Not long after Frederick (Alfred) Rhead took up his post as Art Director at Wood & Sons, in 1912, he introduced new ranges of ‘fancy’ lines to go with the everyday tableware that he and the firm were producing; (the term ‘fancies’ was one used at the time to describe the more decorative pieces). These included the tube-lined Elers and Trellis patterns, but also a range of items that were made using the more difficult pâte-sur-pâte technique.
In Bernard Bumpus’ book Pâte-sur-Pâte – The Art of Ceramic Relief Decoration 1849-1992, he describes it (somewhat long-windedly!) – as an ‘elaborate and expensive method of decorating porcelain in which a translucent cameo-like image was built up by the application of many thin coats of porcellaneous slip’. Having served as an apprentice to the man who introduced the pâte-sur-pâte method to England – Marc Louis Solon at Minton – it’s perhaps no surprise that Frederick Rhead was a keen advocate of the practice, and his attempt to produce a new range at Wood & Sons was something of a re-invention. His aim was to provide more affordable wares than those originally available in England, whilst retaining the craftsmanship and decorator’s skill in producing quality decorative pieces.
In 1913, Woods published a catalogue of selected lines, entitled ‘Pâte-sur-Pâte – A Notable Revival’, which contained around a dozen different patterns produced in the technique. Although they were only intended as examples, it appears that they were well received, as the firm went ahead and produced some for commercial sale. In order to attract those who may have been turned off by the impression that pâte-sur-pâte items were expensive, the catalogue went as far to state that the items were to be sold ‘at prices well within the reach of the average man’, [with the decoration] ‘being executed entirely by hand by a staff or trained artists under the direction of Mr Rhead. Every piece is signed by Mr Rhead, a guarantee of perfect execution and careful and artistic production generally….’
Bernard Bumpus (this time in his books on the Rhead family), suggests that the Wood & Sons pâte-sur-pâte wares were simply a variation, albeit a more elaborate one, of tube-lining, rather than a match for the quality of the original Minton pieces. This is probably a fair point, although given that they were aimed at ‘the average man’, it’s no surprise. Whilst Frederick himself was highly skilled in the technique, (as can be seen in the image below, showing his version of ‘The Flatterer’s Net’, from Bunyan Pilgrim’s Progress), it wouldn’t have been cost-effective or practical to produce items commercially that required such effort to decorate.
Whilst we know that the Wood & Sons pâte-sur-pâte range had some success, with production continuing until the early 1920s, it is still relatively hard to find these days. Pieces appear every now and then, so it is worth looking out for. It’s easy to identify of course, given that all the information is in the backstamp – an unusual thing for Frederick and Charlotte Rhead at Wood & Sons! I have recently acquired the lidded jar shown below, which is a great example of the difference between the pâte-sur-pâte and tube-lining methods. The pattern on this jar definitely feels more delicately applied than a tube-lined piece and it isn’t difficult to see that it would require extra time and time to produce.