Frederick Hurten Rhead 1880–1942
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.