Artefact of the Month

Stoneware Plate


Gabriella Vida

Unlike folk pottery, which was rarely used for the dissemination of ideological messages, the white-walled products of the fine ceramics industry were easily exploited for the communication of political ideas. Of course, ceramics were not the only mass-produced wares suited to such purposes: during the second half of the 19th century, messages of this type frequently appeared on textiles, glassware, and (not surprisingly) various printed materials, as well. During the final decades of the century, for example, a surge in Hungarian national feeling was successfully harnessed as a means of bolstering positive attitudes toward the empire, with state propaganda offices using their political and financial muscle to influence the political messaging applied to the products of Czech and Austrian ceramics factories. Later ages would associate mugs bearing images of hussars and portraits of the emperor with the First World War for the reason that the imperial office tasked with drumming up support for the conflict had so many pieces with wartime dates and mottoes produced between 1914 and 1916.  In truth, the images themselves date to an earlier period, one that came decades in advance of their actual manufacture.

The plate featured as the Museum of Ethnography’s current ‘artefact of the month’ is a piece of ‘stoneware (‘keménycserép’), to use the accepted modern classification. Alternate terms in Hungarian are kőedény, or, with regard to some types, porcelánfajansz or finom fajansz. This type of pottery is factory made from a clay mass formulated according to a specific recipe, fired to a porous white and finished with a transparent glaze according to a process invented amidst a wave of industry experimentation during the 18th century. In Hungary, stoneware was first produced in the town of Holics (Holíč, Slovakia) in 1784. This was followed in the 19th century by the founding of an entire series of stoneware factories: in Kassa in 1801, Pápa in 1802, then Kőszeg, Körmöcbánya (Kremnica, Slovakia), Igló (Spišská Nová Ves, Slovakia), Rozsnyó (Rožňava, Slovakia), Városlőd, Murány (Muráň, Slovakia), Miskolc, Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), and Batiz (Romania). The most significant and longest-operated Hungarian factories were those located in Telkibánya, Hollóháza, and Bélapátfalva, which styled their wares based not on considerations of local culture, but on the fashions set by other manufacturers as derived from printed sample books.  In general, Hungarian stoneware producers favoured botanical themes with the occasional text or name over depictions of humans or scenes from everyday life.

The plate shown here is a rare exception to this rule. The scene it depicts is of footsoldiers, fully equipped and clothed in the ‘field grey’ (in truth blue) uniform of the Imperial and Royal Army, engaged in battle in the vicinity of a fenced, roadside cross. The same pattern was additionally produced both at the Telkibánya factory, and later at the Hollóháza plant that subsumed it, as well as by the larger Austrian stoneware factory in Wilhelmsburg. Of the early phase of Hungarian production little is known save that the bottoms of the earliest plates were marked at Telkibánya with a stamp known to have been in use from 1866 until 1899. The earliest factory marks on those made in Hollóháza date to after 1902.

NM 90.99.5 Stonweare Plate Hollóháza, 1909-1918
NM 90.99.5 Stonweare Plate Hollóháza, 1909-1918

For the Hungarian millennial celebrations of 1896, the Wilhelmsburg factory designed four patterns for shipment to Hungary: a coat-of-arms with the Hungarian crown, a galloping hussar, and two scenes of soldiers in uniform: the one described above and a second of an Imperial and Royal guardsman standing beside a guard booth. The date these patterns were launched is unknown, as neither appears in contemporary factory catalogues.

Because the overlap between the periods represented by the use of the Telkibánya mark and the manufacture of the Wilhelmsburg patterns amounts to at least four years, at present, neither the date of adoption of the pattern, nor even the matter of which factory borrowed it from which can be ascertained for certain. In general, patterns tended to flow from West to East:  were it ever demonstrated that the pattern was released in Hungary prior to 1895 and later adopted by the Austrians, it would represent a rare exception.

Of particular note on this piece are the soldiers’ uniforms: the cuffs of the trousers are tucked into the boots. Austrian Imperial soldiers, by contrast, wore puttees. Also, only Hungarian infantry wore what were known as magyarnadrág (‘Magyar trousers’), a tight-fitting garment with foot straps and decorative braid at the top—a feature one never saw on Austrian uniforms. Such details demonstrate the level of attention paid by the Wilhelmsburg facility to products destined for the Hungarian market. Further, plates of this design shipped to Hungary from the factory during the war lacked the marking with the imperial emblem, likely in order to fool Hungarian consumers as to the origin of the goods, thus protecting the factory’s markets, a purpose also served by the details on the soldiers’ uniforms. The depiction of soldiers on other plates of wartime issue followed the same convention. Ostensibly, Austrian consumers were either unconcerned with, or failed to notice the difference.

NM 74.28.5 Stonweare Plate Wilhelmsburg, Austria, 1895-1916
NM 74.28.5 Stonweare Plate Wilhelmsburg, Austria, 1895-1916

The marking on the bottom of this particular plate is the one used by the Hollóháza factory post-1909. The scene on the plate was applied using a template, with the crown of the tree and perimeter decoration executed using a sponge. The place of use is unknown, as the piece was purchased by the museum at a second-hand shop.