Minton Hollins mosaic: The Birth of the Virgin
When the new museum in Hanley opened in 1956, one of the most prominent features was the huge mosaic panel by the firm of Minton Hollins depicting the Birth of the Virgin which was installed, in pride of place on the main staircase.
Since then the museum has had not one, but two, extensions but the panel is still in its original position. Underneath the mosaic is a small brass panel with the inscription “Presented to the Stoke-on-Trent Museums in memory of their father Col. Michael Daintry Hollins DL, of Staffordshire, by J Constance Hollins, Executrix, and her sisters Catherine Gwinilda Hollins and Lucy Blanche Hollins August 22nd 1917“. Thousands of people pass it every year but perhaps one in a hundred people read the inscription and wonder who Colonel Hollins was, and how the panel came to be in the museum.
The panel was originally installed in the old Hanley museum in Pall Mall, having been presented by the daughters of Michael Daintry Hollins, owner of the largest and best-known tile manufactory in Staffordshire: Minton Hollins. When the new museum was erected the panel came too and was built into the staircase wall as a permanent fixture.
The subject is the Birth of the Virgin Mary. It is a copy of one of six mosaics depicting the life of the Virgin in the apse of the basilica church of Santa Maria Trastevere, Rome. The church is one of the oldest in the city, with evidence of a church on the site from the early 3rd century. The mosaics, which were designed by the Roman artist Pietro Cavallini (c.1250-c.1330), date from the 1290s and were commissioned by the Italian Cardinal, Bertoldo Stefaneschi.
The mosaic shows an elaborate bedchamber with St Anne lying in bed while midwives bathe the infant Mary and two servants bring a meal of two loaves of bread on the table, and wine in a jug. Latin texts on the bedframe identify St Anne and the Virgin Mary as “Mother of God”. The longer Latin inscription can be translated as “Creator of mankind, who hast ordained pardon for the fallen, take away the stains of old tarnish from the Silver! Let there be for Thee the chamber where the virgin lies in splendour.”
So how did a copy of a 13th century Italian mosaic come to be made in Stoke-on-Trent and installed in the Hanley Museum?
In the 1860s the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) was planning a grand new extension. It was to be built of terracotta in the Renaissance style and embellished with sculpture, ironwork, tiling, frescos – and mosaic panels.
Minton Hollins had recently been responsible for the mosaic work on the Royal Albert Hall at Hyde Park and, according to the company, as a result, the Director of the V&A, Sir Henry Cole, had asked Michael Daintry Hollins “whether the firm could produce any mosaic work of sufficient merit to warrant its preservation in the national collection. As an outcome of this question, Col Hollins had this particular mosaic panel prepared, at very great cost, nothing was spared in its production…… It was submitted to the authorities and as a result, Messrs Minton Hollins & Co were requested to put in the panels, which they could now see in the Victoria & Albert Museum.”
The mosaic had then been displayed at Minton Hollins’ London showroom at 50 Conduit Street, Mayfair, where it remained, the property of the Hollins family, until 1917. In that year, Alfred J Caddie, the Curator of Stoke-on-Trent Museums, obtained the panel as a gift to the City. According to Caddie he was travelling to London on business. As he said, “It would be the business of begging or borrowing something no doubt… because one of the duties of the Curator of a provincial museum was to obtain gifts for the museum.”
Travelling in the same railway carriage was John Henry Marlow, the general manager at the Minton Hollins & Co. tile factory. As they were passed Rugby, Marlow, knowing of Caddie’s interest in ceramics, asked him if he had ever seen the mosaic panel displayed in the company’s London showroom. When Caddie replied that he had not, Marlow gave him a long and interesting description of the panel. According to Caddie: “When we had reached Bletchley, I ventured to suggest that it would be very nice if the panel could be presented to our Museum. The look on Mr Marlow’s face for a moment suggested the coolness of my remark – it seemed to do it, at any rate.”
Nonetheless Marlow agreed to help Caddie pursue the idea of the panel being presented to the Stoke Museums. Caddie visited the company showrooms the next day where the manager of the showroom also agreed that the panel would be an appropriate gift to the City – if the Hollins family approved. Later that day, according to Caddie, as he was walking to a lunch appointment with Mr Thomas Twyford, the sanitary ware manufacturer, he “was wondering how he should commence to obtain the panel as a gift for the Museums” when he realised that “ Mr Twyford must know the Hollins family and….mentioned the matter to him… Mr Twyford… became very keen about the idea and he promised to do his best.” Twyford was as good as his word. Within a few days, Caddie had an invitation to call on Miss Hollins and shortly thereafter it was agreed that the panel should be presented to the Museum.
The panel was carefully removed from the London showroom and installed in Hanley Museum. A grand unveiling ceremony was held on 22nd August 1917 with many local worthies in attendance and was fully reported in the local paper.
As almost everyone attending the unveiling had known Col. Hollins, few details of his life were outlined among the many speeches but, over 120 years since his death, the name of his tile company is rather better known than that of the man himself, although he made an important contribution to the industrial, economic and social life of Stoke-on-Trent and the frontage of his factory building still stands.
Michael Daintry Hollins was born in 1815, the fourth son of Thomas Hollins, a Manchester merchant. Hollins qualified as a doctor and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons but never practised. In 1839, at the age of 24, he joined the pottery factory of his maternal uncle, Herbert Minton, and was soon in charge of supervising the manufacturing side of the business. By the early 1840s the production of tiles was becoming an increasingly important part of the Minton company’s output and Hollins became a partner in the new firm of Minton, Hollins & Co., set up solely to produce tiles under the Minton name. Following Herbert Minton’s death in 1858, Hollins and his cousin, Colin Minton Campbell, continued to run the pottery between them until 1868. Following a disagreement between the cousins, Hollins moved tile production to a newly-built factory at Cliffe Vale where production continued until the 1970s.
Hollins was active in local life. He became a Justice of the Peace in 1861 and was Chief Bailiff, (equivalent to a modern mayor) for Stoke-upon-Trent in 1866, as well as serving on Staffordshire County Council for three years and becoming Deputy Lieutenant of Staffordshire. He was chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years and took a leading role in founding the important Staffordshire Potteries Board of Arbitration and Conciliation, serving as President in 1868. One of the causes closest to his heart was the local Volunteer force. He was the first Captain of the Stoke Company in 1859, and subsequently Major of what became the Volunteer Battalion of the 1st Staffordshire Regiment, rising to the position of Colonel, a post he held for 25 years.
Hollins married Elizabeth Mackenzie in 1844 and had nine children. All his sons and one daughter predeceased him. His three unmarried daughters jointly gave the panel to Stoke Museums in memory of their father.