Weekend: Antiques and Collecting - Glory of the Ruskin Glaze; Richard Edmonds on the Enduring Legacy of a Family Pottery Business
Christie's South Kensington will be selling some fine pieces of Ruskin Pottery on Tuesday in a Decorative Arts sale, which includes colourful 30s work by Clarice Cliff (plates, jugs, sugar sifters - all doing well these days) along with Carlton Ware and Wedgwood items especially 'Fairyland' lustre vases now fetching around the pounds 2,000 mark.
But Ruskin pottery is a perennial favourite and the sumptuous glazes which were achieved never cease to amaze me and they are displayed so temptingly in Christie's catalogue.
Overall, Ruskin pottery tends to fit into the Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired some astonishing pieces in its heyday from potters, silversmiths, printers and weavers all working in the applied arts field.
Some practitioners moved away from the grime of the factories into rural solitude attempting to revive the high ideals of medieval craftsmen. Such a one was C R Ashbee, who set up workshops in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. Another fugitive from mechanised production line practices was Howson Taylor who developed the glory of Ruskin pottery glazes in that least promising of Birmingham areas - Smethwick, a place which, over the years, he declined to leave.
The Ruskin Pottery was set up initially in Oldbury Road in 1898 by Edward Taylor, Howson's father and headmaster of Birmingham School of Art. The factory was known originally as the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works, eventually acknowledging the influence of John Ruskin, the 19th-century painter and philosopher from whom it took its name.
Edward Taylor was the first headmaster of the country's first municipal art school, arriving in Birmingham in 1877 to take over a building designed by a Ruskin disciple, John Henry Chamberlain. It quickly became a centre where arts and crafts flourished among a gifted student body, among them Arthur and Georgie Gaskin (painting and jewellery) and Sidney Meteyard (fine painting).
Apparently, Taylor senior invested around pounds 10,000 of inherited money into the fledgling pottery business. But its finances have always remained a mystery since most of the paperwork has vanished although the formulae used in the development of the high-fired glazes was actually burned by Howson Taylor just before his death in 1935.
The inspiration at the Ruskin pottery was always Chinese pottery from the 12th-19th centuries, particularly the blood red glazes, much admired in Europe during the 19th century and themselves the inspiration for the Doulton sealing wax red glazes and the art pottery of Charles Noke.
Howson Taylor, a genius however you look at it, was intent upon unravelling the mysteries of the celebrated Chinese glazes. The extent to which he was successful is borne out by the wonderful colours which glisten with an almost barbaric splendour on the major pieces shown in Christie's catalogue.
These stunning glazes remain a mystery, how he produced them we shall now never know since everything was lost at his death and the pottery ceased manufacture in 1935. None of his workers subsequently betrayed their employers' confidence which shows the rapport which had been built up between the workforce and their boss in the best tradition of William Morris and, of course, Ruskin himself.
Thirty people were employed by the Ruskin pottery during its 37-year history, with never more than 16 in employment at any one time. …