Vilmos Zsolnay: The Artist, the Inventor and the Salesman

Vilmos Zsolnay achieved the highest positions in all areas of the ceramics industry through a combination of respecting traditions, applying innovative solutions, inventing his own techniques, possessing brilliant sales skills and possessing artistic sense.

The roots of Zsolnay porcelain can be traced back to 1851, when Miklós Zsolnay (1800-1880), an enterprising merchant from Pécs and Vilmos’ father, founded a stoneware manufactory. At first, Miklós sold haberdashery, toys, musical instruments, porcelain and stoneware in his shop located in the main square of the city, and his business flourished. Seeking new investment opportunity, he acquired a plot of land situated on the outskirts of the city where a small brick manufactory was already in operation, using locally sourced clay.

Miklós believed in the importance of educating his sons and helping them establish their careers. As such, he sent his older son Ignác (1826-1900) to study at the Lukafa stoneware manufactory located nearby, which closed down soon after Ignác’s arrival. This turn of events provided Miklós with the opportunity to purchase its equipment, and in 1853, the Zsolnay pottery workshop began production. Initially, the workshop produced basic household and decorative tableware, thin-walled clay plumbing pipes, terracotta architectural elements, and garden ornaments. By 1854, Ignác had taken over the pottery workshop from his father.

Vilmos (1828-1900) began his career as an apprentice in his father’s shop from 1839 to 1842. Although he initially had a passion for painting, his parents considered it too precarious a profession and sent him to pursue commercial studies at the Polytechnisches Institut in Vienna. Upon completing his studies, he gained an internship at the prestigious fancy goods supplier Martin and Bauer in Vienna. Vilmos returned to Pécs in 1848 and resumed working in his father’s shop. In 1853, he took over the shop and expanded it into a multi-story, modern department store in the following years. He also established extensive trade relationships with Austria, Germany, France and England. In the same year, he married Teréz Bell, and they had three children: Teréz (1854), Júlia (1856) and Miklós (1857).

Zsolnay Vilmos wit his family in the park of the manufactory in 1898

“The greatest joy was the excursions when we drove out with our father and friends into the woods to the clay mines. We spent the whole day outdoors, and our father drew our attention to the beauty of flowers, butterflies and beetles as well as the thousands of wonders of nature. We were all enthusiastic about literature, music and nature… Our lives were defined by hard work, a strict sense of duty, and a keen intellectual interest.”

Excerpt from the memoirs of Teréz Zsolnay Mattyasovszky

During the period of absolutism, from the defeat of the 1848-49 War of Independence until the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867, the Zsolnay workshop struggled under difficult conditions due to the absence of Hungarian industrial loans and unfavorable Austrian customs policies. Furthermore, Hungary was inundated with foreign goods. In 1865, Vilmos purchased the pottery workshop in exchange for his brother’s debts. With great enthusiasm, he not only developed the workshop, but also devoted all of his free time to self-education.

Vilmos recognized the potential of learning from the folk pottery tradition. For this reason, he employed the folk potters from Pécs and its surrounding areas in his manufactory who possessed a wealth of forms and motifs. Later, as highly skilled artisans were required, he recruited them from the leading pottery centers of Europe such as Bohemia, Saxony, Bavaria and the Rhine region. He also encouraged his employees to seek development and gain experience abroad. Furthermore, to ensure a constant supply of skilled workers, Vilmos established an apprenticeship program within the factory, which lasted for five years and mainly trained the sons of the workers. Since half of the training took place during working hours, the factory compensated the trainees for their time. General subjects were taught by the teachers of the city’s civic schools, while vocational subjects were taught by the factory’s artists. Workers and their families have often worked at the Zsolnay factory for generations.

Pottery making also depends on the appropriate raw material, and Vilmos recognized its significance, leading him to search for it in the surrounding areas. As demand for raw materials increased, he expanded his search throughout the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Raw materials from Transcarpathia, Transylvania, Transdanubia and Croatia were delivered to the Zsolnay manufactory. The affordability of locally-mined and processed raw materials helped to make his products competitive.

Until the 19th century, ceramics were exclusively handcrafted in workshops. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, some of the processes were mechanized. The utilization of modern technologies enabled the large-scale production of ceramics with consistent quality. However, this also led to the proliferation of cheap, mass-produced products. Vilmos was open to innovative solutions and acquired his first steam engine in 1868.

In the 1870s, the concept of ‘applied arts’ emerged as a distinct concept from folk crafts. Applied artists used ornamentation pattern books and art albums to designing decorative pieces, following the customs of the era. At that time, Vilmos could not yet employ skilled artists, so painters themselves created the designs. Vilmos was also involved in the design work, drawing on his artistic talent. He found inspiration in his extensive collection of ceramics, which included objects ranging from prehistoric urn vases to folk pottery, early faience to contemporary porcelain.

Vilmos’ daughters, Teréz and Júlia, began a systematic collection of folk pottery and textile works from a young age. Their textile collection, which contained approximately 10,000 items, vividly reflected the richness of color and ornaments, as well as the technical complexity of the region’s ethnic costumes in the 19th century. In 1882, an exhibition showcasing pottery, embroidery, and woven textiles from their collection was organized at the Hungarian Academy of Science. To gain knowledge of a wide range of forms and motifs, the sisters embarked on study trips abroad, explored museum collections and source books, copied museum artifacts, and learned about the pottery traditions of ancient and sometimes distant cultures. Archaeologists, art historians, and museum directors provided them with support for their research. Eventually, Teréz became responsible for selecting and documenting their collection, while Júlia became a designer for the Zsolnay factory.

Vilmos continuously improved the artistic and technological standard of his products through numerous experiments. In the 19th century, world exhibitions became platforms to showcase achievements in applied arts and technological developments. Apart from direct commercial benefits, obtaining up-to-date information on the exhibited goods could lead to unforeseeable advantages. Vilmos recognized this and used his experience at exhibitions to guide the further technological and artistic development of his factory. Vilmos achieved his first significant international success at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. He presented household and decorative tableware, terracotta garden ornaments, and architectural elements. Some decorative items featured the marks of traditional Hungarian folk pottery, both in shape and decoration. In addition to winning the Silver Medal of the exhibition, he was awarded the Knight of the Order of Franz Joseph.

At the 1873 exhibition, Vilmos became acquainted with the high-fire glazed ornamental dishes produced by the English Minton factory, and it was likely this experience that inspired him to develop his own high-fire glazes. The technological and artistic experimentation of contemporary artist-potters was inspired by the high-fire glazed ceramics of ancient China. Within a few years, Vilmos was able to develop what is known as porcelain-faience and its corresponding high-fire glaze technology through the refinement of stoneware raw materials. This breakthrough paved the way for the improvement of the artistic quality of their products and the emergence of their distinctive style. In addition to the application of traditional Hungarian motifs, their style reflects the influence of Persian and Iznik ceramics based on Júlia’s design work.

At the 1878 Paris World’s Fair, Vilmos was awarded the Gold Medal of the exhibition and the Order of Honor of the French government for his invention, the high-fire glazed porcelain-faience. Vilmos’ 19-years-old son, Miklós, represented the factory and was also entrusted with finding foreign investors. From the very beginning, Vilmos financed his ceramic factory from his other businesses, including the profits from his downtown department store, railroad construction, cement production, coal mining, spodium production, logging, and timber sales. After the success in Paris, they found distributors for the ornamental and architectural articles in several European capitals.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Orientalist trend became increasingly popular in the fields of decorative and architectural ceramics. This prompted Miklós, Vilmos’ son, to personally explore the business as well as artistic and technological potential of Middle Eastern relations. In 1887-88, during his trip to the Middle East, he visited popular destinations frequented by European travelers of the era. In addition to building business relationships, he continuously sold the ornamental ceramics arriving from Pécs and acquired a significant art collection of wall and floor tiles as well as ceramic fragments from Fustat. Between 975 and 1075, Fustat was the most important production center for Islamic art and ceramics. From the 12th century, the town was used as a storage facility for ceramics, and thus, the purchased fragments contained not only pieces of local pottery, but also large quantities of remains imported from China, Persia, Spain and Italy, providing an unparalleled richness.

In December 1891, Vilmos recorded the results of his eosin technology experiments in his fifth recipe book. His innovation was based on the lusterware technology kept secret in the workshops of Fustat. With the contribution of chemist professor Vince Wartha, Vilmos developed unique eosin variants of exceptional richness. They presented their eosin glazing technology as a joint invention at the 1896 National Millennium Exhibition in Budapest, which was organized to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. After the tremendous success of the eosin glaze at the exhibition, Vilmos donated a collection of 200 pieces to the Museum of Applied Arts to ensure that the technological and artistic development of his enterprise was properly represented.

Another of Vilmos’ inventions is the pyrogranite, which was developed through the continuous advancement of architectural ceramics with the specific goal of replacing costly stone carvings used to decorate building facades. This special frost-resistant ceramic material has a sandstone-like structure and is fired at a high temperature, making it suitable for use both indoors and outdoors, either uncoated or with various glazes. Its first application was to decorate the Országház [Hungarian Parliament]. Due to its popularity among leading architects of the time, Zsolnay ceramics were used to adorn many public and private buildings and spaces in Budapest and other cities of historic Hungary.

Initially, Vilmos focused on producing floor and wall tiles, stove tiles, plumbing pipes, garden ornaments, and architectural elements in addition to tableware and ornamental items. Later, ceramics began to play an increasingly important role in the construction of the fast-growing cities and meeting the needs of the emerging industries. The demand for sanitary ware, insulators for telegraph, telephone and electrical systems, and acid-resistant ceramics created new market opportunities that Vilmos wanted to tap into. However, large-scale state orders required competitive quality, price, and delivery times. With the involvement of experts and engineers in the development phase, the factory was able to produce large quantities of low-voltage insulators of impeccable quality from the 1890s. This success enabled Vilmos to expand the range to other electrotechnical products. During the period between the two world wars, the production of high-voltage insulation provided the economic foundation for the factory.

By the 1890s, Vilmos’ factory had become a leading ceramic manufacturing plant in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, boasting the largest product range and workforce. The factory’s guest book recorded visits from Emperor Franz Joseph, members of Hungarian noble families, such as Andrássy, Apponyi, Batthyányi, Cziráky, Eszterházy, Festetics and Zichy, as well as prominent public figures, famous artists and connoisseurs, and numerous other distinguished guests from across Europe. Additionally, the factory received numerous visits from students, teachers, professors, military officers, and countless other individuals from throughout historical Hungary, both known and unknown, who visited frequently and in large numbers.

The economic stability of the Zsolnay factory was severely impacted by the First World War and the subsequent Serbian occupation. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the signing of the Peace Treaty of Trianon, the factory lost access to most of its raw material resources and markets. Additionally, the demand for ornaments dwindled in the period between the two world wars. However, the factory was able to stay afloat due to the increasing demand for low- and high-voltage insulators, as well as state orders related to the electrification of railway lines.

Following the nationalization of the Zsolnay factory by the Communist regime, the new leadership abolished ‘bourgeois’ traditions, primarily the production of ornamental articles. This involved destroying all molds and designs, although the exquisite pieces from the family collection were expropriated. From 1948 to 1953, the factory continued to produce porcelain insulators for the reconstruction of the country and war reparations as directed by the Ministry. After Stalin’s death in 1953, a government initiative was launched to slow forced-paced development and boost household consumption. This allowed for the production of ornamental articles to resume. These were difficult times for the Zsolnay family, with 17 members being imprisoned or deported for varying lengths of time. Most of them were not allowed to return to the factory until the 1989 Regime Change.

Zsolnay porcelain remains a significant representation of Hungary’s cultural heritage and craftsmanship. The Zsolnay Porcelánmanufaktúra Zrt [Zsolnay Porcelain Manufactory Private Limited] produces a wide range of ceramic products, including tableware and ornamental items, all made with the distinctive iridescent glaze and intricate designs that are synonymous with the Zsolnay name. In addition, the company continues to produce architectural ceramics such as tiles and ornamental elements that adorn buildings worldwide. It is not possible to list all the buildings and places decorated with Zsolnay porcelain in Hungary and around the world in this short essay, but a few examples of buildings with architectural decorations include the County Hall in Pécs, Iparművészeti múzeum [Museum of Applied Arts] and Mátyás templom [Church of Mátyás] in Budapest, Cifrapalota [Cifra Palace] in Kecskemét, Reök Palota [Reök Palace] in Szeged, City Hall in Szabadka (Subotica), Hotel Moskva in Beograd, and City Hall in Sarajevo. Moreover, places ornamented with Zsolnay porcelain include the Zsolnay-kút [Zsolnay Fountain] on Széchenyi tér in Pécs, Zsolnay-díszkút [Zsolnay Fountain] on József nádor tér in Budapest, and huge blue Zsolnay vases in Stadtpark, Vienna. Additionally, in Pécs, the Zsolnay Múzeum [Zsolnay Museum] and the Zsolnay Kultúrális Negyed [Zsolnay Cultural Quarter], which was established on the grounds of the Zsolnay ceramics factory, feature unique exhibitions that showcase the Zsolnay heritage.

Zsolnay – Zsolnay Teréz & M. Zsolnay Margit: A gyár és a család története 1863-1948, Sikota Gyözö: A gyár története 1948-1973 (1974) Corvina Kiadó, Budapest, Magyarország
Museum info panels

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