Before George Ohr made a splash with his eccentric thin-walled and vividly hued vessels, Hugh C. Robertson was America’s first true “art potter”. He and other members of the Robertson clan founded Chelsea, Massachusetts-based Chelsea Keramic Art Works in the early 1870s and, like many contemporary potteries, started out producing a mix of both utilitarian and art wares. One of their early specialties was reproducing Greek pottery, but thanks to Hugh’s interest in other subjects and the diversity of artists they hired (chief among them Canadian-born George Fenety), their wares grew to be more eclectic by the late 1870s. Their creations were remarkably varied and included English Reform, Aesthetic Movement, barbotine, naturalistic high relief designs, hammered metal texture, and even copies of contemporary illustrations and paintings. Where Robertson truly excelled, however, and what took on a dominant role in his career, was his exploration of glazes.
Robertson became enamored with Asian ceramics, as so many of his contemporaries did, thanks to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition catalog, which had dedicated multiple pages to Japanese and Chinese porcelains and glazes. During the 1880s he focused increasingly on experimenting with new glazes and clay bodies, and became particularly obsessed with replicating the extremely temperamental and highly coveted sang-de-boeuf, or oxblood, glaze. In 1885 he was the first American to successfully recreate the oxblood glaze, just around the same time as his contemporary in France, Ernest Chaplet. He was justifiably proud of his accomplishment and gave names to the many variations, such as Dragon’s Blood, Sang de Chelsea, Robertson’s Blood, Orange Peel Blood, and Ruby Pigeon Feather. Robertson also pioneered a white crackleware glaze that was also inspired by Eastern examples, and which he would often enhance with cobalt blue decoration. Artistic triumph did not, sadly, equate to financial triumph, and he was forced to close the pottery in 1889. Contributing to the closure was the death of his father, James Robertson, in 1880 and, more significantly, the departure of his brother, Alexander, to California in 1884.
After several years spent obtaining new financial backing and reopening his pottery as Chelsea Pottery U.S., he moved the operation to Dedham, just southwest of Boston. It was farther away from the common flooding that beset his old location and conveniently close to white clay beds. He reopened as Dedham Pottery in 1896 and, forbidden by his investors to work on costly experimental glazes, primarily produced crackle glazed tableware with decorative blue patterns that had been established at Chelsea. In spite of their warnings, Robertson continued his pursuit of new and unique glazes. Unlike the more elegant and Chinese-inspired forms at Chelsea, the vessels at Dedham were thicker, heavier, and simple, allowing glazes to take center stage. The variety he achieved is extraordinary and many colors and textures were created by accident, a byproduct of the experimental nature of his work. He also experimented with painting glaze on glaze and no two were alike. Some even emerged from the kiln with heavily cratered, lava-like surfaces, and it is not uncommon to see a medley of colors on a single vase.
As is the case with so many artists who push boundaries, Robertson’s bold glazes shocked and surprised many viewers. They were also met at times with fervent support, perhaps none more so than from Charles Fergus Binns, who wrote favorably about them in 1903. Robertson’s crackle ware and flowing glazes also won medals at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, but his pottery received little public fanfare and was often overshadowed by larger potteries like Grueby and Rookwood.
Tragically, Robertson died of lead poisoning in 1908. Dedham Pottery continued on, managed by his son, producing only dinnerware and remaining commercially profitable for several decades until being forced to close in 1943 due to World War II. Hugh C. Robertson’s legacy as an innovative art potter lives on in public and private collections, most notably a magnificent selection of his experimental works at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from the collection of Robert A. Ellison.
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