Ruskin Pottery

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2015-06-26 10:46:55

Ruskin pottery is a type of Victorian art pottery.

Edward Richard Taylor – Headmaster at the Birmingham School of Art, where his son, William Howson Taylor also studied – founded the Ruskin Pottery in 1898 on a site in Smethwick, a suburb of Birmingham, UK. He intended for his son William to manage the pottery - William did so officially in 1912.

The pottery was named after prominent Victorian artist and art critic John Ruskin, who tended to emphasise the connections between art, nature and society at large.

Ruskin Pottery experimented with various glazes, producing exciting results. The formulas used to produce the glazes were kept secret, and when William Howsen Taylor died in 1935, the recipes went with him to his grave. An apocryphal story claims that William placed a curse on anyone who used the name Ruskin in relation to pottery.

Ruskin Pottery enjoyed an excellent international reputation, and, taking into account the period in which it operated, was most successful. Ruskin won the "Highest Award Grand Prize" at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibition in St. Louis. Over the years, the pottery received many such awards, both at home and abroad, rivaling such potteries as Rookwood, Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Moorcroft, Minton and others.

The speckled, mottled, lustre and flambé glazes are certainly a mystery to those who try to copy them, and Ruskin pieces are most highly prized by collectors.

Collecting information

With William Howson Taylor at its helm, Ruskin pottery produced a wide range of exquisitely glazed wares, which include moulded and wheel thrown pieces.

The pottery also made tiles, cuff links, studs, scarf pins, hat pins and pendants. As well as the vases and bowls, Ruskin Potteries were also incorporated into fine jewellery and metalware which was produced in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. At the St Louis Centennial exposition in 1904 and also in Milan in 1906, the Ruskin pots began to collect awards and later Liberty's of London became important customers.

The Ruskin Pottery factory employed a small and loyal workforce, many of whom were related to each other and stayed throughout the factory’s fifteen years of production. At weekends there would even be charabanc (coach) outings to the Clent or Walton Hills, with picnics, music and boxes of Brownies.

The workers were encouraged to search the natural world around them for inspiration. You can see evidence of this in the colour scheme of the glazes. For example, a pink hawthorn along with gorse yellows or a harebell blue.

When the men from the pottery factory were conscribed during the First World War, Howson kept their jobs open, presenting each ex-serviceman with a hand-made suit on his return. Howson could well have afforded a Rolls-Royce but chose instead to ride through Smethwick each evening on his bike, delivering his pottery designs to art shops in Birmingham, such as the The Ruskin Gallery on Paradise Street.

Violet Stevens daughter of the head turner William Nixon, who worked as a painter at the Ruskin potteries from 1919 to 1931, talks to Richard Edmonds, a journalist writing a feature on Ruskin Pottery for The Birmingham Post in 1978.

Howson Taylor was…“the most wonderful boss and, in fact, the most wonderful man I have ever known in the whole of my life…he'd always wear a white apron, no matter who the visitor might be. He was best with the work people; with us he was at ease.

In the summer he'd say: 'Vi, are you hot?' I'd say it was terrible in the workshop. 'Then take two flasks,' he'd say, 'Go down to Trow's, fill them up with ice cream and we'll all have some”.

Nothing is now left of the Ruskin pottery itself, except the modern trading estate which replaced it and a cul-de-sac called Ruskin Way.

The Liberty Style

London department store Liberty of London were famously interested in craft and invested heavily in the artisanal production of goods. Purveyors of both pewter and sterling silver objects d’art, Liberty began using enamelled Ruskin plaques in place of semi-precious gem stones in the objects they produced. Compared to gem stones, Ruskin plaques were fairly inexpensive. They were also profoundly beautiful.

Cabochons

A cabochon is a gemstone that has been shaped and polished rather than faceted. The resulting form is usually a convex top with a flat bottom. Ruskin produced enamel cabochons which were used in jewellery manufacture. Ruskin's soufflé glazes, introduced in 1898, came in a wide assortment of exquisite colours, including green, dark blue, turquoise and purple. Their fabulous, high-fired flambé glazes were introduced in 1903, and came in a wide range of beautiful colours.

Ruskin cabochons carry the impressed RUSKIN on the back of each plaque; some include the word ENGLAND; on others, the mark is stamped in black ink and some bear the artist's initials.

Price guide

A large green Ruskin Pottery vase stamped 1918 sold for $160 at Michael Spooner Auctions in August 2012.

A white, purple and turquoise veined Ruskin Pottery vase sold for £960 at Bonhams in December 2006.

A Ruskin Pottery vase with a slender, baluster shaped body sold for £150 at Fellows in December 2012.

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