveau wares that were given a number of names including Anglosia, Argentea, and Klyso. Exactly what was put into production and what may be identified as belonging to these ranges is not entirely clear. Jones illustrates two plates dated 1898 and ‘thought to be’ from the Argentea range and by Solon. Their stylised plant designs certainly foreshadow Secessionist ware, but are much more conventional. At some point around 1900 Solon seems to have decided to pull all these initiatives together and create a single Art Nouveau range. He also seems to have decided he needed an assistant. Muter writes, ‘he could probably have completed all the work on the range himself had he not been, according to family gossip, something of a dilettante. He enjoyed frequent trips to London and would often be absent from the Mintons factory in Stoke on Trent’.
In 1901, according to Jones and the Dictionary, or in 1900 according to Muter, Solon recruited John Wadsworth to assist in the creation of the new range. Wadsworth (1879-1955) first trained as a silk designer in Macclesfield and Stockport then, in 1898, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in London. Assuming Solon’s ‘dilettante’ character, it seems to me that having found this clearly already brilliant young designer, he may well simply have handed the whole thing over to him, being careful, of course, still to take a credit on the catalogue. A key piece of evidence, a Rosetta Stone as it were, is an advertising design for ‘Mintons Art Nouveau’ which miraculously has two separate illustrations, both signed, one by Solon, the other by Wadsworth (fig 6) [Rosetta file]. It must have been done in the very brief period between Wadsworth joining Mintons and the launch of the Secessionist range. The differences are stark: Solon is still in full Art Nouveau maiden mode, but Wadsworth is using the highly stylised, even abstracted, plant forms typical of Secessionist ware. Note too that the similarly highly stylised plant form cover design of the first catalogue (fig 1) is signed by Wadsworth. Comparison of these designs by Wadsworth with the style of all Secessionist ware suggests to me his authorship throughout. Over the next few years Solon appears to have continued his dilettante attitude, and in 1905 departed from Mintons, leaving Wadsworth in charge.
The name Secessionist comes from the Symbolist and Jugendstil (the German term for Art Nouveau) Vienna Secession group, which from 1898 attracted international attention with its exhibitions of art and design held in its purpose-built headquarters by JM Olbrich – one of the surviving gems of Art Nouveau architecture. The Secession greatly admired British design and showed a large group of work, including substantial contributions from CR Mackintosh and CR Ashbee, in its eighth exhibition in 1900. By this time its fame was such that the term Secession had become effectively a major brand. The interesting and sad ironies in Mintons’s adoption of it are that, as is now well established, important origins of Continental Symbolism and Art Nouveau lie in Britain, that the Vienna Secession bowed the knee to British design, and that Mintons Secessionist ware was itself very much a home grown affair – as Muter points out, it has no dependence on Vienna Secession style at all. Just for example, Aubrey Beardsley’s 1894 cover for Le Morte Darthur, a seminal Art Nouveau design (fig 7), is clearly the inspiration for a Secessionist charger (Fig 17). The name should not, therefore, be allowed to give an impression of cultural cringe. There was of course an internationally known British brand of Art Nouveau – Liberty – but it was hardly available.
An important aspect of Mintons Secessionist ware is that it was produced in large quantities from moulded bodies. Some of the outline decoration was moulded too. As Muter again points out, it was thus cheap – four or five times cheaper than a rival such as Moorcroft art pottery. He publishes the price list of the first catalogue where, for example, the tall (35.5cm, 14in) and very handsome vase illustrated here (fig 7) is five shillings (25p), approximately £12.50 at today’s prices. This means that innovative and high quality design was being made available to a much wider market than other art pottery, hence my ‘democratic dish’. Secessionist ware can thus be said to have fulfilled William Morris’s aim to bring good design to the masses in a way that he never managed to do. On 29 May 2003 the pair of which this vase is one sold for £750 (hammer) at Sotheby’s Olympia (lot 385).
Secessionist ware furthermore, was not just ornamental, or rather its ornamentation was extended to the most mundane of everyday objects. The range embraced toilet wares including chamber pots, slop buckets for them to be emptied into, washbowls, water jugs, some of which are among the masterpieces of the range (figs 5, 8), soap dishes, toothbrush pots (fig 9), as well as milk jugs, teapots, cheese dishes (fig 10) candlesticks (fig 11), and a wonderful houseplant watering can (fig 12). There were three types of plates, two purely ornamental (see below) but one of them, the most commonly found, clearly intended for table use since they were sold by the dozen, price ten shillings the dozen, or about £25 at today’s prices (fig 11). Secessionist ware also majored in cache-pots (fig 12) and plant pot stands and pots (fig 13).
However, for me the most striking of all Secessionist wares are the ornamental large plates or chargers, meant to hang on the wall (they have a special groove on the back for the wire). These chargers (figs 14, 15) are generally thirty-eight centimetres in diameter (fifteen inches) and I have seen fourteen distinct patterns, although they come in variant colourways and in some cases with slight variations in the pattern too. The earliest dated I have seen is 1902. Some of the large charger patterns, together with some original ones, were used for smaller, 25.5 diameter, (ten inches) plates (fig 16). These are also extremely attractive and like the chargers now increasingly rare.
In 2000 the Victoria and Albert Museum in London held a huge and enormously successful survey exhibition of Art Nouveau,. While acknowledging the crucial contribution England made to the origins of the style, the exhibition denied her any place in the mature phenomenon. A fully paid up genius of Art Nouveau such as Archibald Knox was represented by a single object. There was no Mintons. One reason for this, I suspect, was sheer snobbery about commercial as opposed to craft production. Cheap, cheerful and popular, utterly distinctive in design, Mintons Secessionist ware really was a triumph of Art Nouveau, and the proof lies in the collectors who in recent years have been increasingly voting for it in the most convincing way possible – with their wallets.
Simon Wilson 25 October 2004
This article was written by Simon Wilson, formerly Curator at Tate Britain, and appeared in Antique Collecting. I am very grateful to him to alow me to reproduce it here.