Following a recent trip that took me past Stoke-on-Trent on my way home, I thought I’d drop in at the Gladstone Museum – partly because I’d never visited it before, but mainly because it was a chance to see Frederick Rhead’s iconic Gladstone Vase at first hand. I’d read about it of course previously, and following the recent Rhead-Cronin auctions in Exeter, where some original artwork for the vase (painted by Frederick Rhead himself) was sold, it was something that I felt needed more of my attention! Unfortunately, I came away a little underwhelmed – not by the vase, which is magnificent, but by the Gladstone Museum and their treatment of it. I shall get on to why later, but should begin with some background……
The Gladstone Vase, as it became known, was designed and executed by Frederick A Rhead in 1877. It was commissioned by a group of ‘Burslem Liberals’, who wanted to commemorate the work of Liberal British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, particularly in respect of his work for Home Rule. Uniquely, Gladstone spent four different periods in office as Prime Minister, however he wasn’t actually in the role when he was presented with the vase at his home (Hawarden Castle) in 1888. By all accounts, it was well received, with Gladstone remarking in a quote from The Times newspaper, “I do think it is a most beautiful work, marking a great step in your development as Potters”. Perhaps this is a reference to the intricate pâte-sur-pâte technique used on the vase, something that was gaining in popularity in Britain having just been introduced by French experts such as Louis Solon, (to whom Frederick Rhead had served his apprenticeship under at Minton).
The vase itself is monumental in stature, standing at around 80cm. It was described in contemporary reports as follows: “In the centre is a symbolic figure of Liberty seated on a dais, and holding in one hand the scales of justice and in the other a broken chain. On the right is Homer and on the left Dante offering a poet’s tribute. Next to the central figure on the left are figures of a vestal in a pleading attitude and an historian recording the deeds done in the name of freedom. On the back of the vase in the centre is a figure of St. George, supported on one side by William Wallace and on the other by Brian Boru. There are figures of Ireland with bowed heads and Poland with mournful look and hair unbound. There are also figures of saucy children and a maiden bringing offerings of flowers. The figures are executed in white on a blackish or bottle green ground, and the general ground of the vase is of heliotrope tint, with quiet ornamentation”.
Frederick Rhead was understandably proud of the work – so much so, that a colour plate of it was used as the frontispiece of his ‘Staffordshire Pot & Potters’ book, (written with his brother George Woolliscroft Rhead and published in 1906).
What is disappointing therefore is that the vase seems now to be something of an afterthought for the Gladstone Pottery Museum. Whilst I don’t wish to unfairly criticise what is an otherwise excellent visitor attraction, I do think that they could do more with this particular item. Currently, it sits within a (very good) tile exhibition, and has been placed on a simulated Victorian mantelpiece in a simulated Victorian front room – with the fireplace featuring some nicely decorated examples of art nouveau tiles. There is no information about the vase – in fact no reference even to what it is – anywhere in the display. NB. I’ve included my own image here of the vase in situ, (apologies for the poor quality of the photography!). Having contacted the museum following my visit, I received a not particularly inspiring reply – essentially saying that the vase has been used ‘as a suitable thing to put on a grand fireplace rather than because the item has a special relevance to the museum or the topic of tiles’.
Whilst I understand that the Gladstone Vase has no direct links to the Gladstone Museum, (they just share the honour of being named after the same man), it does seem a bit of a waste of a stunning piece of work to simply be using it as an ornamental prop. It’s impossible for example to see the reverse side of the vase, (as described above, with St George, William Wallace, saucy children(!) et al). This design doesn’t appear in any published images of the vase, so who knows what it looks like, (apart from the museum cleaners, obviously)? Coupled with the fact that there is no information on display either, I imagine the majority of people walk past it none the wiser. To give the museum credit, their response to my email did say that they would look to include some information on the vase in a ‘flip-book’ beside the display. If you’ve ever been to the main Pottery Museum in Stoke however, you may have noticed that they don’t seem to be particularly interested in the the work of the Rheads either – the examples of Charlotte’s work are small in number to say the least – so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised by the approach at the Gladstone Museum. I’m speaking of course as an enthusiast of Rhead pottery, and appreciate that many other people are indifferent to it. The reason I am disappointed however, is that in whatever way it’s looked at, the family all came from the Potteries, produced countless examples of quality work between them, took their craft successfully to America – and yet they appear to be largely ignored by the museums of their home town.
Frederick Rhead’s Gladstone Vase has been loaned to the museum in Stoke by the Gladstone family for several years now – perhaps it is time for to go somewhere where it will be more valued as a display piece. I’m sure it wouldn’t be left on a shelf in the V&A.