NEW YORK — Cheese keepers come in a variety of forms and with all manner of decoration, but they are arguably at their best when they are bold and lavish. Among the most beloved styles of these covered cheese dishes, aka Stilton dishes, are examples made in majolica. As a ceramics form, majolica was highly popular in the Victorian era — it was more affordable than porcelain, so it was accessible to more homes. By the early 20th century, it was supplanted by more modern materials as consumer tastes changed and as the dangers posed to workers who applied the colorful lead glazes became known. Today, majolica cheese keepers remain highly prized by collectors and those who appreciate fine ceramics.
Most 19th-century majolica manufacturers produced cheese dishes, a form of serving ware that was a staple of the middle-class Victorian home. Before refrigerators became commonplace, cheese keepers stopped the household’s stash of Stilton from drying out. Better still, the vessels were capable of containing the aroma of strong cheeses. They were brought to the table at the end of dinner and their delectable contents would be presented along with port or dessert wines. Keepers are typically domed and have a small hole near the top to discourage mold growth on the cheese.
London dealer Nick Boston has been researching and trading in majolica since 1980. He recently served as a curatorial advisor for the Majolica Mania exhibition currently on view at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.
Majolica collectors choose cheese keepers for different, and highly personal, reasons. Some collect based on rarity, others by factory name and still others by the type of decoration. Botanical designs are enduringly popular, and vibrantly-colored cheese dishes with nature-inspired decorations hold great appeal.
“The two most followed majolica manufacturers are Minton and George Jones so the rare cheese dishes from these two companies bring the most money at auction,” Boston said, adding that George Jones was a more prolific cheese dish manufacturer than Minton. Only three or four varieties of Minton majolica cheese keepers are known, making any examples these designs ardently sought after. George Jones, in contrast, created between 10 and 15 different cheese keeper designs. Some had production runs in the hundreds, if not the thousands.
Today, the more common George Jones cheese dishes can be secured for sums ranging from $500 to $2,000. That said, one of its scarcer designs can approach $20,000. The top George Jones cheese dish is known affectionately to majolica collectors as the Underwater pattern; an example sold at a Doyle auction for $18,900 in December 2021. This pattern is one of Boston’s favorites also; he has one in his personal collection.
Minton’s most desirable cheese keeper is its beehive and blackberry design, Boston said, explaining its popularity is based on rarity and aesthetics, as well as the fact that it appears on the back cover of the seminal work on majolica, Majolica, A complete History and Illustrated Survey, which was published by Karmason-Stacke in 1989. A circa-1870 example of the pattern, featuring blackberries in relief on a branch along a straw beehive, attained $24,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2022 at Strawser Auction Group. The house has held two dedicated majolica auctions annually for more than three decades and has consistently achieved the best prices for majolica cheese dishes, including several records. According to Boston, a blackberry Minton cheese keeper set an auction record at Strawser back in October 2005 when it sold for $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Copeland, a major British ceramics manufacturer, produced high-quality majolica that is well-regarded among collectors. One of Copeland’s most successful and desirable majolica offerings was its Primrose pattern, which appeared on vases, butter dishes, pitchers and cheese dishes. “The Copeland Primrose pattern, with its deep cobalt blue ground and bright yellow primroses, is particularly attractive and the design lends itself perfectly to a cheese dish design,” Boston said. “Examples are rare and are very sought after by both majolica and cheese dish collectors.”
Boston also noted, “The George Jones Apple Blossom cheese dish is extremely attractive, being made in both full Stilton and half Stilton size.” An example measuring 6½in tall earned $5,750 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Cottone Auctions.
An unusual and desirable variation on the beloved form is a Joseph Holdcroft wedge cheese keeper sporting a bright cobalt ground with flowers and blackberries. Holdcroft produced some markedly attractive cheese dishes, including designs known as Pond lily and Blackberry and bark.
“As a rule, collectors are buying on rarity and antique buyers are buying on the aesthetics of a piece,” Boston said. “The cheese dish makes a great statement on a sideboard or kitchen table.” The market has seen prices fluctuate, but it is softer than it was 10 to 15 years ago, making it a great time to buy. Would-be collectors should make a move soon, however. Thanks to several recent publications and the current museum exhibition in Baltimore, prices are already climbing.