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Minton’s Secessionist Ware is an epitaph to designer Leon Solon

By Christopher Proudlove ©

plaque 2
plaque 1

by Christopher Proudlove©
In the post preceding this I wrote about porcelain decorated with magical images made at the Minton factory by French émigré Louis Solon. But that’s only half the story. Louis had a son, Leon, born in Stoke-on-Trent, so he had china clay in his blood. Léon’s innovations earned him his own place in the history of English ceramics. He was responsible for producing the remarkable porcelain plaques illustrated here, but he will be remembered best for his introduction to the Minton factory of so-called Secessionist Ware.

You will recall that Solon the elder had trained at the Sèvres factory in France, where he perfected the pâte-sur-pâte technique. Literally “paste on paste”, this involved building up layer after layer of white slip clay to produce decoration with a unique cameo-effect on objects such as vases, tiles and wall plaques. His arrival at Minton revived the company’s fortunes. Louis also married wisely, choosing Maria, the daughter of Leon Arnoux, Minton’s art director and regarded by many as “the man who made Minton”. The couple had eight sons and one daughter.

The first born, Léon Albert Victor Solon (1872-1957) was no less gifted than his father, the objects illustrated here bearing testament to his genius. Solon the younger trained at the Hanley and Kensington Schools of Art and joined Minton in 1895, rising to become head of the firm’s Art Nouveau department. Minton was quick to adopt the Art Nouveau style and when Léon’s designs were published by the design magazine The Studio while he was still a student, Minton were equally quick to offer him a job.

The development of the Art Nouveau movement as it spread across Europe was shaped in part by a group of rebel Viennese artists who had turned their backs on the Establishment. Vienna in the last quarter of the 19th century was a city of divisions: the rich enjoyed a lavish lifestyle of society balls and extravagance, while the poor struggled with a housing shortage, hunger and misery. The city’s young intellectuals, the artists, writers and scientists, looked to the new century for a new beginning.

For its artists, it came with the founding of a new society – the Secession – which, unlike Vienna’s long standing traditional Society of Artists, was intended to raise concern for art in the city and promote contact with artists abroad. It was founded by Gustav Klimt, Kolo Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich. They decided to form their own exhibiting society and to publish a magazine called Ver Sacrum – the Sacred Spring. The first exhibition was held in the spring of 1898 with already a sizeable contribution from foreign artists, including some from Britain – “corresponding members of the Secession” as they were called. In 1900, for example, Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and members of his circle exhibited at the society’s eighth show.

At the same time Minton was casting around for new ideas and with this European roots, Léon was eager to contribute. His first designs in 1898 were based on the principles of the Viennese movement and named Secessionist ware, underlining the Secession Movement’s impact even in North Staffordshire.

In 1901, Léon was joined at Minton by John Wadsworth and together they introduced many highly original designs to the Secessionist range. Shapes for the ornamental range of vases included inverted trumpets, elongated cylinders and exaggerated bottle forms, although tableware shapes remained conventional.

The complete Secessionist range comprised useful as well as ornamental wares including cheese dishes, plates, teapots, jugs and comports. Collectors today covet in particular the large jardinières, specially if their matching pedestal stands are complete and undamaged.

Initially patterns were accurate portrayals of themes from nature – flowers, birds and figures – but under the joint influence of Solon and Wadsworth, the natural sources were exaggerated and even distorted when the convoluted plant forms and floral motifs reach a peak of fantasy around the turn of the century.

Léon left Minton in 1905 and emigrated to America. The subsequent designs, the work of John Wadsworth alone, were well-defined, yet simplified abstract forms with the occasional use of classical motifs.

The body of the ware was made in cane-coloured earthenware and the surface decoration outlined in relief, either when each piece was cast from the mould or tube-lined. The latter technique involved squeezing a thin layer of liquid clay (slip) through a glass tube by hand on to biscuit (unglazed) ware in a fashion similar to icing a cake. The brightly coloured lead glazes were then painted within these outlines. Occasionally, a block-print would be used to produce a background effect, usually taking the form of foliage, and would form an integral part of the design.

One of the most visually stunning patterns on Secessionist ware features the so-called “Glasgow rose”. This stylised, angular representation of the flower is probably one of the best known Charles Rennie Mackintosh motifs and it is fascinating to speculate on how Minton brought together Vienna, Glasgow and Stoke in a single piece. The final Minton catalogue for Secessionist ware was produced in 1920 but despite this relatively short production run, considerable quantities were produced. However, its individual hand-made appearance was largely retained and because of the instability of the coloured glazes in use at the time and the methods by which they were applied, firing produced somewhat unpredictable results. The effect of colours intermingling is often seen and imparts a distinctive character to the ware.

Most Secessionist ware is marked “Minton Ltd.” with a distinctive black or green printed backstamp in swirling Art Nouveau style. When unmarked, “Mintons” can usually be found impressed into the clay. Impressed cyphers correspond to a year code by which a piece can be dated. Incised numbers of four digits identify the Minton shapes, while printed numbers denote the design sequence. Painted letters denote the various colour combinations used.

Pictures show, top: An extremely fine Minton porcelain plaque in multi colours depicting a bonneted lady in a long dress semi-kneeling at a shrine with a young seated angelic girl on a pillar and with an imaginary riverside townscape in the background, signed by Leon V. Solon. It sold for £1700. Below that is a Minton porcelain plaque depicting a lady in a long flowing dress kneeling at prayer, signed by Leon V Solon, 10.5 x 8 ins in a gilt frame. It sold for £1300

Below, left: These two Secessionist circular pottery plates, together with a similar square shallow dish sold for £240 in a recent auction of Minton ceramics

Right: The cover of Minton’s 1902 catalogue of Secessionist Ware


246catalogue 1902

esn 19679-060510-113930-90 Rate content:

© 2006 All Rights Reserved.

Tags: Ceramics · Minton · Porcelain · Pottery

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Phyl Driffield // Jul 12, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Chris

    I have a minton vase that has the signature “Mussil” on the bottom, whom I believe was a belgian painter at the Minton factory. I am unable to find out more or if this is of value. Can you help?

    Regards

    Phyl

  • 2 Christopher Proudlove // Jul 22, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    Phyl
    William Mussill (1828-1906) was a specialist in botany and bird painting- Born in Altrohalma, Bohemia, he studied in Paris and was later employed at the famous Sevres factory. In 1872 he was employed by Mintons Ltd. In England (through the recommendation of Christian Henk), where he remained until death in 1906. It is likely Mussill studied under the famous flower painter Charles Ferdinand Huten while in Paris. Mussill was a master of the Barbotine technique (the application of thick ceramic colors or colored clay slips to the porcelain surface). He had a bold and distinctive style and was an important painter of flowers, fish, shell, exotic birds, fruit, and game studies, all of which he painted with ease and expertise.
    Your vase is very pretty and a good size and subject. Mussill had access to the orchid house at Trentham Hall, near Stoke-on-Trent, and did many watercolours there which he then transferred to china.

  • 3 Isabel Clarke // Jan 12, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    I have a large (rough condition) Mintons jardinere with stand that I assumed was Art Nouveau Have been informed that it is secessionist ware. The mark is as you describe in a green lined square and Ltd included. Also has impressed no. 3421 and other marks. I think itis time I found the right person to appreciate it . I would like to send picture but probably would lose this message …it’s happened before! I may be able to manage on a straight email reply.

  • 4 Julie Doellingen // Aug 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Good afternoon Mr. Proudlove,
    I have a set that I would like to send you pictures of and get your thoughts on. I believe it to be a secessionist set. I tried to email at the address above but it failed. You may contact me directly at the above address if you like.

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