This spectacular pair of vases and stands was produced by Herbert Minton & Sons, the first, and arguably the best ceramic factory to produce majolica in Great Britain. Majolica, earthenware with a thick lead glaze initially intended to imitate Italian maiolica, was introduced by Herbert Minton, in association with his artistic director the Frenchman, Leon Arnoux (1816-1902), generally considered to be the greatest ceramists of the 19th century. Manufacturing of majolica began in 1849 or 1850; it was officially launched with considerable acclaim at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, but made its first major impact at the Paris Exhibition of 1855. While often maintaining Renaissance themes, the range of designs grew rapidly and Arnoux attracted leading Continental designers to the company. Among these was the prolific and versatile French sculptor and designer Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse (1824-1887), who worked in England from 1850 to 1855, becoming chief designer at Minton while also supplying designs to other British companies. After returning to France, Carrier-Belleuse, while continuing to supply English companies with designs, maintained a thriving atelier, attracting students such as Rodin and Dalou, who were to become leading sculptors of the following generation. In 1876 he was appointed artistic director of Svres.
The bold, rich colours and sculptural forms of Minton's majolica soon gained immense popularity. The star attraction at the 1862 International Exhibition in London was Minton's huge St George's Fountain, made of majolica and stone; but in its main display was also a pair of giant vases, modelled by Carrier-Belleuse. More than six feet in diameter, they were each supported by four nearly life-size cupids with their arms linked. (Illustrated in the Art Journal Catalogue for the 1862 Exhibition p.170). Another pair of vases listed in the display is given as: 'Pair of Large Vases. No 990, Ram's head handles, deep violet ground, festoons of fruit supported by a group of four Cupids'. Despite the difference of ground colour, there is no doubt that this description relates to the design of the two vases in this sale, and that it was by or based on that by Carrier-Belleuse. The vases 990 differ from the giant pair in having ram's head handles rather than snakes, and garlands of fruit rather than roses; they also have three overlapping oval medallions bearing profile reliefs. The ram's head handles and fruit garlands can be found on a 'flower-vase' included in the first exhibit of majolica in 1851; according to the Exhibition Catalogue it was 'coloured after the style of the old Majolica' (p.282). The overlapping medallions, but with a dancing putto, appear on another design illustrated in the Catalogue of the 1862 Exhibition, this time on a cast-iron vase exhibited by the Coalbrookdale Company, also designed by 'the renowned designer of Paris' Carrier-Belleuse.
The stands each bear the number '1807' which appears in the 1884 Minton shape book as a 'Jardiniere tripod'. The impressed factory mark 'MINTONS' was adopted in 1873. The circular mark, with three adjoining segments, indicates the year of manufacture - 1883.
Many pieces with the same or similar designs to those in the 1862 Exhibition were seen again in Paris in 1867, and Minton exhibited its majolica at all the major international exhibitions both in Europe and America during the rest of the century. It therefore seems probable that this pair of vases and stands was made for such an exhibition.
The large exhibition pieces display the utmost skill of modeller and ceramic artist; the resulting manufacturing costs tended to be high and they were therefore made in relatively small numbers. In the last quarter of the century, other companies challenged the pre-eminence of Minton in the manufacture of majolica. However, it always retained its reputation for the quality of its coloured glazes, which it continued to develop, such as 'Turkish dark blue' introduced in the 1870s, and which, bold or subtle, have never lost their stunning impact.