Magical, Mirthful Majolica: Bill and Donna Gray contribute EL Chapter to Majolica History
An English immigrant potter, he came to East Liverpool in 1849 and worked nearly 30 years for several early potteries – George S. Harker, Godwin and Flentke, and Woodward & Blakely among them.
Striking out on his own, his Morley & Co. pottery prospered for six years in Wellsville, specializing in the nature-inspired themes and bright colors of majolica, while making various utilitarian wares as well.
For reasons unknown, Morley in 1884 relocated to East Liverpool, buying the old West, Hardwick & Co. pottery in the East End, bringing eldest son Lincoln into the business and renaming the firm George Morley & Son. When he went bankrupt in 1891, he lost his house, having pledged it against his debts. Old, destitute, with a third wife and the younger of his 14 children to provide for, he had no job and no home.
THE JOYFUL, WHIMSICAL pieces of majolica ware in the Morley collections of Bill and Donna Gray and the Museum of Ceramics – owl jugs, “gurgle” fish and hall dogs among them – provide a happy contrast to the sad ending of George Morley’s life.
But the story of Morley & Co., combined with a half-dozen other East Liverpool potteries which made majolica, is, after all, but a tiny room (the British might say a closet) in the massive and brightly colored mansion that is majolica, a genre of decorated art pottery that the Victorian world went crazy for from the moment it was introduced.
The Grays were primary contributors to the chapter on East Liverpool majolica in the forthcoming three-volume publication Majolica Mania: Transatlantic Pottery in England and the United States, 1850-1915. Exhaustively researched and lavishly illustrated, printed in Italy by the Yale University Press, the volumes are the catalog of a major exhibition to be shown on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Colorful, wildly imaginative, and technically innovative, (majolica) was functional and aesthetic, modern and historicizing. Its subject matter reflects a range of Victorian preoccupations, from botany and zoology to popular humor and the macabre,” according to the Majolica Mania page on the website of the Bard Graduate Center of Manhattan.
The exhibit, much delayed because of COVID-19, is now set to begin at the Bard in September 2021, move to the co-sponsoring Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., in March 2022, and later travel to Cincinnati and Stoke-on-Trent, England.
Bard Graduate Center is an academic unit of Bard College, dedicated to research and education in the decorative arts field. Dr. Susan Weber, director and founder of Bard, led and curated the exhibition.
When in the course of her research Dr. Weber asked who could provide authoritative information about East Liverpool majolica, fingers pointed her to Bill and Donna Gray. What was to have been their little 1,500-word essay in Vol. III – the volume dedicated to American-made majolica – grew to a full chapter entitled “Crockery City Majolica, George Morley and the Potteries of East Liverpool, Ohio.”
Laura Microulis, one of the principal editors and writers, came to East Liverpool twice to work with the Grays on the chapter. Dr. Weber sent a photographer who spent two days picturing selected pieces from their majolica collection.
A WHIMSICAL IMPULSE, appropriately enough, was the incident which set the feet of Bill and Donna Gray on the path to become not only the foremost collectors of Morley majolica, but informed as well on the other majolica ware produced here.
The impulse occurred at the annual auction of East Liverpool Pottery Collectors in March 1996. A chipped Morley majolica compote dish came up and Donna won the bid.
“Bill said, ‘Why in the world did you buy that?'” recalls Donna. “I didn’t know anything about majolica. I didn’t know who George Morley was. I just loved the bright colors.”
After Bill and Donna Gray married 27 years ago, their mutual love of antiques and collecting melded and coalesced into a focus on acquiring ware from the Harker Pottery. They moved to East Liverpool and by 2006 they had enough Harker to set table for the Sixth Fleet, and had published the authoritative collector’s book Harker Pottery from Rockingham and Yellowware to Modern.
Those who collect and study East Liverpool pottery find that one thing leads to another, potters being the footloose artisans and entrepreneurs that they were, and that the path from here to Trenton, N.J., and other American pottery centers is well-worn. “We learned and learned and are learning,” said Donna. Their home is literally a museum for Rockingham, Flow Blue and many other collectibles, of which majolica is but one. Their knowledge of East Liverpool potteries is encyclopedic.
They have gladly lent this expertise to the ABC pottery price guides, and to other writers of collector’s guides, including their friends Joanne Jasper and the late Jo Cunningham.
The comprehensive guide to East Liverpool pottery that the Grays themselves began working on several years ago is nearly ready to go to a publisher.
Among their majolica connections are Michael G. Strawser of Wolcottville, Ind., and Nick Boston, whom Donna described as “a walking, talking majolica guy. Nick came to see us for one day and stayed for three.”
Strawser, she said, “is the one who did the majolica international auctions, for years he did them.” Interest in majolica, always subject to cycles, has waned, and “now he’s doing the Fiesta auctions.”
MAJOLICA MANIA began when Minton & Co. introduced it at London’s Great Exhibition of 1851. Its rich, saturated colors, bold modeling and popular themes depicting plants and animals captured the fancy of the public. Innovative use of molds and a light earthenware body lent it to mass production techniques and lower costs than porcelain.
It was affordable to the middle class then, just as collecting it is affordable now, in comparison to “art” pottery such as Lotus ware, explained Bill Gray. Majolica is considered “decorated art pottery.”
The difference is paying hundreds or a few thousands of dollars for a majolica piece, instead of tens of thousands or more for high-end porcelain art.
Majolica’s porous earthenware body was glazed with a tin-lead glaze. “That’s what gives it the shine and vivid colors. It brings out the blue and green,” said Bill.
Reforms in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies to ban lead from the workplace coincided with changes in taste, and majolica production came to an end.
Its plebeian status is why art museums have generally ignored majolica. Dr. Weber said in a Bard press release that majolica’s importance to Victorian culture, the decorative arts and the ceramics industry was huge and overdue for reevaluation and recognition.
Three years ago Bill and Donna Gray visited London, courtesy of the Bard Institute, to take part in presentations at the Victoria and Albert Museum by about 25 persons contributing to Majolica Mania, most of them academics and professionals. The Grays were the only American collectors to attend and make a presentation.
A year ago a crew arrived at the Grays’ home and packed up those majolica pieces chosen for the show. They were loading them on a truck when they were told to stop and unpack everything. The pandemic had delayed the exhibition indefinitely. Bill and Donna told the crew to leave the pieces packed; they would be ready to go when the show was back on.
“The Grays are wonderful friends to the museum,” said Susan Weaver, director of the East Liverpool Museum of Ceramics. “There is a big difference between how collectors and museum professionals look at things, and people like Bill and Donna are truly very knowledgeable. People contact us, requesting us to date pieces, and many times I’ll call on the Grays.”
For their help with the exhibit, the museum, the historical society and the Grays each were sent the three-volume Majolica Mania catalog, and would be happy to let people view them upon request. The sets will retail for about $300, Bill said.
WHEN LAURA MICROULIS came to East Liverpool to collaborate with the Grays, she had asked them, “What do you know about Richard Harrison? He was in Trenton, but I don’t know where he came from.”
The Grays have a majolica inkwell made by Harrison, who was here in 1853. Donna told Microulis, “I knew he was here, but I didn’t know where he went.” It was one of many blanks in majolica history the Grays were able to fill in for the Bard effort.
Several other local potteries made majolica, according to Bill and Donna.
The list includes Globe Pottery Co. (Frederick Shenkle, Allen & Co.); Cartwright Bros. Co.; Knowles, Taylor, Knowles; McDevitt & Moore (California Pottery); and the Pioneer Pottery.
“I have seen only one piece of majolica attributed to McDevitt and Moore, a plate commemorating the death of James Garfield,” said Timothy Brookes, president of the East Liverpool Historical Society. “Even my connection as a great-great-grandson of Stephen Moore does not justify comparing the quality of the piece with that produced by Morley.”
George Morley began making majolica about a year after opening his Wellsville pottery in 1878.
He made his majolica with a stoneware body, not the lighter earthenware body typical of other majolica. He personally decorated much of his ware.
“Morley was in contact with David Smith from Griffin, Smith and Hill Pottery in Phoenixville, Pa., the leading majolica maker in America, discussing new glaze formulas,” said Donna.
Bill’s assessment was, “He didn’t have the artists that KT&K did. He did it all. I think that’s why Morley went under.”
Morley continued making majolica after relocating to East Liverpool in 1884 and taking his son Lincoln into the business.
“George was a hard worker and unfortunately Lincoln wasn’t,” Donna said.
After Morley went bankrupt in 1891 and lost his home, the citizens of East Liverpool thought so highly of him that he was elected mayor. But then he died in 1896.
“George’s first wife died, but he divorced the second wife – a rarity then,” said Donna. “The children from his first marriage should have been pretty much grown by then, but wife number three had all the (younger) children to care for when George died. I have always felt sorry for her. She didn’t even have a home to live in. The pottery took years to sell at auction. I don’t know how she fared.”
How should we assess the life of George Morley?
Certainly he was an optimist, if for nothing else than marrying three times. Morley started his own potteries and enjoyed some success. He was elected mayor of East Liverpool.
The known woes he endured notwithstanding, 125 years after his life ended, the majolica he made still brings a smile. Perhaps that is the best way to remember George Morley.