The Charlotte Rhead Signature Myth

This is the first Rhead Pottery blog post and I’m going in hard! I think it is about time to illustrate a few misconceptions around the issue of ‘signed’ Charlotte Rhead pieces, since despite the best efforts of many, the myth continues that a piece with her signature on it is more worthy than one without it.

Any glance at the current eBay listings for Charlotte Rhead will show that sellers often use ‘signed’ in their item titles & descriptions. Some even go further and claim that ‘it is signed by Charlotte herself’. I’m fully aware that many people selling the odd item here and there are probably not familiar with how the marks were created – and I don’t want to criticise them for that. There are sellers, however, who have no such excuse; those who regularly include specific detail in their descriptions, such as the name of the tube-liner or the date of the backstamp, as well describing it as signed. They must be using some form of reference, so bumping the price up by claiming the signature is authentication of a genuine piece is misleading to ad hoc buyers or people wanting to build a collection from scratch.

I can understand why the myth exists, naturally, as the signatures on most of the relevant items (i.e. Burleigh & Crown Ducal), are clearly done by hand. One could assume therefore that as it is a Charlotte Rhead piece, it was signed by her. Where it falls down is with the logic that she personally signed every item that left the factory – she wouldn’t have had much time to do any actual designing if that was the case!

So, a few facts around the processes used – and my apologies if I am preaching to the converted:

  • Charlotte Rhead was the designer of the patterns, but a number of paintresses or tube-liners were employed to actually decorate the items. She may well have completed the painting herself, especially on early items, but it isn’t possible to identify which ones they were conclusively.
  • The Bursley Ltd (Wood & Sons) pieces weren’t signed at all – they just had pattern numbers or names. If you find a piece with her name on it, don’t buy it!
  • Richardsons (Crown Ducal) and Burgess & Leigh (Burleighware) pieces did carry a signature, however they were ‘facsimile’ signatures – or an appropriation of Charlotte’s own handwriting. These were applied by the decorators and they also (usually) marked the item with their own code, so that we can see who actually did the work. This would also have been been useful if they were being paid by piece-work, as the factory would have been able to quickly identify who was owed what.
  • The most popular (and therefore mass produced) Ducal patterns often had no signature. It was felt to be a waste of time marking them as they were churned out a fast rate and the decorators being paid by the piece simply wanted to get on to the next one. Stitch & Patch are good examples of this.
  • The marks for HJ Wood (Bursley Ware) were all pre-printed stamps – i.e. not done by hand.

Any comparison between the facsimile signatures make it obvious that they are different versions of an original, as the images here shown.

 

Of course, there is an argument to say that this should not be talked about and the status quo should remain; if people wish to only pursue items that have a ‘signature’, it leaves less competition in the market for the other pieces that have no such mark. My problem, though, is that as someone who sells these things all the time, I regularly have potential buyers who turn their noses up at a lovely piece of Charlotte Rhead pottery ‘because it isn’t signed’! I don’t like an argument, so I just let them walk away – perhaps they’ll go round the corner and find what they’re looking for, (and pay through the nose for it).

The bottom line then, is that buyers looking for Charlotte Rhead pieces made for Burleighware and Crown Ducal should not be concerned if there is no signature. An attributed pattern number, the pattern itself and the factory mark should be proof enough that it was designed by Charlotte. Bernard Bumpus mentions this whole issue in his book, and even goes as far as to suggest that the unsigned items are the ones that collectors should look for. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.

 

Any thoughts? Your views are welcome!