Google “cheese bell,” and up pops a link to Chuck E. Cheese’s in Bell, California. But imagine instead a prosperous English Victorian home, its interior a riot of decoration: floral wallpaper, ornate furniture, earthenware hearth-spaniels staring down from the mantel. On the sideboard stand showy ceramic domes. Known variously as cheese bells, cheese stands, cheese plates, and cheese keepers, these over-the-top majolica pieces wed ornamentation with an Alice in Wonderland whimsy.
The English dairy fetish goes way back. Even before Marie Antoinette played dairymaid dress-up at her rustic retreat, Le Hameau, 18th-century ladies in Britain were seeking relief from ennui by turning portions of their estate dairies into pleasure rooms. (Princess Di’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, Lavinia, Lady Spencer, had hers tiled in costly Wedgwood, with creamware utensils to match.) There they would gather with friends to sip ethereal syllabub, foamed with milk straight from the cow. Ceramic cheese keepers followed closely from this extravagant fashion, replacing earlier wooden trenchers and cradles.
Yet it wasn’t until 1851, at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, that Victorian majolica with its newfangled glazes was presented to consumers. This new style of earthenware became a sensation overnight. Initially developed by Minton, the process involved treating plain bisque with an opaque glaze of lead and tin. Each piece was hand-painted in lustrous colors before undergoing a second firing with a metallic oxide glaze that yielded electric blues, yellows, pinks, greens, and browns. Some of the most flamboyant pieces came from the kiln of a former Minton apprentice named George Jones, who began producing his own majolica in 1866. Jones made all sorts of objects for dining—oyster plates and tiered stands, sardine boxes, and soup tureens, all sporting decorations to coyly encode their intended use, like the squirrels perched on nut dishes, or the hare and wildfowl adorning the lid of a game-pie dish (eventually owned by bon vivant James Beard). Such droll, brightly colored pieces appealed to the status-crazed Victorian middle class striving to acquire specialized dishes and utensils for just about every foodstuff imaginable.