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Weekend: Antiques and collecting - Glory of the Ruskin glaze; Richard Edmonds on the enduring legacy of a family pottery business.

Christie's South Kensington will be selling some fine pieces of Ruskin Pottery on Tuesday in a Decorative Arts sale, which includes colourful 30s work by Clarice Cliff (plates, jugs, sugar sifters - all doing well these days) along with Carlton Ware and Wedgwood items especially 'Fairyland' lustre vases now fetching around the pounds 2,000 mark.

But Ruskin pottery is a perennial favourite and the sumptuous glazes which were achieved never cease to amaze me and they are displayed so temptingly in Christie's catalogue.

Overall, Ruskin pottery tends to fit into the Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired some astonishing pieces in its heyday from potters, silversmiths, printers and weavers all working in the applied arts field.

Some practitioners moved away from the grime of the factories into rural solitude attempting to revive the high ideals of medieval craftsmen. Such a one was C R Ashbee, who set up workshops in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. Another fugitive from mechanised production line practices was Howson Taylor who developed the glory of Ruskin pottery glazes in that least promising of Birmingham areas - Smethwick, a place which, over the years, he declined to leave.

The Ruskin Pottery was set up initially in Oldbury Road in 1898 by Edward Taylor, Howson's father and headmaster of Birmingham School of Art. The factory was known originally as the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works, eventually acknowledging the influence of John Ruskin, the 19th-century painter and philosopher from whom it took its name.

Edward Taylor was the first headmaster of the country's first municipal art school, arriving in Birmingham in 1877 to take over a building designed by a Ruskin disciple, John Henry Chamberlain. It quickly became a centre where arts and crafts flourished among a gifted student body, among them Arthur and Georgie Gaskin (painting and jewellery) and Sidney Meteyard (fine painting).

Apparently, Taylor senior invested around pounds 10,000 of inherited money into the fledgling pottery business. But its finances have always remained a mystery since most of the paperwork has vanished although the formulae used in the development of the high-fired glazes was actually burned by Howson Taylor just before his death in 1935.

The inspiration at the Ruskin pottery was always Chinese pottery from the 12th-19th centuries, particularly the blood red glazes, much admired in Europe during the 19th century and themselves the inspiration for the Doulton sealing wax red glazes and the art pottery of Charles Noke.

Howson Taylor, a genius however you look at it, was intent upon unravelling the mysteries of the celebrated Chinese glazes. The extent to which he was successful is borne out by the wonderful colours which glisten with an almost barbaric splendour on the major pieces shown in Christie's catalogue.

These stunning glazes remain a mystery, how he produced them we shall now never know since everything was lost at his death and the pottery ceased manufacture in 1935. None of his workers subsequently betrayed their employers' confidence which shows the rapport which had been built up between the workforce and their boss in the best tradition of William Morris and, of course, Ruskin himself.

Thirty people were employed by the Ruskin pottery during its 37-year history, with never more than 16 in employment at any one time. It was rather like a large family with Howson Taylor as the father figure. At weekends there would be charabanc (coach) outings to the Clent or Walton Hills, with picnics, music and box Brownies.

The workers were encouraged to search the natural world around them for inspiration. It means that you have the colours of pink hawthorn in some of the glazes along with gorse yellows or a wonderful harebell blue. I have also seen glazes which suggest sloughed snake skins and the most beautiful purples, reminiscent of late afternoon light, on Ruskin eggshell bowls, almost too delicate to handle.

When the men from the pottery joined up during the First World War, Howson kept their jobs open, presenting each exserviceman with a hand-made suit on his return. Taylor could well have afforded a Rolls-Royce but chose instead to ride through Smethwick each evening on his bike, delivering this most beautiful pottery to art shops in Birmingham.

One of them was The Ruskin Gallery in Paradise Street where Howson Taylor's work was displayed on tall plinths among fine watercolours by the owner, Constance Thomson, who eventually carried some Ruskin high-fired pieces with her when she moved The Ruskin Gallery to Stratfordupon-Avon, and that is where I was taught to appreciate their beauty.

In 1978 Violet Stevens, daughter of the head turner William Nixon, who worked as a painter at the pottery from 1919 to 1931 told me when I wrote a feature on The Ruskin Pottery for The Birmingham Post that Howson Taylor was 'the most wonderful boss and, in fact, the most wonderful man I have ever known in the whole of my life. . .he'd always wear a white apron, no matter who the visitor might be. He was best with the work people; with us he was at ease.

'In the summer he'd say: 'Vi, are you hot?' I'd say it was terrible in the workshop. 'Then take two flasks,' he'd say, 'Go down to Trow's, fill them up with ice cream and we'll all have some'.' As well as the lovely vases and bowls Ruskin ceramics were also incorporated into fine jewellery and metalware which was produced in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. At the St Louis Centennial exposition in 1904 and also in Milan in 1906 the Ruskin pots began to collect awards and later Liberty's of London became important customers.

Today, red flambe glazes are particularly prized by collectors but this is only one of the five glazes associated with Ruskin. In chronological order of production they are souffle, lustre, red flambe, crystalline and matt - the last two being introduced in the 20s when lustre and flambe had gone out of fashion. Howson Taylor was a very shy and selfeffacing man married for the first time in 1934 to Florence Tilley, a former employee. But now nothing is left of the Ruskin pottery itself except the modern trading estate which replaced it and I believe there is a cul-de-sac called Ruskin Way.

Ruskin pottery turns up occasionally at Fellows and Sons and Biddle &Webb who are, of course, Birmingham Auctioneers. At Fellows and Sons you may find Ruskin ceramics set into brooches and pendants. Vi Steven, told me that waxing with ordinary furniture polish on a high glaze is much better than washing it in soapy water. She was right, bless her - try it and you'll see that


These vases show why Ruskin pottery has such enduring appeal
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 2, 2002
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