Frederick H. Rhead at Arequipa

by David Rago

I’ve long contended that Frederick H. Rhead was one of the three most important decorative ceramists of the Arts and Crafts Movement in America, on par with George Ohr and Adelaide Robineau. He matters as much for how he defined the era through his travels, various affiliations, and ability to both retain and adapt his art, as for the finished work itself. Starting in England as a teenage wunderkind at the Wardle Pottery in Staffordshire in 1899, he found his way to America at the age of 22 and began his perambulations through much of the country over a thirty-plus year span. Rhead designed and worked at no fewer than ten different pottery companies, including smaller studios like University City in St. Louis, to larger establishments such as Roseville and Homer Laughlin Pottery, both in Ohio (he created Fiesta Ware at the latter). Rhead’s roles varied, from head designer to head decorator and, at a select few, he was the only professional decorator. He incorporated what he learned in England into designs and techniques he developed along the way.  

Frederick H. Rhead in his studio at Arequipa c. 1912

Arequipa Pottery was a far-flung venture of Rhead’s, as he moved from the metropolis of St. Louis (when the University City studio was shut down) to take on a job at a sanitarium in the California desert at Fairfax in 1912. The pretext there, perhaps fueled by the idealism of an Arts and Crafts era artist, was similar to that of the Marblehead Pottery in Marblehead, Massachusetts: treat and teach patients to work with their hands and relax into the creative process, resulting in positive results on their health and well-being. This was bedrock Arts and Crafts ideology made physical, and Rhead hoped this artwork could be sold to make the venture self-sufficient. Unlike at Marblehead, this proved untenable and Rhead’s time in Fairfax was limited to a little more than two years. Much of the ceramic art made by the patients at Arequipa were the undistinguished projects of neophytes. But when Rhead saw a pot through from start to finish, which was a rare event for a man who spent most of his time there as an instructor, magic often happened.

This vase, with its entire surface decorated in five glaze colors, is one of the best examples extant.

The present lot is one such piece, fully executed by the master, and recently discovered in a private California collection. The scale employed at Arequipa was small (which seemed to be the case with most California studios of the pre-WWI era), and at seven and a half inches tall this is among the largest of his decorated pieces to have survived. Rhead was often spare with his decoration both in technique (squeezebag, or slip trail, as a baker would decorate a cake), and surface, with designs usually restricted to the upper third of his finished work. Further, seldom are there examples where more than perhaps three colors were employed. This vase, with its entire surface decorated in five glaze colors, is one of the best examples extant. And unlike his previous stint at University City, in a state-of-the-art studio where he was one of many geniuses (Adelaide Robineau and Taxile Doat, among others), this arabesque vase was created in the company of his life partner Lois with relatively modest equipment, involving decorative techniques on which even the best of kilns could wreak havoc. It fired perfectly, and remains in the same unblemished condition as when it left the kiln.

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.

Auction Results Frederick Hurten Rhead