David Rago on Rhead in California and the Present Lot
Rhead worked at different factories and studios across America, but when he finally reached California, the quiet and beauty of the western desert had a great impact on his art. The California landscape on this tile, mimicking the mark he used on his work while at Arequipa, is a beautiful expression of his squeeze-bag, or slip trail, technique. The flat surface allowed him to produce a vignette that was fully visible from one angle, as opposed to the landscapes he more frequently rendered in the round on vases. Decorated tiles from Arequipa are extremely rare, and this is the best such example extant.
Any history of American ceramics would be woefully incomplete without mention of English potter, designer, decorator, teacher, and author Frederick Hurten Rhead. Born in England in 1880, he hailed from a long line of Staffordshire potters that extended back to the eighteenth century. Rhead trained in ceramic techniques and ceramic history and was a voracious reader who continuously kept abreast of developments in the field. During his formative years at English potteries he learned the difficult “squeeze-bag” technique—the careful squeezing of clay through a tube onto ceramic wares—which he would carry with him through his entire career.
Rhead immigrated to the United States in 1902 and took up his first position as manager of artistic wares at Avon Faience Company in Ohio. It was there that he first introduced the squeeze-bag technique to the American ceramic vernacular, teaching it to the decorators who would then apply his designs to the pottery. Though his designs were received favorably, Avon’s art pottery efforts did not last long and Rhead departed in 1904 for Ohio-based Weller Pottery. He stayed at Weller for less than a year but developed three unique new lines that incorporated elements of other styles he saw at rival potteries. One of the enduring hallmarks of Rhead’s career, in fact, was his ability to not only remain informed on emerging techniques and trends, but to synthesize them into his own unique visual vocabulary.
Rhead departed Weller to serve as art director for nearby Roseville Pottery in 1904, where he would remain for four years. While at Roseville he continued pursuing squeeze-bag decoration but also explored new decorations and introduced many novel shapes for vessels. Perhaps his greatest triumph at Roseville, and one that is highly desired by collectors today, was the Della Robbia line. Named for Renaissance ceramist and sculptor Luca della Robbia, it was a time-consuming and eye-catching technique involving multiple castings, carving, and the careful application of as many as five different colored glazes. The technique was so difficult, and the designs so complex, for Roseville’s decorators that Rhead had to train local female art students from scratch; many extant pieces bear the initials of these unidentified decorators, a common occurrence at other potteries and in keeping with the Arts and Crafts movement’s appreciation of every hand, from designer to decorator.
In 1908, Rhead left Roseville in need of a respite from the enormous demands of working for such large-scale commercial enterprises. He joined his friend and colleague, William Jervis, at Jervis’ modest pottery in Oyster Bay, New York, where he spent about a year creating diminutive pots, exploring and perfecting the many techniques and styles he had learned to that point in a wide range of motifs from conventionalized flora to geometricized landscapes. During this relative lull in his career he finally found time to write, and in 1909 published an important study on matte glazes for the American Ceramic Society.
That same year, he accepted Edward G. Lewis’ invitation to join his educational project at University City near St. Louis, Missouri. Rhead joined fellow masters Taxile Doat and Adelaide Robineau, among others, in their quest to create the best art pottery in the world. Unlike his colleagues, however, Rhead was also responsible for teaching classes and correspondence courses at Lewis’ school in addition to writing a manual entitled Studio Pottery, which was published by Lewis’ People’s University Press in 1910. The University City period was brief but tremendously fertile, and his output from that time is considered to be some of the most important and artistic pottery ever produced in the United States.
Rhead and his wife, Agnes, departed Missouri in early 1911 and traveled west to California, where he embarked on a lecture tour. While in San Francisco he met a doctor, Philip Brown, who had recently opened a sanatorium in Fairfax for female tuberculosis patients. Brown hired Rhead to manage the pottery there, dubbed Arequipa after the Peruvian word for “place of rest,” where recovering women pursued ceramics as a therapeutic activity. Rhead’s designs at Arequipa tended toward more simple squeeze-bag or modeled motifs that could be easily duplicated by the patients. Over time, Rhead’s desire to establish a more commercial venture caused tensions with Brown, and Rhead was forced to resign in 1913.
He and his wife remained in California and by early 1914 they established their own small art pottery in Santa Barbara: Rhead Pottery. For the first time in his career Rhead was free to do as he wished. Though he continued to use the squeeze-bag technique and his designs still reflected an English influence, he also dabbled in California-inspired decoration and even Asian-style shapes and glazes. His experiments were a success, receiving a gold medal at the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. His newfound achievements coincided with personal and professional turmoil. In 1916 he and Agnes divorced, and less than a year later he married his assistant, Lois Whitcomb. General economic decline as a result of World War I took its toll on many independent potteries, including Rhead’s; he closed his pottery in 1917.
Returning to familiar ground in Ohio, Rhead first landed at American Encaustic Tile Company, one of the oldest and most successful ceramic companies in the country. He was employed for a decade as a research director, chemist, and designer. For his final career move, Rhead accepted a position at Homer Laughlin Company, also in Ohio. It was the single biggest global producer of dinnerware and Rhead remained there for fifteen years until his death in 1942. In yet another deft display of his ability to adapt to stylistic changes, he designed the sleek and colorful Art Deco-style Fiesta dinnerware line in 1935. It was by far his most famous design and is still in production to the present day, earning him the distinction of being perhaps the only studio potter to successfully navigate the transition between the Arts and Crafts and Modern movements.
In addition to being a tireless designer and potter, Rhead was a generous and collaborative teacher, author, and colleague. He submitted countless lessons, articles, and a monthly column to Keramic Studio; wrote Studio Pottery (1910); and even published his own short-lived journal, The Potter. He also maintained a long-term professional relationship with Adelaide Robineau, supplying her with glaze formulas and answering technical questions; their correspondence continued until 1928, the year before Robineau’s death. Additionally, during his stint at American Encaustic, he organized the first American Ceramic Society Ceramic Display at their 1922 convention.
Rhead was one of the most diverse and influential ceramists of the twentieth century and his works can be found in countless private and public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.