Friday, July 03, 2015

Decorating with a leafy motif: Majolica begonia plates

A collection of four c. 1880s begonia majolica plates

Whether it’s tulips in the 17th century, roses in the 18th century, or the “plant hunters” of the Victorian period, every era had its fascination with flowers. But the 19th century craze had an entirely new aspect: it wasn’t just a hobby for the wealthy, it was something the middle class could enjoy too. Parks like Kew Gardens in London allowed the public to come face to face with never-before-seen plants and to this day, the Temperate House, at the heart of the park, remains the grandest surviving historical conservatory. Designed by renowned architect and landscape designer Decimus Burton, the 1860s masterpiece is an architectural confection of metal and glass. (It’s currently undergoing a massive five-year restoration. You can read more about that and even donate to the cause, here.) Because the delicate plants needed a climate much warmer than the United Kingdom’s, conservatories became a “must have” for wealthy families who often built them as additions to their centuries-old homes. For more modest homes, terrariums, or Wardian cases as they were known, proved the answer. The great plant fascination transcended societal ranks—everyone wanted them, and everyone could have them.

Flintham Hall, a Jacobean house in Nottinghamshire that received a massive conservatory addition in the 1860s.
A typical Warden case of the late-19th century

As the demand of plants grew, manufacturers were quick to create marketable plant-related necessities for the home. There were new styles of garden furniture made from wicker or iron, jardinières of every size and shape, plant stands, and a flurry of vegetal, naturalistic dishware. English potteries, in particular, fed the fire and pumped out majolica tableware. Large factories like Minton, George Jones and Wedgwood, and smaller factories (primarily in the Staffordshire area, whose wares often went unmarked) churned out fanciful dishes at all price points. Brightly hued and wonderfully lumpy plant-inspired designs surged in popularity… leafy plates with raised strawberries, ferns, vines and, above all, begonias! Begonia plates, either single leaves or a cluster of leaves, were made in the thousands. The plants, which were first discovered in Brazil in the 1690s, were easy to propagate and, more importantly, easy to hybridize—their strange mutations satisfying a grower’s curiosity. It’s no surprise that these easy-to-grow plants became the most popular houseplant of the time. The first variegated begonia was recorded in 1886, which means my plates probably date to that time. I think that’s fascinating!

These days, antique majolica is better used for display rather than dining but did you know that begonias themselves are actually edible? Not something I’ll be trying any time soon.

For fun, below are a few display ideas found on Pinterest (not using plates so lovely as mine)… which, if I’m honest, makes me not want to sell them but to rehang my kitchen wall.

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