Text: Jennifer Boles
Perhaps no other form of tender vegetation has proven as hardy and long-lasting as that of lettuce ware, a style of ceramics that took shape in 18th-century Europe. Rooted in the Rococo style and made possible thanks to innovations in European porcelain-making, these lettuce-like ceramics have been a perennial favorite in display cabinets and on dining tables for centuries.
A trade secret closely guarded by the Chinese, the exact nature of porcelain remained a mystery to Europeans until 1708, when a German alchemist cracked the code, leading to the establishment of Meissen, the first domestic porcelain factory in Europe. Soon after, other European ceramics factories debuted, joining Meissen in producing porcelain that mimicked the designs of Chinese export ceramics. But as these 18th-century European porcelain makers’ skill and confidence grew, so, too, did their desire to design pieces that reflected Europe’s then-prevailing decorative style, Rococo. Inspired by the style’s lighthearted and naturalistic manner, porcelain makers began to model ceramic pieces that imitated nature, including shells, coral, and fruits and vegetables. In this trompe l’oeil, or “fool the eye”, endeavor, Meissen once again led the way.
Asparagus bunches, pea pods, melons, and lettuce were just some of the porcelain produce crafted by Meissen’s artisans, whose delicate modeling and vibrant hand-painting rendered such delightful, lifelike fruits and vegetables that they inspired other ceramics factories to follow suit, including England’s Chelsea and Longton Hall factories and, in France, Niderviller and Strasbourg, whose specialty was faience, or tin-glazed earthenware. Although all of these factories produced various naturalistic forms, it was their designs meant to imitate lettuce that were especially striking.
Large tureens representing leafy heads of lettuce were particularly notable, as were smaller porcelain boxes that sometimes better resembled a head of cabbage. (In the world of ceramics, lettuce and cabbage are often interchangeable.) Ceramic lettuce leaves, which were sometimes textured with ribs to heighten the sense of realism, were also shaped into sauce boats and stands, bowls, and plates. Although these pieces were highly decorative in manner, they were also functional, which made them popular for use at elite European dining tables, where elaborate table settings were all the rage.
It should be mentioned that these early lettuce-like ceramics were not always employed to serve savory foods, as might be assumed. Lettuce-leaf pieces were frequently used in the dessert course, where they were laden with fruits, sauces, and confections.
Lettuce and cabbage ceramics remained popular during the Victorian era, when the decorative arts were strongly influenced by nature, but this time, the medium was typically majolica. Given its sturdiness and its sometimes brash, colorful glazes, majolica-style lettuce often lacked the delicacy of, say, Meissen-made lettuce, but what it did boast was the ability to be mass-manufactured. No longer limited to crafting one-off pieces, majolica makers had the means with which to produce an expanded range of lettuce shapes as well as full-fledged sets of serving pieces and dinnerware, a development that firmly established the lettuce form as a unique class of ceramics, one which is generally referred to as lettuce ware.
While English and French majolica factories, such as Minton and Sarreguemines, produced well-regarded examples of lettuce ware, some of the most striking 19th-century majolica lettuce forms were crafted in Southern Europe. In Italy, the E B Napoli studio produced apple-green lettuce ware that is sometimes called “Napoli ware.”
Because of its delicate appearance, it is more reminiscent of 18th-century porcelain than most other majolica. Portuguese ceramics factories also made highly appealing lettuce and cabbage ware, including the Mafra and Jose Alves Cunha factories, which became noted for their Palissy-style lettuce plates and tea services. Majolica lettuce ware was even produced in America around the turn of last century at the Wannopee pottery in New Milford, Connecticut. That pottery’s signature pale-green lettuce ware design was trademarked “Lettuce Leaf” and was later collected by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
The continued allure of lettuce-shaped ceramics fired a renaissance of sorts in the mid- to late-20th century, when stylish American hostesses clamored to buy lettuce ware crafted by the late South Florida ceramicist Dodie Thayer, who was inspired to create her unique style of lettuce ware after having been asked to craft Napoli-ware-like pieces.
Lauded for their snappy green coloring and their entertaining-friendly shapes, including tureens, pitchers, and hors-d’oeuvres plates, all of which were designed to be used for dining, Thayer’s lettuce ware was collected by such social stalwarts as Brooke Astor, Bunny Mellon, and C. Z. Guest. Now reproduced by Tory Burch, Thayer’s lettuce ware has earned a new generation of fans eager to cultivate their own collections of these lifelike leafy greens.