During the latter half of the 19th century, Victorian table settings were as much a feast for the eyes as for the palate. The prosperity afforded by the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a class of nouveau riche who were keen to show off their acquired wealth by hosting grand repasts at tables set with anything but the plain white stoneware of yesteryear. A taste emerged for dinnerware that was as grandiose as possible: Table settings became an over-the-top display of extravagance.
Potter Herbert Minton took note and introduced Majolica at the 1851 London Crystal Palace Exhibition. Minton’s inspiration came from the colorful Italian ceramics of the Renaissance, called Maiolica, which he adapted by incorporating elements of tromp l’oeil in bas relief. “Their bright colors were such a change from pre-Victorian tableware, which were much more muted in color and form,” explains collector and Majolica Society board member Carole Harkess. Minton’s heavy-bodied earthenware was molded with vibrant tin or lead glazes depicting flora and fauna from land, air, and sea, and majolica quickly became the must-have service on Victorian tables.
Thus began a fascinating trend in tableware: Serving pieces grew more elaborate and thematic, and at the front end of this frenzy were asparagus plates. Thanks to its painfully short season, asparagus had long been considered a delicacy only members of the monarch and wealthy aristocrats could afford. King Louis XIV was so taken with the veggie that, towards the end of the 17th century, he notoriously commanded his minions to build a greenhouse on the grounds of Versailles so that he could enjoy the vegetable year-round. A century and a half later, new-moneyed Victorians followed suit, erecting their own backyard conservatories in which to grow asparagus—another way to show off their wealth….