The suggestion that Frederick Hurten Rhead ‘has a claim’ to be America’s greatest potter was made by an Englishman – Bernard Bumpus – who suggested it in the April 1986 edition of The Antique Collector magazine. For someone based on this side of the Atlantic it was perhaps a bold thing to say, however the key phrase he used was ‘has a claim’; so although I’m sure there are other opinions on who should have that title, I think it’s worth exploring FHR’s work further as little appears to be known about him in his native land. His emigration to the US came when when he was only around 22 years of age, just as his career was developing, so perhaps it isn’t a surprise that he’s a bit of an unknown quantity here.
Given his early departure, there are relatively few examples of his work to be found in Britain – it’s really only the Wileman & Wardle pieces that turn up. After serving his apprenticeship under his father, Frederick Alfred Rhead, (at Brownfield’s), Frederick Hurten also joined him at Wileman & Company when the senior man was appointed art director there in around 1897. With his brother Harry, Frederick Hurten became proficient in the technique of tube-lining and decorated many pieces, including the wall plaque shown to the right. The brothers began to train their younger sisters, Charlotte & Adolphine (Dollie) in the process too, with the results being seen in the numerous tiles they produced. Charlotte of course went on to make a career out of tube-lined design, so her success can be traced back directly to this crucial period and her eldest brother’s influence.
Remarkably, aged just 19, Frederick Hurten gained an appointment as art director himself – at Wardle & Co, emphasising the fact that he was already highly adept at pottery design and decoration. It was a small firm at the time, and there is evidence that he was still under the wing somewhat of his father, however it was here that his trademark style began to emerge (see the small gallery below). As ever, the Rheads kept thing in the family, and it wasn’t long before Charlotte & Dollie also began decorating for Wardle – often decorating lines designed by Frederick Hurten.
He was only at Wardle for three years however, before emigrating to America to pursue his career there. There is some speculation as to the reason behind this unexpected move (aged just 22), with Bernard Bumpus suggesting that Rhead’s marriage to Agnes, a worker from the factory floor at the pottery, was not to the liking of his family, so he wanted to make a clean break. In her excellent book ‘An English Potter in America’ (published in 1986), Sharon Dale is of the view that the move was purely a career decision, with Rhead feeling that there were greater opportunities to be had in the burgeoning American pottery industry, rather than the established one in Stoke on Trent. Whatever the reason, it was the making of him, as he went on to have a long and successful career in the US.
FHR’s first post was at the Vance / Avon Faience pottery in Tiltonville, Ohio, with a former family friend, William Percival Jervis credited as having got him the role there. Rhead picked up almost exactly where he had left off, with tube-lined designs becoming the trademark of the pottery – although common by that time in England, the technique was relatively new in America. There are many similarities between the Avon pieces that he designed and that of Wardle – some examples are shown below. His use of scripted verse on decorations was also retained, and this probably stems from his Staffordshire background in England, where it had been used on pottery for generations.
By early 1904, Frederick Hurten Rhead had joined the S.A. Weller pottery in Zanesville (also in Ohio) – probably due to it being a larger concern and therefore providing more opportunity for recognition. His time there however did not involve a senior role; although he was designing, he was not employed as an art director. Sharon Dale suggests that he was not entirely happy there, although his designs continued to be successful. It was the ‘Jap-Birdimal’ range that he is best known for at Weller, and as you can see from the image to the right, his familiar motifs are there. These items attract high prices today, (in America it should be said – they are relatively unknown over here), so keep an eye out for them! Despite this success, he didn’t last a year there and soon joined Roseville Pottery, where he was to stay until 1908.
His major influence at Roseville was not so much in decoration, but in the transformation of the shapes that the pottery produced, with more functional and less elaborate forms being introduced – possibly to allow for easier decoration. He was an artist first of course!
Rhead was responsible for five key lines at Roseville – Olympic, Crystalis, Fudji, Della Robbia & Aztec, with some examples shown above. The Della Robbia name of course is well known in England as an influential art pottery based in Birkenhead, which FHR was known to have been a fan of, although the Roseville versions are not really comparable with the output of the earlier English pottery.
In 1908, Rhead left to join his old colleague, WP Jervice, who had set up his own works in Long Island. They shared a common vision and examples from the pottery continue to show familiar Rhead traits, such as tall trees. Whilst there, he also wrote & published ‘Studio Pottery’, which proved an influential and interesting record of the period and practices of the pottery industry. Writing about pottery led him to move to the faculty of the People’s University, at University City in St Louis in 1909, where he began teaching the craft in a newly set up ceramics department. It was here that he produced perhaps his most famous ‘art pottery’ work – a four panel tile, (52cm square) depicting a peacock (shown above). It was produced in conjunction with his wife Agnes and was installed in the house of Levi Burgess in Zanesville – a long time friend of Rhead’s. The panel sold at auction in 2012 (in New Jersey) for £325,660 ($495,000) plus commission.
Frederick’s next venture was to set up a new pottery as part of a sanatorium for female tuberculosis victims in the San Francisco area – known as ‘Arequipa’. The idea was to provide therapeutic support to the patients, however despite early success, Rhead wanted to increase the commercial possibilities of the pottery. This clashed with the sanatorium’s motive to keep it small and to contribute positively to the health and well-being of the women, and Frederick was ‘moved on’ in 1913, when he had another short-lived time at the Steiger Pottery in the same area.
Following that, in late 1913 he move to Santa Barbara in California and set up his own business, which became known as ‘Rhead Pottery’. Whilst the quality of the output was well-received, Frederick’s commercial acumen was not considered a match to it and the pottery struggled before eventually folding in 1917. It produced many examples, such as the one shown here and continues to be collectable. Following this, FHR moved back to Zanesville, taking up a role with the American Encaustic Tiling Company (AETCO), and this signalled a move back to working for a larger organisation, rather than a small, independent concern that struggled with combining artistic creativity and commercial needs. He was to stay here for ten successful years, working largely in the manufacture of architectural and bathroom tiles.
Frederick Hurten Rhead’s large major role was with the Homer Laughlin China Company in Ohio, where he stayed from 1927 until his death in 1942. It was here that he produced the range that finally made him an icon of American pottery design – Fiesta. This was a dinnerware range that continued to be produced long after his death, and it draws its essence from the popular Art Deco shapes of the 1920s. He went to actively influence the growth of low-priced, domestic tableware across America and remained passionate about it to the end.
In a career that started with producing elaborate art pottery in England to functional, but well designed tableware in America, Frederick Hurten Rhead certainly made a difference. If it’s true that he left Britain to escape the wrath of a disapproving family, there’s no evidence that he was permanently estranged, (especially as Harry followed him over, and he was visited by his father, who tried but ultimately failed to establish his own career in the US). On top of that, FHR forged a successful career in some important potteries and ended his days far more famous in America than any of his family were in Britain. I find it odd therefore that more isn’t known about him here. He’s often confused with his father – obvious perhaps given their shared christian name – but hopefully that will change and he will get the respect he deserves on this side of the water.