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ANTIQUES & COLLECTING: The artists who potted beauty in an 'ugly' world; Sally Hoban investigates the work of one of the Midlands most renowned potteries.

Byline: Sally Hoban

Did you know that one of the most important and innovative art potteries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was situated just outside Birmingham?

Named after great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, the factory was in operation from 1898-1934 and its beautiful pottery is now increasingly sought after.

William Howson Taylor, the founder of the Ruskin Pottery, was born in 1876 and educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham.

After further training at the city's School of Art, he discovered the secret glazing techniques that would one day place his work in the foreground of world ceramics.

Many of his early experiments with pottery were inspired by ancient Chinese ceramics and their fantastic, vividly coloured glazes.

In 1898 Howson Taylor opened the Birmingham Tile and Pottery works in Smethwick, aiming to produce handmade, beautiful pottery - an idea embedded in the English Arts and Crafts Movement of the time.

John Ruskin's seminal book The Stones of Venice, published in 1851-53, praised the artist designers of the past, particularly the Venetian stonemasons who had carried out fantastic decorative work on buildings by hand.

Ruskin's book was read by designer William Morris and artist Edward Burne-Jones and their passion fuelled the Arts and Crafts movement.

This called for a return to hand craftsmanship over mass production, which they believed was destroying individuality in art and design.

Both Morris and Burne-Jones gave lectures at The Birmingham School of Art, so it's probable that he was familiar with their teachings from an early age.

William Morris thought the modern Victorian world was growing "uglier every day", and tried through his own efforts as a designer to restore beauty to everyday life.

He opened a shop in London called Morris and Co with Burne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the designer Phillip Webb, which sold their own hand-made furniture, textiles, wallpaper and stained glass.

Inspired by this example, groups of designers across the country, including Howson Taylor in Smethwick and Charles Robert Ashbee in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, set up their own guilds of craftsmen and small factories to practice the Arts and Crafts philosophy.

The year 1904 bought a change of name to the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works. In the same year, the newly titled Ruskin Pottery received a Grand Prize from the St Louis International Exhibition - a coveted award in the decorative arts market.

Further success came after this, with similar prizes in Milan, London and Brussels.

This honour led to worldwide recognition for the small factory. Markets included Tiffany's in New York and Liberty's in London and even King George V and Queen Mary purchased Ruskin wares. The work of Howson Taylor was acclaimed in the British press and art journals, an impressive achievement for a small Midlands firm.

Production continued throughout the First World War and eventually ceased in 1934. Howson Taylor, who had always been a secretive man, died in 1935, destroying all records of his secret glazing formulae.

Three main types of stoneware pottery were produced at the factory SoufflA Ware possessed a single col-oured mottled or clouded glaze, with shading ranging from dark blues and greens to turquoise and purple. n Lustre Ware had a range of glazes, the commonest being yellow, orange and Kingfisher blue. Both SoufflA and Lustre wares were fired at low temperatures.

n FlambA ware was the most important pottery made at the Ruskin factory. After the secret glaze had been applied, pieces were fired at temperatures of about 1,500 degrees. Each firing produced a unique, unrepeatable result - even Howson Taylor himself couldn't predict how a piece would turn out.

High fired wares were predominately reds and pinks, with beautiful black and green speckles.

Larger pieces of flambA ware such as vases and bowls were sold with accompanying pottery stands in the same glaze and these examples are particularly collectable. High fired ware is the most sought after Ruskin today.

The 1920s saw the introduction of cheaper, moulded ware - the nearest to mass production that Howson Taylor would allow. Matt and Crystalline glazes also came in at this time, the latter producing an effect similar to frost on a window on top of the coloured glaze.

The output of the Ruskin factory varied from vases, bowls and lamp bases to buttons, doorknobs and hatpins.

Ruskin roundels - flat discs of pottery glazed and fired - were set into pewter or silver brooches.

These are fairly easy to find at antique fairs and are a good investment with which to begin a collection.

Ruskin wares can be identified by their characteristic colours and glazes, and by the marks RUSKIN ENGLAND or the much rarer WHT monogram.

Prices range from around pounds 40 for a pewter brooch and pounds 200 for a small, moulded lustre ware vase, to thousands of pounds for the larger and more unusual flambA wares.

The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery houses a large collection of Ruskin pottery and pieces can be found at local antique fairs and auctions.

The Ruskin Pottery marked an important contribution to Britain's ceramic industry and the way in which Howson Taylor made this distinctive pottery remains a mystery.

But sadly, the Ruskin pottery is no longer standing.

It was demolished to make way for a trading estate named Ruskin Place


Increasingly sought after, Ruskin Pottery is highly collectable and can range in price from pounds 200 for a small, moulded lustre ware vase, to thousand of pounds for the more unusual flambA wares
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 5, 2005
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