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.
And what better way for 19th-century hostesses to serve this prized vegetable than on a majolica platter decorated with reliefs of green and white asparagus spears? “There developed a strong middle and upper middle class who increasingly valued extreme differentiation in dish form for each course,” says antique ceramics consultant Jill Fenichell. As a result, asparagus plates became not only a status symbol, but also a way to indulge this growing obsession with thematic dishware.
“All the famous factories [in England, France, and across the Continent] got on the bandwagon and produced majolica in the 19th century because everyone wanted the service for their kitchen cupboard,” says Victorian majolica specialist Wanda Mathes. Asparagus plates were made from a mold and then hand-painted, meaning no two were exactly alike. They often featured a well for sauces such as hollandaise, sometimes in the motif of an artichoke, which was considered a perfect companion. The extravagance peaked when serving platters became three-dimensional with a bundle of asparagus forming a cradle in which the real thing rested.
But all good things—and hot fads—must come to an end: By the turn of the 20th century, overproduction led to a flooded market, and majolica began to fall out of favor. The subsequent toll of two World Wars also meant that houses were no longer filled with staff able to handle copious amounts of dishware, and grand dinner parties requiring excessive serving pieces were infrequent at best. “Production switched to the services we see today, where every dish serves every function,” says Fenichell.
Collectors looking to scoop up asparagus plates are most likely to come across French examples, also known as Barbotine, because France was the culinary capital and produced more than anyone else. Notable factories include those from Luneville, Longchamp and Sarreguemines. In England, Minton & Co remained at the forefront along with Wedgwood and George Jones. There was Gustavsberg in Sweden and Villeroy & Boch in Germany (where the love for asparagus is so strong they have not one but two museums devoted to it). Collectible pieces from these regions bear identification marks on the bottom that include the name of the factory and likely also a date of design and—sometimes—the name of the designer as well.
Building a collection of asparagus plates requires a bit of work. Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christies only occasionally feature majolica, and of the 400 pieces that recently came up at Strawser (a leader in majolica auctions), there was only one asparagus server listed [Minton c.1875]. But vigilance can pay off: Like uncovering white asparagus, which must be grown underneath a layer of dirt to prevent photosynthesis from turning the spears green, a bit of digging can yield the most delectable results.
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