Rookwood Art Pottery

CARL SCHMIDT (1885 - 1969); ROOKWOOD Pottery Marine Scenic Vellum jar and cover

p4A ItemID F7936880
FRED ROTHENBUSCH (1876 - 1937); ROOKWOOD Pottery Scenic Vellum vase

p4A ItemID F7936872
PATTI CONANT; ROOKWOOD Pottery Jewel Porcelain vase with stylized flowers

p4A ItemID F7936787
EDWARD CRANCH (1809 - 1892); ROOKWOOD Pottery, early Limoges bowl depicting polar bears having a snowball fight

p4A ItemID F7936778

Rookwood Pottery

The Significance of Rookwood:

Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, Ohio, produced some of this country’s best and most highly collectible art pottery. The company, founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols (1849 to 1932), set the standard for high quality American art pottery. Rookwood also pioneered the use of underglaze slip decoration, employed some of the country’s best pottery decorators, and carefully controlled the production process to reduce errors. Throughout its 87 years of operation, ending in 1967, Rookwood fostered a spirit of experimentation and innovation. In the art pottery world, it was an American institution. “No single company achieved so much for so long as Rookwood,” said nationally prominent pottery dealer David Rago in his book, American Art Pottery.

A significant part of Rookwood’s success was due to the leadership of Manager (1883 to 1890) then President (1890 to 1913) William Watts Taylor. Taylor not only designed pottery, but he also had a keen sense for marketing and provided the financial discipline that sustained Rookwood long after his untimely death in 1913.

Until recently, Rookwood’s reputation for putting original ideas and one-of-a-kind artwork above commercial considerations went unchallenged. “An artist’s studio, not a factory,” was the company’s credo and many scholars and dealers believed it. However, recent scholarship has revealed that Rookwood was more of a factory than previously acknowledged. Almost two-dozen steps were needed to produce a single pot during Rookwood’s golden days (1880 to 1913) and non-artisans accomplished many of those production phases. Decorators also acknowledged that there was considerably less opportunity for individual expression than the public was led to believe. Designs were not created solely on artistic merit; profitability and saleability had to be taken into account. (See Nancy E. Owen, Rookwood and the Industry of Art: Women, Culture, and Commerce, 1880-1913, Ohio University Press, 2001).

Standard Glaze or Standard Ware:

Rookwood’s most popular, most Victorian and most imitated style was its Standard Glaze. It is also the most reasonably priced Rookwood line in today’s marketplace. This format dominated Rookwood’s production from 1883 to 1909, the beginning of the Golden Age of Art Pottery (1880 to 1920). Standard was originally the company’s rich glazed ware or Limoges glaze (1880 to 1885), but evolved into Standard much like the computer input device became a mouse. Standard combined an earth-tone background with “a luxuriant painting in warm colors under a brilliant glaze” on a molded form.

The heart of Standard glaze and other early Rookwood wares, was underglaze slip decoration, an easily misunderstood term. Underglaze and slip decoration are two names for the same process. An underglaze or mineral paint is created by mixing liquid clay (slip) and a colorant (oxide), letting the mixture dry, grinding it, reconstituting it with water and using it as a paint (underglaze). Underglazes are extremely stable mixtures that do not blur, move or melt when fired. This mixing, drying, grinding process was carried out separately for each color.

Before applying the underglaze, Rookwood potters used an atomizer to “airbrush” molded or hand-thrown greenware (unfired pottery) with a thin colored slip. The atomizer allowed the potters to apply a Standard Ware color – dark brown, green or yellow – and lighten one area and darken another. When dried, the colored slip became the decorator’s canvas. Some of this country’s best pottery artists then underglazed a scene or portrait on the object’s surface, a process often compared to working in oil paints. The underglazed pottery was then biscuit fired, a preliminary “first firing,” sprayed with a translucent or transparent yellow overglaze and fired again. During the final kiln firing, the overglaze fused permanently with the surface of the clay, sealed the object and gave it a consumer-preferred high gloss golden color.

Other glazes:

Between 1883 and 1919, Rookwood developed at least 13 other glazes. Glazes produced before the turn of the century typically employed the underglaze slip decoration process.

Standard was preceded by Cameo (1880 to 1886) – a white slip background with randomly placed flowers under a clear high gloss or dull finish glaze. In 1883, Rookwood not only developed Standard but they also added Aerial Blue to their line. Aerial, with hand-painted blue and white underglaze figures, was produced for only two years. Sea Green, introduced in 1884, and in production for 10 years, was not a customer favorite. Today the line, characterized by a high gloss green tinted overglaze, is uncommon, scarce and pricey.

A line that straddled the two centuries – 1898 to 1910 – became Rookwood’s most valuable and collectible hand-decorated art pottery. The Iris line used pure white clay coated with gray, green, pink, soft blue or yellow slip, typically darker at the top than the bottom. Underglaze paintings were in contrasting colors: green, gray, blue and yellow; overglaze was high gloss and transparent. Iris refers to soft, light, hand-painted Rookwood, not the line’s subject matter. Various flowers including poppies, daffodils, cyclamen and irises as well as birds, animals, landscapes and seascapes are found in the popular Iris line.

Experimental matte, matt or mat glazes date from 1896, near the midpoint of the Arts & Crafts era. They stayed in production through the Great Depression and World War II, ending their long tenure in 1944. Rookwood developed many matte variations including Ombroso (1910 to 1920s), a washed, sometimes drippy or speckled combination of green, brown, and blue glaze. Ombroso was hand-painted on forms with incised or raised acorns, leaves and other Arts & Crafts elements. In general, the various matte lines were identified by rich, warm colors with carved (incised), raised (modeled), outlined or underglazed stylized or naturalistic subjects. All Arts & Crafts matte glazes were handcrafted and they are rarely crazed. A clear, lusterless overglaze protected the painted surface. In some rare items, decorations were overglazed, not underglazed. The line’s popularity was based on its dull, soft, dead finish.

In 1905, Rookwood added its Production Ware to the mix. These were small molded decorative wares primarily in mono-colored matte glazes and produced without an artist’s handiwork.

Rookwood introduced its popular Vellum glaze in 1904. Like Matte, it showed remarkable popularity, ending in 1948. For Vellum, Rookwood used light colored clay coated with a pale blue slip. Underglazed landscapes, plants, birds, and fish were made blurry and “out of focus” by a soft, matte, translucent overglaze. Look for a V on the bottom of vellum forms. This mark signaled the glazer to apply the vellum overglaze. Vellum with carved decorative elements is scarce.

Rookwood introduced a process that has been called Double Vellum in the late 1920s. The line, which lasted until the mid-1940s, was an exception to the underglaze slip decorative technique. An unglazed pot was fired, then coated with a Vellum glaze, decorated on top of the glaze, coated again with Vellum and fired a second time.

Backgrounds for Rookwood’s Porcelain glaze (1915 to 1967) were subdued ivories, grays or yellows with low relief underglazings in one or more colors. Overglaze varied from dull to glossy. The letter “P” on its side was the porcelain ware mark.

Jewel Porcelain, formally introduced in 1920, but available in 1916, was not the same as the 1915 porcelain. Fine bubbles covered its translucent gloss overglaze with scenes or floral decorations underneath. Background colors were ivory, cobalt, yellow, pink and possibly others.

Turquoise Blue, a line in which every object was overglazed in a glossy light blue, had a four-year production run beginning in 1916. The foundation for Turquoise Blue was usually white clay or slip that was then underglazed with colorful designs and scenes.

Rookwood did not have a formal name for its red glaze introduced in 1919, but decorators found one. It became French Red because its red oxide was imported from France. The glossy red overglaze was on the interior as well as exterior of each piece. Made between 1919 and 1927, the typical French Red had stylized floral decorations. They are quite scarce today.

Two rare glazes were the famous Tiger Eye, an experimental crystalline glaze first produced at Rookwood in 1884, and silver overlay, an elaborate decorative addition to the company’s Standard Glaze.

Marks: Rookwood Pottery is perhaps America’s most thoroughly marked art ware. Before 1882, eight different marks were used – some of the company’s rarest. Starting in 1882 and continuing until 1886, the mark was “Rookwood” with the full four-digit year beneath, all incised in the clay. Some decorators added their mark below the date.

Beginning in 1886, the company adopted a new mark: a backwards R and a forward P joined together with a single upright. Each year thereafter, a flame was added above and around the mark. With the turn of the new century, Rookwood kept the 14 flames for years 1887 to 1900 and the RP as its new logo. For each production year of the 20th century, Rookwood impressed the last two digits of the year written as Roman numerals below the logo.

Rookwood also stamped each piece with the shape number, a letter indicating size and another letter for the color of clay. A large X roughly cut or scored in the base denoted a second that was sold at a discount. An X with a horizontal line through it identified a second that did not sell at the discounted price. These were given to employees.

Rookwood decorators signed their hand-painted underglazed works with a monogram, stylized mark or their initials.

Reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Pete Prunkl.

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