Forever fresh

Spring is here and summer is coming. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are among the most anticipated delights of warm weather. But the time for locally grown fresh asparagus and luscious strawberries only lasts a short while.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could enjoy that colorful abundance all year long?

Indeed, thanks to the ceramicist’s art we can, at least visually. That’s because for thousands of years, potters have been making all sorts of objects decorated with and even in the shape of fruits and vegetables. Their naturalistic and sometimes amazingly realistic creations are both practical and beautiful.

Four thousand years ago, Mexican potters made utilitarian vessels for carrying and storing liquids. Shaped like the more fragile dried gourds and squashes they replaced, these ceramics were earthenware, unglazed clay fired at low temperatures. (Think flowerpots.)

Artisans throughout Asia also made pottery vessels in the shapes of fruits and vegetables, from simple household wares for daily use to highly sophisticated, richly decorated examples in porcelain.

Porcelain is a white clay that can be fired at very high heat. It produces articles that are lightweight and delicate yet very strong. Porcelain wares were highly prized in Europe, but European ceramic makers could not produce them in any quantity until the early 18th century. It was then that they finally learned the secret of porcelain manufacture — a variety of clay called kaolin.

All over Europe, potteries began producing ceramics in a wide range of styles and shapes to satisfy the ever-growing desire for tableware and ornaments. Whether impressive porcelain or utilitarian earthenware, buyers could choose from a cornucopia of long-lasting pottery fruits and vegetables to use in the kitchen and adorn the table.

In mid-18th century England, Chelsea and Worcester were the leading porcelain manufacturers. Their luxurious wares included porcelains with hand-painted fruits, flowers and vegetables along with sculptural forms such as cauliflowers, pears, artichokes, cabbages and asparagus. These motifs appeared on tablewares, tea wares, perfume bottles and decorative objects like candlesticks and vases.

About the same time, Josiah Wedgwood — while working with Thomas Whieldon, who played a key role in developing Staffordshire pottery, and later on his own — created colorful glazes that were applied on pottery press-molded tea wares. Favorites designs included cauliflowers, pears, apples, melons and especially pineapples.

In the 18th and early-19th centuries, a fresh pineapple was an expensive rarity. It became a symbol of lavish hospitality, like offering fine Champagne and unlimited Beluga caviar to your guests today.

Upwardly mobile hosts who couldn’t afford to buy their own pineapple could rent one. Or they could have a permanent luscious tropical fruit in pottery form. George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, was among the fashionable ladies who served guests from pineapple-shaped teapots.

The next bumper crop of fruit- and vegetable-themed ceramics came in the mid-19th century, with exuberant Majolica wares from dozens of makers all over Europe. The traditional technique for making majolica starts with a red clay earthenware shape dipped in a white glaze, fired, decorated with colored glazes and fired a second time.

Majolica originated in the Middle East in the nineth century. It began to be imported into Europe through the Spanish island of Mallorca. The Italians named the new type of pottery after the place they obtained it from and soon began to make their own versions. Italian majolica quickly became widely admired, reaching its artistic peak during the Renaissance.

Majolica enjoyed renewed popularity in the Victorian period. The finest and rarest majolica featured tin-glazed examples from England’s Minton works. These luxury items were exquisitely hand-decorated in a revival of the Italian Renaissance style.

More abundant, more affordable and much collected today is the mass-produced, lead-glazed majolica from the many Staffordshire factories in England. Additional colorful wares came from potteries as far away as Scandinavia and Portugal and as close to home as Tarrytown and Greenport, New York, and Trenton, New Jersey.

From the 1850s to the 1900s, reasonably priced majolica wares offered a rich harvest of fruit and vegetable patterns, particularly berries, in a rainbow of glazes. A rapidly expanding yet ever more accessible world offered an endless variety of good things to eat, admire and immortalize in ceramic form.

The bounty and beauty of spring and summer are captured in the artistry of ceramics for year-round enjoyment. Collectors and decorators today can choose from antique and vintage examples or modern and contemporary ones, to suit every taste, décor and budget. Bon appétit!

For more, contact Katie at kwhittle@skinnerinc.com or 212-787-1114.

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