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.
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.