From Across the Pond
A Ruskin Pottery Collection Lands in Denver
When Carl Patterson crossed the pond to work in London back in the 1980s, he caught the collecting bug. Exploring the city, Patterson spent a great deal of time in the antiques district. There, he found his eye drawn to a line of Arts and Crafts pottery that had a depth of color and incredible effects which looked to be derived from its glazes. He was smitten.
Patterson was working in art conservation at the time and his discovery of Ruskin pottery with its unique glazes piqued his interest as admirerer and scientist. The pieces he encountered showed a depth of craft with splashes of details of crystallization and luster that he wanted to learn more about and find more examples for a personal collection. Slowly and steadily Patterson would pick up a piece here and there as he found them. They tended to be of a size that fit well within his flat and suited his scientific curiosity.
The Ruskin Pottery was founded in 1898 as the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works by Edward R. Taylor (Br., 1838 – 1911), the first Principal of both the Lincoln School of Art and the Birmingham School of Art. His son, William Howson Taylor (Br., 1898 – 1933), a student at the art schools, was named as its manager and took sole ownership upon the death of his father. In 1902, the company changed its name to Ruskin Pottery.
The pottery started in the smaller village of Smethwick, not far from the pottery and ceramic hub of Staffordshire. With great care and study, William Taylor used his experience in ceramics and glazes to push the envelope time and again as he developed a new portfolio of glazes that were experimental from concept to execution. His efforts resulted in four lead-free glazes that became the foundation of their success: souffle, luster, crystalline/matte and high-fired flambé.
William Taylor became a proponent of “high fired” techniques in his famous Red Kiln, resulting in the production of a wide range of colors and a “fissured” effect in the glazes not seen before. With this technique, there were certain misgivings that became inherent – size for one. Taller, thinner pots tended to explode in the kiln, resulting in keeping the range of pottery sizes from about 18-20 inches and smaller.
Glaze samples and glaze tests were sold to Birmingham silversmiths and jewelers who turned the ceramic pieces into jewelry including earrings, brooches, necklaces, belt buckles, etc. Roundels (plaques) were mounted in metalwork by famous factories including Tiffany’s.
As Ruskin products gained in popularity, the Pottery turned to using molds vs. hand-thrown pots, and relying on the Crystalline and heavy Matte glazes that tended to weather the kiln more easily. They also brought in more fashionable colors while adapting with the times and staying true to their principles. During World War I, the sizes of the pottery along with the increased interest in the luster glaze in particular by collectors in the United States, enabled Ruskin to weather the storm of war.
In December, 1933, a notice was posted on the factory wall stating the works would close within one week. As his health started to decline, William Taylor and the employees at Ruskin Pottery agreed to destroy the formulas for the glazes along with any molds and instructions for techniques used during the pottery’s tenure. It was the consensus not to allow any other pottery to create “Ruskin pottery” without the careful oversight and craftsmanship of the company’s founder and employees. William Taylor died in 1935 at the age of 59.
As for its namesake John Ruskin (Br., 1819 – 1900), he has been hailed as the man who influenced the father of the British Arts and Crafts (William Morris, Br., 1834 – 1896) through his intense analysis of the Arts and their relationship to craftsmanship at the end of the Victorian era. In short, allowing the artist (creative) and the craftsman (maker) become one and the same, to work and discover the joy in crafting the vision to fruition. Because Edward and William Taylor took these principles to heart, Ruskin’s views became the founding principles of Ruskin Pottery. Those employed at the pottery participated in its creative and manufacturing techniques to foster an atmosphere of cooperation in all parts of the process. They were well cared for by the Taylors. William Taylor organized outings and held jobs for employees who fought in the First World War.
As an aside, the Ruskin Pottery established its name without being given permission to do so. Shortly after showing their wares at the 1904 St. Louis Exhibition (aka the St. Louis World’s Fair) and winning an award of a “Grand Prize” under the Ruskin name, Ruskin’s cousin and executrix soon gave permission for the pottery to use the Ruskin name.
A Collection That Kept Growing … and Growing
Patterson continued to collect Ruskin pottery while living in London. Over time, he amassed an inventory containing over 200 pieces, and had started collecting other pottery as well. His return to the U.S. involved quite a bit of careful packing!
Carl Patterson worked as the head of conservation at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) as its collector conservator until his retirement; he is now conservator emeritus. Patterson’s collections of pottery and art were known to his colleagues, although not their entire breadth and depth. He offered his collection of Ruskin pottery to the DAM, who seized the opportunity to “collect British art pottery from an important maker that complements other decorative art pieces from the era in the Museum’s permanent collection,” according to Curatorial Assistant of Architecture, Design, and Graphics Kati Woock. “DAM did not have much in the way of British ceramics – receiving this gift made the Museum very strong in this genre very quickly. Art pottery is an important part of design history and now we can give visitors an introduction to the field of British Arts and Crafts pottery with great pieces from one of the most important potters.”
The DAM selected 213 pieces, making their collection the second largest in the world next to the collection at the Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery in Wednesbury, England.
The collection itself offers a diverse selection featuring each of the four types of glazes: soufflé, luster, crystalline/matte, and flambé glazes, which are rare as few of these pieces survived high-temperature firing.
With many thanks to the Denver Art Museum and Curatorial Assistant of Architecture, Design, and Graphics Kati Woock. The Denver Art Museum is located at 100 W 14th Avenue Parkway in Denver, Colorado. To learn more about this exhibit and others, visit denverartmuseum.org.