Vilmos Zsolnay: The Artist, the Inventor and the Salesman

Vilmos Zsolnay achieved the highest positions in all areas of the ceramics industry through respect for traditions, the application of innovative solutions, his own inventions, brilliant sales skills and his artistic sense.

The history of Zsolnay porcelain can be traced back to 1851, when Vilmos’ father, Miklós Zsolnay (1800-1880), an entrepreneurial merchant from Pécs, came up with the idea of setting up a stoneware manufactory. In his shop on the main square of the city, Miklós sold haberdashery, toys, musical instruments, porcelain and stoneware. His business was successful, perhaps that is why he was looking for a new investment opportunity. He purchased a plot of land on the outskirts of the city, where a small brick manufactory operated using locally mined clay.

Miklós considered it important to educate his sons and to launch their careers. He sent his older son, Ignác (1826-1900), to study at the nearby Lukafa stoneware manufactory. Shortly afterwards, the manufactory closed down, hereupon Miklós purchased its equipment. Production at the Zsolnay pottery workshop began in 1853. At that time, the small workshop made simple household and decorative tableware, thin-walled clay plumbing pipes, terracotta architectural elements and garden ornaments. In 1854, Ignác took over the pottery workshop from his father.

Vilmos (1828-1900) worked as an apprentice in his father’s shop from 1839 to 1842. In his youth, he was attracted to a painting career, which, however, his parents considered too precarious a profession. Instead, they sent him to pursue commercial studies at the Polytechnisches Institut in Vienna. After completing his studies, he gained internship at the renowned fancy goods supplier Martin and Bauer in Vienna. By 1848, he was already back in Pécs and working again in his father’s shop. In 1853, he took over the shop, which he developed into a multi-storey, modern department store in the following few years. He established extensive trade relations with Austria, Germany, France and England. In the same year, he married Teréz Bell and three children were born from their marriage: 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 – after the defeat of the 1848-49 War of Independence until the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867 – the Zsolnay workshop vegetated under difficult conditions due to the absence of Hungarian industrial loans and Austrian customs policy. Moreover, Hungary was flooded with foreign goods. In 1865, in exchange for his brother’s debts, Vilmos bought the pottery workshop. In addition to developing the workshop with great enthusiasm, he devoted all his free time to self-education.

Vilmos recognized the potential of learning from the folk pottery tradition. To this end, he employed the folk potters of Pécs and its surroundings in his manufactory, who were in possession of the treasure of forms and motifs. Later, when highly skilled artisans were needed, he recruited them from the European pottery centers of Bohemia, Saxony, Bavaria and the Rhine region. He also encouraged his employees to develop themselves and gain experience abroad. Moreover, to ensure a constant supply of skilled workforce, Vilmos set up an apprenticeship program in the factory. The trainees were mainly the sons of the workers and the training lasted five years. Since half of the lessons took place during working hours, this time was paid for by the factory to the trainees. General subjects were taught by the teachers of the city’s civic schools, while vocational subjects were taught by the factory’s artists. Workers have often worked at the Zsolnay factory for generations.

The right raw material is also a determining factor in pottery making, and Vilmos himself began to look for the appropriate one in the area. With the increased demand for raw materials, he extended his search to the entire Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Raw materials from Transcarpathia, Transylvania, Transdanubia and Croatia arrived at the Zsolnay manufactory. The cheapness of raw materials mined and processed locally in the country contributed to the competitiveness of his products.

Until the 19th century, ceramics were made by hand in craft workshops. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, the mechanization of particular work processes began. Vilmos was open to innovative solutions and in 1868 bought his first steam engine. Thanks to the new technologies, ceramics could be produced in large quantities and of consistent quality. This, in turn, led to the widespread use of cheap, mass-produced products.

In the 1870s, the concept of ‘applied arts’ delineated from folk crafts began to develop. According to the customs of the age, applied artists used ornamentation pattern books and art albums when designing decorative pieces. At the time, Vilmos could not yet employ skilled artists, so the designs were often made by the painters themselves. He himself was involved in the design work, eventually using his artistic talent. He could find inspiration in his significant collection of ceramics, which included many objects from prehistoric urn vases to folk pottery, from early faience to contemporary porcelain.

From a young age, his daughters, Teréz and Júlia, had been engaged in a systematic collection of folk pottery and textile works. Their textile collection contained about 10,000 items, which well 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 of pottery, embroidery and woven textiles from their collection was even organized at the Hungarian Academy of Science. In order to gain knowledge of a wide range of forms and motifs, the two sisters went on study trips abroad, studied museum collections and source books, copied museum artifacts and learned about the pottery traditions of ancient and sometimes distant cultures. Their research was supported by archaeologists, art historians and museum directors. Eventually, Teréz became responsible for selecting and documenting their collection, while, Júlia became a designer of the Zsolnay factory.

Vilmos had continuously raised the artistic and technological standard of his products with his many experimental results. In the 19th century, world exhibitions became forums for achievements in applied arts and technological development. In addition to the direct commercial benefits, obtaining up-to-date information on the goods presented there may have had unforeseeable benefits. Vilmos realized this, and the experience that he gained at the exhibitions determined the further direction of technological and artistic development in 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 at the exhibition. Some of the decorative items bore the marks of traditional Hungarian folk pottery, both in shape and decoration. In addition to the Silver Medal of the exhibition, he was awarded with the Knight of the Order of Franz Joseph.

At the 1873 exhibition, Vilmos became acquainted with the high-fire glazed ornamental dishes of the English Minton factory, and it was probably this experience that inspired him to develop his own high-fire glazes. The technological and artistic experiments of contemporary artist-potters were inspired by the high-fire glazed ceramics of ancient China. In just a few years, by refining the raw material of the stoneware, Vilmos developed the so-called porcelain-faience and the associated high-fire glaze technology. This paved the way for improving the artistic quality of their products and unfolding of their distinctive style. In addition to the application of traditional Hungarian motifs, their style primarily reflects the influence of Persian and Iznik ceramics, and is based on Júlia’s design work.

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

Towards the end of the 19th century, Orientalist trends became increasingly popular in the field of decorative ceramics and later in architectural ceramics. This prompted Vilmos’ son, Miklós, to personally explore the business as well as artistic and technological potential of Middle Eastern relations. During his trip to the Middle East in 1887-88, he visited the popular destinations frequented by European travelers of the era. In addition to building business relationships, he sold the ornamental ceramics continuously 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. While from the 12th century, the town was used as a storage facility for ceramics. Thus, the bought fragments not only contained pieces of local pottery in their unparalleled richness, but also large quantities of remains imported from China, Persia, Spain and Italy.

Vilmos’ fifth recipe book, dated December 1891, contains the results of his experiments with eosin technology, which were based on the lusterware technology kept secret in the workshops of Fustat. Vilmos developed a unique richness of eosin variants with the contribution of chemist professor Vince Wartha. They presented their eosin glazing technology as a joint invention at the 1896 National Millennium Exhibition in Budapest. The exhibition was organized on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the settlement of the Magyars in the Carpathian Basin. Following the great success of the eosin glaze at the exhibition, Vilmos donated a collection of 200 pieces to the Museum of Applied Arts in order to ensure that the technological and artistic development of his enterprise is properly represented.

Vilmos’ invention, the pyrogranite, was created through the continuous development of architectural ceramics, specifically to replace costly stone carvings used to decorate the facades of buildings. It is a special frost-resistant architectural ceramic material fired at a high temperature with a sandstone-like structure that can be used uncoated or with various glazes and both indoors and outdoors. It was first used to decorate the Országház [Hungarian Parliament]. Pyrogranit was popular among the leading architects of the time, consequently Zsolnay ceramics adorn many public and private buildings and spaces in Budapest and other cities of historic Hungary.

Initially, besides tableware and ornamental items, Vilmos focused on the production of floor and wall tiles, stove tiles, plumbing pipes, garden ornaments and architectural elements. Later, ceramics began to play an important role in the construction of the fast-growing cities and meeting the needs of the emerging industries. Demand for sanitary ware, the insulators for telegraph, telephone and electrical systems, and acid-resistant ceramics opened up new market opportunities. Vilmos wanted to acquire a slice of this market as well. However, large-scale state orders required competitive quality, price and delivery times. Finally, 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 since the 1890s. Thanks to this success, Vilmos was soon able to expand the range to other electrotechnical products as well. In the period between the two world wars, the production of high-voltage insulation provided the economic basis for the factory.

By the 1890s, Vilmos’ factory was a leading ceramic manufacturing plant in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, with the largest product range and the largest number of employees. According to the factory’s guest book, among the visitors were Emperor Franz Joseph, members of the Hungarian noble families – for example, Andrássy, Apponyi, Batthyányi, Cziráky, Eszterházy, Festetics and Zichy – prominent public figures, famous artists and connoisseurs, and numerous other distinguished guests from all over Europe. In addition to the well-known names, many student, teachers, professors, military officers as well as many unknown guests from all over historical Hungary visited the factory in large numbers and with remarkable frequency.

The First World War, and the subsequent Serbian occupation shook the economic foundations of the Zsolnay factory. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Peace Treaty of Trianon, the factory lost most of its raw material resources and markets. In the period between the two world wars, the demand for ornaments dwindled. The factory was kept alive by the growing demand for low- and high-voltage insulators as well as state orders related to the electrification of the railway lines.

Following the nationalization of the factory under the Communist regime, the new leadership abolished the “bourgeois” traditions, which meant primarily the production of ornamental articles. All molds and designs were collected and destroyed. However, the exquisite pieces of the family collection were packed up and expropriated. Between 1948 and 1953, on the instructions of the Ministry, the production of porcelain insulators continued, partly for the restoration of the country and partly for war reparations. After Stalin’s death in 1953, a government program was introduced aiming to reduce forced-paced development and increase household consumption. This was when the production of the ornamental articles could begin again. These were difficult years for the members of the Zsolnay family; 17 family members were imprisoned or deported for shorter or longer periods. Most of them were not allowed into the factory until the 1989 Regime Change.

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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