A steeple of the 13th-century St Matthias is adorned with Zsolnay ceramic tiles
The first time I saw the work of Zsolnay Porcelain Works was shortly after we moved to Budapest, up on Castle Hill. Our tour guide pointed out the 13th-century St Matthias church, a gothic stone structure topped with a baffling mix of brilliantly colored ceramic tiles. When I asked our guide about the incongruent roof, she explained that the church had been rebuilt and reconstructed several times over the centuries, the tiles added during one such episode in the late 19-century. As I began to better familiarize myself with Budapest, I noticed these distinctive, polychromatic tiles on just about all of the city’s landmark buildings: the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, the Museum of Applied Arts, the National Archives of Hungary building, the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank, and the Grand Market Hall, to name just a few. Was this a regional fad? It wasn’t until months later, when I attended a local art auction, that I would learn the answer to that question. Yes, that “fad” was called Hungarian art nouveau, and Zsolnay Porcelain Works played a key role in it.
A fellow expat, who works as a docent at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, told me about a famed ceramic factory located near the Croatian border, in the medieval village of Pecs, Hungary, after she saw me admiring one of the lots, an iridescent art nouveau vase made around 1900,. “See how the colors seem to change in the light, reflecting shades of yellow, blue, and purple?” she asked. “That’s the hallmark of a Zsolnay! You’ve seen their tiles all over town by now.” Indeed, I had. Suddenly, it was like everything was beginning to click in place, and I began to feel something similar to falling in love. Yes, it was with the vase, but more so the manufacturer who had produced it. Unfortunately, I left the auction empty handed—the vase was way out of league with my pocketbook. However, I did leave with something: a desire to learn more about Zsolnay.
Antique Zsolnay vase, circa 1900
I found a lot of erroneous and contradicting history on the company. Such is the blessing and curse of the internet. Fortunately—with the aid of a few good art books, some reliable web resources, and several visits to my neighborhood antique dealer (Virag Judit Gallery in District V), I was able to construct a short bio on the company.
The Zsolnay Story
Zsolnay Porcelain Works was founded in 1853 by Miklós Zsolnay (1800-1880), in southeastern Hungary. He originally produced stoneware and pottery, but when his son Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900) took over the family business in 1865, it was taken in another direction. Vilmos produced high-end tea services and vases instead. Early tea services depicting scenes from the Brothers Grimm tales date back to this era, but the company is best known among collectors today for producing vividly colored vases and glassware that have a metallic-like luster, achieved through a process called eosin glazing (from the Greek eos, meaning flush of dawn). The process involves firing at extremely high temperatures, resulting in iridescent hues of red. It was an idea not unfamiliar with the Danes, but it was Vilmos who perfected it. Over the years, he continued to experiment with glazes to achieve a variety of colors favored by art nouveau and Secessionist artists. In fact, several then-famous Hungarian Secessionist artists designed a number of pieces for the Zsolnay factory, including Sándor Apáti Abt, Lajos Mack, Géza Nikelszky, and József Rippl-Rónai. By the close of the 19th century, Zsolnay was firmly established as a decorative arts leader in the art nouveau movement.
Zsolnay flask, circa 1900, available at the Virag Judit Gallery in Budapest, valued at approx. $15,000 to $20,000 USD
As was the trend in art nouveau, Zsolnay adopted motifs inspired by the local folklore and borrowed ideas from India, Turkey, and Asia. Vilmos himself studied Islamic art and ceramics in London, and applied those concepts to his work, which won him, among numerous other awards, the Grand Prix gold medal at the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris. In 1887, Vilmos sent his son, also named Miklos, to the Middle East, where he traveled for several months through Istanbul, Izmir, Larnaka, Beirut, Baalbek, Damascus, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Cairo, collecting artwork and corresponding in German back to his family in Pecs the images that he saw.
The company’s chief designer during the art nouveau years and beyond was the very talented Tádé Sikorski (1852 – 1940), a Polish architect and artist who trained in Vienna. In addition to having a hand in the building of that city’s State Opera House, Sikorski had also been the director of a state-operated school of ceramics in Vienna. During a study tour in 1882, he visited the Zsolnay factory in Pecs and met Vilmos’ daughter Júlia. They were married a year later, and he thus became a key personality within the factory. From 1900 to 1940, Sikorski oversaw the architectural division of the company, and produced frost-resistant tiles and exterior decorations for buildings.In his work, one finds many floral themes, such as sunflowers, tulips, plants, and bees that are common in Hungarian folk decoration.
Hungary’s leading art nouveau architect, Ödön Lechner (1845-1914), also known as the “Hungarian Gaudí,” incorporated Zsolnay decorations and roof tiles into his buildings, evidenced in such architectural gems as the blue-tiled Thonet House (1888-89) on Vaci street, the blue roof of the Hungarian State Geologicial Institute, and the green and yellow tiles and ornaments of the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank (1899-1901). Lechner appreciated the fact that Zsolnay’s pyrogranite ceramics could be molded into intricate designs and coated with exotically colored glazes. As did other prominent architects in the region, such as Miklós Ybl, who designed Budapest’s Opera House, and Imre Steindl, who designed the Parliament Building.
Facade of the Former Royal Post Office and Savings Bank
Close-up of Zsolnay tiles on former Royal Postal and Savings
After the death of Vilmos Zsolnay in 1900, the management of Zsolnay Porcelain Works passed into the hands of his son Miklos Zsolnay (1857-1922), who continued the family tradition. The Great War that began in 1914, however, began an unfortunate chain of events for Hungary, as well as the Zsolnay Porcelain Works. During World War I, production of pottery ceased. Instead of creating beautiful objets d’art, the factory was forced to produce insulators for military use. After the war, raw materials were difficult to source, to say nothing of the factory’s declining fortunes due to a global economic depression and the Serbian occupation. Then came World War II, when a bomb destroyed the company’s facility in Budapest. The final insult came with the rule of communism, when the factory was nationalized and stripped of its family name, thereafter known as the Pécsi Porcelángyár (Pécs Porcelain Factory), and producing common tableware goods.
Then in 1982, with the resumption of a market economy, the company regained its operational independence, reorganized, and reclaimed the Zsolnay name. Today, the company is producing ceramic items again, in bulk for the Swedish company IKEA, as well as producing fine ceramics from resurrected designs from the company’s Secessionist era. And then there are collectors (and admirers like me) who live vicariously in the late-19th century through the beautiful works that Zsolnay Porcelain Works created during its glory years. – Jessica Tudzin
Where to See Zsolnay in Budapest Architecture
- The green miniature statues on the Hungarian Parliament Building (1896)
- The steam-resistant tiles of the Gellért Baths (1918)
- The gold exterior tiles and sea-green interior tiles of the Four Seasons Gresham Palace (1906)
- The rainbow-colored roof of the 13th-century Matthias Church (added in 1896)
- The blue-tiled domes of City Zoo’s elephant house (1912)
- The blue ceramic tomb of Sándor Schmidl, a prominent local grocer, in the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery (1903)
- The gold-glazed tile interiors of the Franz Liszt Music Academy (1907)
- The blue-tiled Thonet House on Vaci street (1888-89)
- The blue roof of the Hungarian State Geological Institute (1899)
- The green and yellow tiles and ornaments of the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank (1899-1901)
- The gold curvaceous decorative ceramics on the Museum of Applied Art (1896), where inside you can also see some prime examples of Zsolnay vases and glassware.
Also consider a day trip to Pecs, Hungary, where you can visit the Zsolnay Porcelain factory and tour its museum.
Featured photo: Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest. Image courtesy of Kathleen Tyler Conklin.
Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest. Designed by Odon Lechner. See featured image for close-up detail
Close-up of Zsolnay tiles on Grand Market
Elephant House at the City Zoo
Close-up of Hungarian Geological Institute, by Csanády
The tomb of Sándor Schmidl (1903) in Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery. Image courtesy of Dr. Varga József, www.agt.bme.hu/varga
Close-up exterior tile work on the Thonet House