John Ruskin in 1863
The late nineteenth century saw the birth of a new type of pottery - the art pottery. The founders of these potteries were often adherents of the Arts and Crafts movement, and were focused on producing low volume, high quality decorative wares for the luxury market. One such pottery was Ruskin. Edward R. Taylor (the first Principal of both the Lincoln School of Art and the Birmingham School of Art) founded Ruskin Pottery as the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Company in 1898 – placing his son, William Howson Taylor (formally a student at the Birmingham School of Art) as manager. They named the pottery after the artist, writer and influential social thinker John Ruskin; whose principles about beauty and quality they believed in. Edward and William had as their goal ‘good potting, beauty of form and rich or tender colourations’, according to a statement of intent published in the pottery’s 1905 catalogue. Shapes were ‘all made on the potter’s wheel’ and ‘no molding, casting or machine processes’ were to be used in their formation. The pottery’s rich glazes were not to be marred by ‘printing, lithographing or gilding’. The combination of glaze effects and elegance of form achieved by William Howson Taylor and his staff was acknowledged as original and outstandingly good.
The Ruskin pottery was in operation from 1898 until 1935. Very little is known about pottery produced before 1901. Similarly, there is some doubt as to whether any pottery was made after 1933, by which time William Howson Taylor was terminally ill and had begun to wind down the pottery in preparation for its closure. This leaves a period of twenty-two years, which were interrupted by the First World War. Unlike many manufacturers, Ruskin’s strength in the export market meant that they were permitted to continue producing decorative wares during the war. Almost of all of these were exported, meaning that there is a dearth of pieces from this period in the United Kingdom. Taylor favoured shapes with a discernible Chinese influence, a style much in vogue in Britain in the early twentieth century. His primary focus was always on pushing the limits of what he could achieve with glazes.
The glazes developed by the Ruskin Pottery fall into four main types, each of which has a distinctive and quite different appearance.
Soufflé Glazes: The first wares produced by the Ruskin pottery were glazed with soufflé glazes. The name is derived from the French term bleu soufflé and refers to the technique of spraying, or blowing, cobalt blue powder onto the glaze before firing. This technique can be used to generate a variety of mottled glaze effects and Taylor used it to produce soufflé glazes in a wide range of colours.
High-Fired Flambé Glazes: When new, these were the most expensive pieces produced by the pottery and remain their most collectable. The flambé glazes developed by Howson Taylor were true high-temperature glazes in the Oriental tradition. Copper oxides were mixed into the glazes, which were then fired at 1300-1600 degrees Centigrade, using the technique of reduction firing. This approach was highly complex but once mastered, could be used to create fascinating, unique and often unpredictable glaze effects. The principle colours of Taylor’s flambé glazes were red, purple, green and yellow.
Lustre Glazes: Despite being in widespread use by the time that William Howson Taylor developed his range - Taylor’s lustre glazes covered an unusually wide range of colours and had a distinctive appearance. Colours included yellow, blue, orange, green, turquoise and purple.
Crystalline Glazes: By the mid-1920s, Ruskin’s glazes began to appear overly-formal, especially the lustre glazes, which were phased out from 1927. Taylor developed his final range of glazes, the crystalline glazes. These glazes used certain metal oxides to create crystals that were suspended in the glaze, giving a highly decorative effect. Taylor developed three main types of crystalline glaze. In pieces decorated with a macro-crystalline glaze, the crystals suspended in the glaze are large enough to form a key part of the decoration of the ware, and are clearly visible. The other two crystalline glazes, micro-crystalline and aventurine, have much smaller crystals that are submerged within the glaze and only visible at certain points, or in the case of aventurines, in certain light conditions. Both matt and gloss glazes were available, providing a wide range of decorative choices.
Ruskin Pottery example of a souffle glazed vase.
Ruskin Pottery example of a high-fired flambe glazed vase.
Ruskin Pottery was exhibited both in the UK and abroad at international fine art exhibitions – achieving "grand prize" in 1904 at the St Louis International Exhibition, giving them the recognition they needed. Further awards were gained at other international exhibitions, including Milan 1906; Christchurch, New Zealand, 1907; London 1908; Brussels 1910; Turin 1911; and Ghent 1913. When the studio closed in 1935 the formulae for the glazes and all the pottery documentation were deliberately destroyed, so that the unique Ruskin products could never be replicated.