One of the most unusual (and therefore most sought after) Charlotte Rhead patterns depicts her interpretation of a scene from The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. This collection of poems was produced by Edward Fitzgerald in the mid 19th Century and was his translation of some verses written by Omar Khayyám, a Persian poet, mathematician & astronomer (1048-1131). It proved very popular when first published in 1859 and influenced a number of significant figures of the time, including William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and other artists, who contributed their bespoke illustrations to later editions. Whilst it is felt that some of the translations were not entirely accurate and true to the original text, as a collection it is clear why it captured the imagination of artists in the late 19th century, with its romantic & classical themes tying in with the pre-raphaelite and later movements. But how, you may ask, does 20th century pottery designer Charlotte Rhead come in to all this?!
The answer lies (as it often did with her work), in the influence of her father, Frederick Alfred Rhead. He was another of the 19th century artists to have been inspired by The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and painted his own scene from the book – ‘When the Angel with his Darker Draught Draws up to Thee’, from verse 48 (shown above left). Following this, he went on to produce a stunning vase for Minton carrying the same image in pâte-sur-pâte decoration. This vase (also shown above), as well as the original painting, sold recently as part of the Rhead-Cronin collection – with the vase going for £17,000 plus fees. Any holistic view of her patterns will show that Charlotte was not afraid to re-produce ideas or use inspiration from her family’s illustrations when designing ceramic artwork – from the early home-produced tube-lined tiles and right through her time at the various potteries that she worked for.
Her Omar pattern (#4036) was produced whilst she was at AG Richardson (Crown Ducal) in the 1930s, and appeared on a variety of items. It was displayed at the British Industries Fair in 1935 and was something of a departure from the floral patterns that she was best known for at the time. The pattern features a seated male underneath a tree (as per the image at the top of the page), with tube-lined text reading ‘Here with a loaf of bread beneath the bough A flask of wine A book of verse and Thou’, taken from one of the more popular verses in the Rubáiyát. There isn’t really a comparable pattern of this style by Charlotte Rhead, certainly on commercially produced pottery, so it is intriguing as to why she produced it when she did. One possibility, and it is purely my own guess(!), is that it was some form of tribute to her father, who died in 1933 whilst Charlotte was at Richardsons. Regardless, it is an attractive pattern and one that if you see, you should buy!
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.
Now that the dust has settled on the remarkable sale of the Rhead-Cronin collection, I thought I’d take the opportunity to pick out a few of the highlights. The second of the two auctions ended this time last week, at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood in Exeter, and it’s probably fair to say that the collection exceeded expectations all round.
To give some background for those unaware of it, the collection was made up of a large number of items produced by several different members of the Rhead family, including paintings, engravings, ceramics and assorted ephemera. It had belonged to a late nephew of Charlotte Rhead, Richard Harry Rhead-Cronin, who had lived in Honiton, Devon. His mother was Marie Rhead, Charlotte’s sister, who because she was not involved in the artistic pursuits of her family, was relatively unknown – (Bernard Bumpus mentions in his book that Frederick Alfred Rhead and his wife Adolphine had six children, but does not mention Marie by name). The items put into the sale had been held by this branch of the family for many years, so essentially, they were all new to the market. From a collector’s point of view, any ‘undiscovered’ pieces such as these are the holy grail. I was fortunate enough to be invited down to Exeter for a sneak preview of the collection prior to the sales and it was a unique experience. To see the breadth of items included, not to mention the quality of the majority of it, was (and excuse the hyperbole) staggering!
The first sale took place in December 2013, and consisted of items that are perhaps more familiar to casual collectors of Rhead pottery. There were several Crown Ducal pieces, as well some nice early Wood & Sons Bursley examples. Perhaps the most appealing lot was a Burleighware Fruit Set, which appeared to have been designed by Adolphine ‘Dollie’ Rhead (another of Charlotte’s sisters), as it featured her facsimile signature to the reverse side. I’ve previously blogged about this set – click here to read it, but it is of particular interest as the pattern has never been seen before. The set (minus the ginger jar shown below) had a hammer price of £210 – which was a bargain for whoever got it!
Other highlights included a lovely Bursley Ware ewer in the 456 Pomona pattern, selling for £240 + fees and a pair of water-colour sketches of Native-American squaws, attributed to Charlotte Rhead, which formed the basis of a design for tube-lined tiles that she completed later, (£480 + fees). As you can see from the image on the left, the ‘Aztec’ pattern that later appeared on Charlotte’s design for Crown Ducal is evident. Finally, there was an interesting teapot, designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead for Wardle in around 1900 (£65 + fees). Again, these items do not come up for sale often and would no doubt have attracted interest from American collectors, given that he spent the majority of his working career over there.
Hidden away towards the end of this sale was a small collection of family photographs and small watercolours, one of which was by another of Charlotte’s sisters, Katherine. The gems in here were the photos though, as they included early ones of Harry and Dollie, but most intriguingly one of Charlotte herself. I think it was taken in around 1910 when she would have been 25, and she has a small dog on her lap. Photos of Charlotte are very scarce – she was notoriously a shy and private person. All the photos that we do know of show her not looking directly at the camera, and in this one, she (sort of) is!
Harry Rhead (c.1910)
Charlotte Rhead (c.1910)
The second sale, which took place in January 2014 contained the more unusual (and valuable) items, including a great number of pictures and sketches as well as some framed tube-lined tiles and museum quality ceramics. Although the focus of this site is clearly ‘pottery’, it’s worth recording some highlights from the pictures sale, as there were some great examples. Having never really paid much attention to the art produced by the family, I must say I was blown away by some of the paintings in this collection. Having always associated Frederick Alfred Rhead with pottery, it was a surprise for me to see the quality of some of his paintings – perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a shock given his undoubted talent, but I think it was because I just hadn’t seen it before. The sale also featured some work from Frederick’s brothers & children. For some examples, see the small gallery below, (all prices shown are excluding commission):
George Woolliscroft Rhead Jr – A Sacrifice to Neptune £14,000
Frederick Alfred Rhead – The Creation of Flowers & Plants £5,500
Louis John Rhead – Edwardian Lady in Tulips £3,100
Frederick Alfred Rhead – Still Life £400
Frederick Alfred Rhead – When The Angel with his Darker Draught Draws up to Thee £3,400
George Woolliscroft Rhead Jr – Fair Rosamund £2,900
Louis Rhead – Pen & Ink £900
Oil on Board – Attributed to Charlotte Rhead £240
The ceramics section of the sale was perhaps the most exciting (for me anyway), and it got away to a stunning start, with one of the first lots reaching a hammer price of £17,000 – against an estimate of £1500 – £2000. It was an amazing pâte-sur-pâte vaseby Frederick Rhead, probably for Minton, depicting an angel holding a large bowl and some text around the bottom taken from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. It is in fact linked to one of the pieces of art shown above, from which it draws clear inspiration – the question is, did both pieces go to the same buyer?! Following that lot, I think everybody in the room realised that any bargains were going to be few and far between, with many hastily re-assessing their budgets for bidding on the rest of the sale. Or perhaps that was just me……
One of the biggest surprises of the collection was a vase by Bretby – not a name one would associate with the Rhead family. It featured a galleon in full sail, which (funnily enough) is something that you would link to Charlotte Rhead. So, why did Charlotte decorate a Bretby vase? I still don’t know and it has baffled other collectors that I’ve spoken to. Nic Saintey of Bearnes has asked the same question in his excellent series of blogs – answers on a postcard please! This vase sold for just £200 plus fees, perhaps reflecting some damage on it, but in hindsight, this looks like a very good price. The chances are that there isn’t another one anywhere else in the world.
The main part of the sale contained a large number of tube-lined tiles, mainly by Charlotte, which I shall write about in a later blog as they deserve further discussion. For now though, I’ll finish with this lovely vase produced by Frederick Hurten Rhead for Wardle. It is a tube-lined decoration featuring two turtles and the words “Two tired turtles trying to trot to Tutbury”, signed and dated to 1902. This was just before he left to begin life in America, so was possibly one of the last examples of his ‘English’ work. It sold for £1,150 plus fees. Again, it would be intriguing to know where this ended up – did it stay here or follow Frederick across the pond?
As I’ve mentioned above, I’ll write more soon about the Rhead-Cronin tiles, but in the meantime I’d like to thank everybody at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (especially Nic Saintey) for giving me the opportunity to get up close with the collection. I will be eternally grateful!
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.