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HOUSEWARES : Minton China Has Loyal Royal Fans

March 12, 1994|From Associated Press

Thomas Minton set out a century ago to design fine china for the public and wound up founding a firm that found royal favor--which it retains to this day.

Minton china today still offers the gloriously gilded, exquisitely painted pieces that enchanted both Queen Victoria, who called it "the most beautiful in the world," and her descendant, Elizabeth II.

It is easy to understand why Victoria found Minton so appealing. By the middle of the 19th Century, it was finely crafted and lavishly decorated in a mix of many periods--neoclassic, Renaissance, Gothic revival and contemporary French among them.

Seascapes and landscapes, flowers and birds, reclining figures and Oriental motifs had all found their way into thousands of patterns in numerous shapes and styles.

Once an international aristocracy had given its stamp of approval, what had already been an impressive array of pieces became more so, with commissions coming from as far away as India, Australia and America.

Thomas Minton started out in 1793, encouraged to begin making his own pottery while still apprenticing at a Staffordshire porcelain factory.

His aim was to please the middle class, to place fine tableware within the reach of all. When working people bought a Minton piece, particularly one of the luxury items that were soon on the market, they felt themselves equal to their more prosperous countrymen. Owning a beautifully made, though often impractical, figurine or ornamental object--an artichoke cup or toothbrush tray, glass cooler or honey pot--gave them a sense of cachet.

Minton's business thrived, but it did not begin to establish its fabled reputation until 1836, when Minton's youngest son, Herbert, took over. Herbert's keen business sense and flair for technology culminated in a magic touch that few other potters could match.

Fine artists and sculptors were starting to flock to the firm, and by the 1850s Minton was widely hailed for fine hand-painting and elaborate gilding--artistic excellence that persists to this day.

The Minton royal relationship began in 1840 and was sealed with a warrant in 1856. It continues today. Prince Albert was a regular customer for more than 40 years, even designing a pattern himself for use at his beloved Balmoral Castle in the north of Scotland. Albert died before the project was completed, but the china was produced anyway and made its debut at the palace in 1893.

One of Queen Victoria's favorites was the "Strawberry Embossed" pattern, no longer in production, which was ordered for Balmoral in 1910 and is still prized by some of today's royals.

Queen Mary continued the royal enthusiasm for Minton, visiting the factory in 1913 and later commissioning a miniature dinner service, a tiny blue-rimmed set made in 1929 for her dollhouse and still to be found at Windsor Castle.

When Mary's granddaughter was crowned Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Minton created a commemorative vase with an intricate design. The young monarch called it the most complicated piece of bone china ever made.

Minton, which became part of Royal Doulton in 1968, celebrated its 200th birthday last year. Hundreds of Minton patterns are on display at the Minton Museum near the company headquarters in Stoke-on-Trent, England, which offers a comprehensive history of English china.

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