Frederick H. Rhead's 'Pikesman' Vase
by Martin Eidelberg
It is ironic that one of America’s most important ceramic designers of the early twentieth century was English, yet this is the case. Frederick Hurten Rhead was not only born in England, but also was steeped in that country’s artistic traditions. Like other members of his family, he worked in England’s ceramic industry and was also well-versed in the art of the late Pre-Raphaelites. He was a skilled technician and artist when he arrived in the United States in 1902. Once here, he found employment in a succession of Ohio art potteries including Avon, Weller, and Roseville. As well as constantly creating new designs, he evidently brought a portfolio of his older drawings from England—thus helping to create a bridge between his work on these two continents.
Rhead’s stay at Roseville, from 1904 until 1908, was his longest tenure and while there his fertile mind explored all these different currents of design. As art director he devised several distinctly different lines. Aztec, despite its misleading name, was of highly abstracted motifs. Likewise, Della Robbia referred not to the Madonnas and floral garlands of the Renaissance sculptor but, rather, to the glossy bright glazes that are the essential part of this line. The subjects of this line are mainly floral in nature, although a good number have trees and landscapes.
One of the most striking aspects of the University City vase is its overall piercing...The thin, interwoven branches of the trees form the delicate walls of the vessel. This was made possible because it was a unique work, carved and glazed by Rhead himself, and was the product of intensive labor.
Rhead left Roseville in 1908 and returned to the East Coast, ostensibly to take time off to complete his book on pottery-making. However, his career took a brief detour when he joined forces with his English colleague, William Jervis, at a small pottery in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Remaining there only a year, he was pulled away once again, this time to the pottery and school that Edward G. Lewis was beginning in University City, outside of St. Louis. Although this experience would also prove to be of very short duration, it was an important one in Rhead’s itinerant career. Lured by the promise of a large salary, he was to join two of the age’s most prominent ceramists, French-born Taxile Doat and Adelaide Alsop Robineau of Syracuse, New York. Rhead was already acquainted with the Robineaus, having frequently published in their magazine, Keramic Studio. According to the terms of their employment, Doat and Mrs. Robineau had no obligations other than create masterpieces, and Lewis had the privilege to keep their creations. Rhead had to devote half his time to teaching, but the other half was also to be devoted to perfecting his art and creating chefs d’oeuvre.
An exceptional vessel that Rhead created while at University City is the present vase depicting a late medieval warrior in full armor, a helmeted pikesman. While not truly a part of the American heritage, such warriors were a quintessential part of British history. Arthurian myths and ruined castles were a natural part of English culture. William Morris’ books and Walter Crane’s illustrations are vivid reminders of how current such medieval references still were, even in late nineteenth-century industrial England.
The University City vase has a fascinating pre-history. Some five or six years earlier, Rhead had designed a closely related vase for Roseville’s Della Robbia line. Whereas most of that line featured decoration of flowers and landscapes, one of them depicted six pikesmen, just as on the University City vase. The details of the armor, the drapery, and the facial features are essentially the same. Despite the obvious similarities, there are significant differences. Although both vessels have ovoid bodies, the Roseville version is slightly taller because it is footed and tapers upward into a small opening, while the University City vase is an open, bowl-like form, a necessary shape to afford access to the interior while working the openwork decoration. The Roseville vase has an intricate landscape of trees with green leaves and yellow fruits or flowers, and a decorative border of leaves and triangles at the bottom and at the top, none of which was retained in the University City reworking of the design. This omission explains the difference in the heights of the two models. The Della Robbia vase exhibits a slight fussiness in rendering the soldiers‘ chain mail cape and the highlights at his knees and torso, whereas the University City vase is simpler and, in this sense, has a more modern approach to design.
An interesting question is how Rhead was able to repeat the design of the warrior, not merely from one soldier to the next but also from one pottery to the other. He apparently relied on a master drawing which was transferred via what he termed "a copying ink stencil", probably a mimeograph-like process. Evidence of his working method and his reliance on a portfolio of drawings is seen in a series of designs he published in Keramic Studio. One of the drawings, a humorous image of turtles that illustrates a tongue twister, was a design he had made while still working in England and which he was again offering while in Ohio.
Indeed, Rhead’s design for the Pikesman vase may also have originated earlier in his career, perhaps while still in England. Certainly it is close in spirit and style to a drawing by his uncle, Frederick Rhead, for a deluxe edition of Pilgrim’s Progress, a publication which also featured illustrations by two other members of his talented family: George Wooliscroft and Louis Rhead. As is readily visible, not only is the incisive draftsmanship of the warrior similar, but also the delineation of the trees and its fruits is remarkably analogous. This is not to claim that the designs on Frederick Hurten Rhead’s two vases was based directly on this one image, rather, it suggests how the style and subject matter crossed the Atlantic.
One of the most striking aspects of the University City vase is its overall piercing. Whereas the Della Robbia version is a solid form, the upper half of the University City vase is entirely pierced. The thin, interwoven branches of the trees form the delicate walls of the vessel. This was made possible because it was a unique work, carved and glazed by Rhead himself, and was the product of intensive labor. In contrast to the Della Robbia vase, which was only one of a series of the same design, in which the cast form was carved in shallow intaglio relief, the University City vase was a thrown form that has been carved away. It is a triumph of perforation—a very delicate process since the slightest undue pressure could cause the whole of the vase to collapse, especially as work progressed and the walls became more vulnerable to collapse. Days of work could be destroyed, and one would have to begin completely over again.
One may well wonder if the Pikesman vase might not be Rhead’s response to Doat’s and Robineau’s perforated work. The University City trio of Doat, Robineau, and Rhead were a tightly knit group who drew inspiration from each other.
Why then did Rhead undertake such precarious work? As Samuel Robineau explained, Lewis wanted them to make masterpieces, disregarding considerations of time and difficulty. He wanted to exhibit them in a museum of ceramics that he was planning (but never built). Although an extremely skilled and proficient ceramist, Rhead had rarely designed ceramics that were pierced. Likewise while Rhead’s published lessons on pottery-making discussed various techniques such as carving and raised line work, he did not discuss openwork designs. Here almost half the upper portion of the body has been cutaway. A few of the Della Robbia vases have perforated slits around the neck, but none of those designs prepare us for Rhead's Pikesman vase, a masterpiece of pierced decoration.
Even if Rhead himself did not normally practice openwork, this technique was a major aspect of ceramic design around 1900, both in Europe and the United States. Two of its most skilled practitioners were Effie Hegermann-Lindencrone and Fanny Garde of the Danish firm of Bing & Grøndahl. Their vases are intricately pierced and perforated, the ceramic body a very thin porcelain, resulting in delicate, fragile work—confections that defy the odds. Such work not only was applauded on both sides of the Atlantic but also had an impact on American ceramics. The most immediate effect was in Cincinnati, in the Losanti porcelain of M. Louise McLaughlin. Despite technical challenges, she skillfully integrated piercing into her designs. Piercing was also employed with great success by the Rookwood Pottery, especially for their “Z” line of painted matt glazes where although the perforations are significant, the solidity of the vase is not challenged.
The artistic possibilities of pierced ceramics was explored with great daring at University City. Taxile Doat made some astounding works in this genre, using thin, eggshell porcelain forms that he perforated with all-over patterns. While Doat’s designs are disappointingly conservative and old-fashioned, his expertise in handling the material is beyond reproach. The other great champion of such exacting work was Adelaide Alsop Robineau. By 1905 she had mastered the art of openwork designs as in her Viking Vase, whose base was rendered in an openwork design of Viking ships. The most famous of Robineau’s excised porcelains is the unrivaled Scarab vase which took 1,000 hours to carve, and represents the acme of her endeavors. The sides, base, and lid are carved with a delicate pattern of scarabs, much of it with the ground excised away. The crown jewel of her career, it was carefully positioned literally at the pinnacle of her display at the International Exposition of Decorative Art at Turin in 1911.
One may well wonder if the Pikesman vase might not be Rhead’s response to Doat’s and Robineau’s perforated work. The University City trio of Doat, Robineau, and Rhead were a tightly knit group who drew inspiration from each other. Just as Robineau was inspired by Doat’s example to try her hand at working in pâte-sur-pâte, so too Rhead, after viewing his colleagues’ great success in this technique, may have been stimulated to experiment with his own daring tour-de-force of piercing.