As a follow up to my previous blog on the recent Rhead-Cronin sales in Exeter, this post will focus on the remarkable tube-lined tiles that came up for auction as part of the collection. I think I’m right in saying that it set a new record for the sheer number of individual Rhead decorated tiles sold in a single sale. It must certainly have set a record for the highest hammer prices in a single sale! In all, there were 44 individual tiles (some sold as combined lots), with the ‘cheapest’ selling for £190 and the most expensive for £15,000.
Possibly the most interesting thing about the tile collection was that it backed up Bernard Bumpus’ theory that the majority of these items were produced as gifts for friends and family of the Rheads, rather than for commercial sale. Whilst there were examples that have been seen before, such as some of the Dutch figures and the galleons in sail, there were many that were completely unknown previously, including one of a baby boy that can only have been a personal gift to mark a Christening. We know that several tiles were found following the death of Charlotte’s sister Dollie in 1981, (at her home in Stoke-On-Trent), but this particular set of tiles had remained in the family, in Devon, so were all new to the market. They were perhaps even more unique, as some were actually signed by Charlotte to the back – something Bumpus had not come across during his extensive research.
For those who were not aware that Charlotte Rhead ever decorated tiles – she is, after all, better known for her pattern designs on vases and chargers etc – some background. It was her father, Frederick Alfred Rhead, who encouraged her (and Dollie) to decorate tiles at home, whilst they were still relatively young. He provided the ‘blanks’ for them to practice on, and they essentially learned the basics of tube-lining on these items. Charlotte of course went on to specialise in the process, however Dollie was just as skilled at it and later covered for her sister during for a spell at Burgess & Leigh. We know from the tiles in this sale that they were all (probably) produced around 1910, since some are dated as well as signed. It was during this period that Frederick was involved in the ill-fated Barker, Rhead venture, with his partner F.H. Barker at the Atlas Tile Works. Whilst they concentrated mainly on printed tiles, they also produced some tube-lined art nouveau themed tiles for local shops and businesses. Barker,Rhead was to fold in around 1910, but it seems that the sisters continued to decorate tiles beyond that, certainly until circa 1912, when Charlotte joined Frederick at Wood & Sons. During this period, she also worked at other tile manufacturers, but this most likely involved producing more ‘simple’ designs for commercial sale.
The Rhead-Cronin tiles all appear to have been home-produced, as most are in their original oak frames, suggesting that were intended as gifts. Some of the examples in the sale came with original artwork, such as watercolours or sketches – often produced by Frederick, but also some by Charlotte’s brothers and uncles. It’s clear that Charlotte used these pieces of art as the basis of the tile decoration, so it again points to them being a ‘leisure’ pursuit at home rather than commercial work. A natural conclusion to seeing these tiles all together, is that they essentially form Charlotte’s apprenticeship – her talent is obvious and one can see from these examples how she went on to have a successful career. She was 25 years of age in 1910, and just about to begin designing patterns full-time at Wood & Sons. Although some may seem quite basic and child-like at first glance, the tube-lining technique on tiles was not an easy thing to master. The more elaborate tiles are proof that she became an expert.
The sale also included some tiles decorated by other Rheads – notably Frederick and Louis, but it is Charlotte’s that grab the attention for me. Of course, it may be that some of them were actually decorated by Dollie, but I believe the majority were Charlotte’s. As I’ve mentioned already, some of the tiles are signed – either with L Rhead (the ‘L’ being for Lottie, as that it is what she was known as at the time), or just the initials ‘L.R.’ I find the L Rhead signature most interesting, as it is the original of the familar facsimile signature seen on her professional work later on. These tile signatures are in her actual hand, unlike those on the later pieces. The fact that several tiles in this collection had some form of signature on them highlights their importance in relation to other examples found previously – there can be no doubt as to who produced them, and when.
I’ve included a gallery of my own pictures below featuring most of the tiles sold, along with their hammer prices. I am indebted to all at Bearnes, Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, and especially Nic Saintey, for giving me the opportunity to view & photograph the Rhead-Cronin collection prior to the sales. It was a great experience and I thank Nic for all his help.