Niloak Pottery

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2015-06-26 10:42:14

Niloak pottery is a line of pottery that was produced by the Eagle Pottery Company (Benton, Arkansas, USA). The Eagle Pottery Company was founded by Charles Deann Hyten and his brothers during the 1890s. By 1904, the Eagle Pottery Company was the largest pottery manufacturer in the Benton region, producing a plethora of art pottery wares. Eagle id best known for its distinctive swirl wares - formed using a combination-clay formula.

Background

Eagle Pottery Company

Niloak is a popular American art pottery that was created in Benton (Saline County) from 1909 until 1946 by the Eagle Pottery Company. Niloak is best known for its unique Mission-swirl design, but the company also produced two other lines in subsequent years: Hywood Art Pottery and the Hywood by Niloak.

The name “Niloak” is the word “kaolin” spelled backward. Kaolin is a type of soft, white fine-grade clay found near Benton, which was used in the production of the pottery's wares. Samples of kaolin were first sent to Europe by a French Jesuit missionary in around 1700 as examples of the materials used by the Chinese in the manufacture of fine porcelain.

Niloak was the creation of Benton boy Charles Dean “Bullet” Hyten and an Ohio potter named Arthur Dovey.

Hyten was raised in the pottery business, taking over his stepfather's Benton pottery in partnership with his brothers, Paul and Lee, in 1895. The Hyten Brothers' pottery produced a small variety of wares, including crocks, jugs and churns. In 1901, Paul and Lee left the pottery and Charles formed a partnership with Alfred Warren. The pair renamed the pottery Eagle Pottery Company yet continued to produce fairly bog-standard utilitarian items.

Having trained at Rookwood, newly appointed art director, Dovey, possessed considerable skill as a potter. Together, Dovey and Hyten began production of Eagle Pottery’s Niloak Missionware line, mixing coloured clays in order to achieve a swirling pattern (not unlike the surface of Saturn). Although Eagle was not the creator of this concept - it is thought that potter Fred Johnson brought the technique with him from Ouachita - they became its most famous exponent.

Whoever its inventor, the resulting product was an overwhelming commercial success, although not without complications. Perfecting the process of creating swirled pottery took over a year and it was not until March 1910 that the first pieces of Niloak was introduced onto the market.

In July 1911, several Benton businessmen joined the Eagle Pottery Company in order to produce the popular line in greater quantities, and, by 1915, the physical plant on Pearl Street in Benton had been expanded to cover two floors. Eagle Pottery continued to produce its more utilitarian line of churns, crocks, and bowls until 1938.

Niloak and mass production

For unknown reasons, the company fell on hard times and was dissolved in 1918.

However, by 1921, Niloak was back in operation, this time the product offering had moved away from a purely art pottery line to include a large line of utilitarian, floral, and giftable items.

Niloak entered its most prosperous times during the 1920s, with a large part of its success coming from the company’s association with Arkansas boosterism. The Arkansas Advancement Association had launched a massive campaign to promote the state’s economic benefits to the rest of the nation, and Niloak played a prominent role in that endeavor. The quick pace of growth forced the company to move its production from individual potters to a more standardized form just to keep up with demand.

With the Great Depression came a slump in sales. As all but the extravagantly wealthy cut back, Hyten attempted to reposition the firm's missionwares as a non-luxury item. 1931 marked the beginning of a new phase in which the Hywood Art Pottery line was introduced. Hywood was created as a budget-conscious line - it was highly functional, and, Hyten hoped, accessible to a larger number of buyers. Ceramist Stoin M Stoin was employed in order to oversee the production of the Hywood Art Pottery line.

A fire at the plant in March 1932, followed by Stoin’s departure also in 1932, set the company back, but Hyten hired a new ceramist, Howard Lewis, who developed new glazes and techniques. In order to capitalize on the Niloak name, the line was changed to Hywood by Niloak. In the summer of 1932, Hyten hired ceramist Rudy Ganz to develop moulds to move the company into the castware business.

Unfortunately, the company could not weather the damage brought on by the Great Depression, and a group of Little Rock businessmen led by Hardy Lathan Winburn III purchased the company in 1934. Winburn’s business knowledge brought the company out of peril, as he streamlined production and improved marketing, but business was down by 1941. Winburn competed for government contracts, and the company began producing items such as porcelain electrical conductors. By the summer of 1942, Niloak was largely involved with war production. In the final two years of the war, the company produced over a million clay pigeons a month for the military. With the end of the war, military contracts ended, and the company reentered the castware business again, but slumping sales called for a new direction. In the fall of 1947, the Niloak Pottery Company was dissolved, and the Winburn Tile Company was born. Winburn went out of business in 2001.

Collecting information

Condition, age and rarity are the holy trinity in terms of collectibles: if an item is in good condition, appears to be old, and is scare to the market, it is likely to be valuable. The ability to gauge whether a piece of pottery possesses any or all of these qualities comes through education and experience.

Read books, talk to dealers, and handle as many Eagle wares as you can before you begin purchasing pottery. Familiarize yourself not only with the appearance of the ware (appearances can be deceptive) but with its weight, and the many backstamps used by the pottery.

Pottery manufacturers usually stamp their products with both name and location. Contemporary potters and students often (but not always) sign their work or use a potter's mark, an impressed symbol, in lieu of a signature. However, a lot of potters from the 1800s and before did not, and a lot of contemporary potters don't either.

When you consider the many of potters and pottery students at work currently, and the thousands and thousands who have created pots in the past, it becomes an impossible task to catalogue who made each of the pots produced.

It is important, therefore, to get and record as much information as possible when buying the pot: try to find out who made it, when, where, clay body and glazes, and any other information from the dealer. This is known as "provenance" and, if verifiable, positively impacts the price of any piece.

The company was in business from 1909 to 1946. The salient feature of Niloak was its "Mission Swirl," developed by Hyten. The swirl is a multi-coloured pattern using different clays and resembling marbled paper or the swirling surface of a planet. Niloak's Mission Swirl was usually of red, tan, blue and brown in a counter-clockwise direction. Other colour varieties tend to be more collectible as they are much rarer.

The factory that made Niloak pottery was also responsible for other collectible lines such as various stoneware pieces featuring the M. Eagle Pottery brand mark.

Price guide

A lot of eight Niloak Missionware vases brought $850 at a September 2008 Rago Arts sale of Craftsman Auctions & Early 20th Century Design.

A Niloak Missionware spherical vase of brown, blue-gray, ivory and terra cotta clays sold for $350 at a Craftsman Auction held by David Rago & Jerry Cohen in January 2004.

This 6-inch wide by 3-inch deep by 2-inch high Niloak bulldog planter brought $35 at a May 2010 sale by Four Seasons Auction Gallery.

Niloak Missionware handled vessel measures 2 1/4 inches high and brought $375 at an auction held of 20th century art and design by Treadway Gallery in September 2006.

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