May 2004 Issue
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"To me there is more true art in a brick made and burnt by one man than there is in the best piece of molded pottery ever made" – William J. Walley
The World's Columbian Exposition took place in Chicago in 1893.
If you were thinking of traveling there from Boston you would likely inquire into the routes and destinations offered by the “Iron Horse,” a descriptor that had gained new currency since the riotous visit of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. At a time when the “Wild West” was generally felt to begin somewhere in Ohio, and the railroad experience not exactly perfected, you really had to want to go.
William Henry Grueby, a native of Chelsea, did. And what he was to see there, coupled with a novel opaque matte glaze he had developed, would lead several years later to the ceramic treasures we today simply call “Grueby.” The most important baggage 26 year-old “Will” took on his journey was his knowledge of ceramic processes and glaze chemistry, and an interest in new applications for his coveted glaze. For the previous 13 years, his training ground and focus had been tiles and architectural installations, first at the nearby J & JG Low Art Tile Works and then – at the time of his trek – his own Grueby and Atwood firm.
"Grueby's glazes were the direct result of the combined practical knowledge of the Robertsons and John Gardner Low." –Susan Montgomery, The Ceramics of William H. Grueby
During his ten-year stay at Low (beginning in 1880, when he was just 13) he was encouraged to experiment with glazes and gained the considerable knowledge of the Low establishment. He also enjoyed the glazing insights of the Chelsea Keramic Art Works through association with George Robertson, who had moved over to the Low Works from that firm.
Inspired by what he had seen at the Exposition – specifically the hand-thrown avante garde work of the French potter August Delaherche – he entered a new partnership in 1894 with the stated purpose of developing hollow ware (i.e art pottery). The Grueby Faience Company would ultimately be incorporated in 1897.
"The shapes distinguished Grueby ware every bit as much as the glaze, as they depended not on intricacy or elaborateness of design and ornamentation, but rather on integrity and contour" – Paul Evans, Art Pottery of the United States
Of his choice of two partners, that of George Prentiss Kendrick as his designer proved to be of considerable consequence. Kendrick, a member of Boston's Arts & Crafts Society, was a skilled metal smith and architectural draughtsman – and more, someone with a particular and very personal fascination for flowers and leaf forms. Kendrick was not a potter. His simple sketches, developed freely, intuitively, and without particular thought to their “do-ability” in the ceramic context, became the loose blueprints for organic and sensuous hand thrown and tooled pottery forms. These were uncannily appropriate to Grueby's glaze and are today considered every bit as superior.
"To my mind, George Ohr and Grueby are perhaps the two best expressions of the Arts and Crafts philosophy. Grueby, though a collaborative affair and a small factory, defined an aesthetic in a very singular way, one that resonated deeply in America." – David Rago
While we might single out the ware's simple, elegant. and beautifully contoured forms or its true-to-the-sense-of-life modeling, it was quite clear to Grueby himself what was most important about his product. And that was its glaze. Evidencing his thinking was the disposition of two Grueby pieces shown at the Worcester Art Museum's exhibition of 1903:
"Two pieces were selected for the museum's permanent collection: a vase in light blue for $12 (and another for $100). The vases are nearly identical in size, approximately twelve inches, and form. The reason for the $88 difference in the value placed upon them by Grueby was in the glazes." – Susan Montgomery, The Ceramics of William H. Grueby
Grueby pots cooled to an incredible range of glaze effects, particularly vivid in green and unmatched by any other pottery. These, animating the surfaces of pots themselves showing the subtle variations wrought by hand work, guaranteed that no two pieces were ever exactly alike. Opaque, often thick and typically of low luster, Grueby “green” ranged from a dark, rich, and relatively even finish to all manner of highly complex curdled, crackled, veined speckled, and even crystalline effects. A single superior example, studied close-up, might carry virtually every shade of the color, from black/green spots and flecks to a soft yellow where the glaze eased away from high points to reveal the underlying clay. These variations were part of the idea, as were the subtle differences in modeling – evidence of the ”entirely by the hands of man” nature of the ware. Ware that was entirely consistent with the varied natural world it sought to praise and often captured.
Put another way, it was a timely and perfect response to the repeatability and cookie-cutter uniformity sought by industrialists and mass marketers – whether those of 1880, those creating cheap green pottery in the 1903-1918 period or, for that matter, the monster California agri-growers of today. All were, and are, essentially anti-natural. Oranges may look better now but, be sure, they tasted better then.
Grueby's art pottery was first exhibited and sold in Boston in 1897. A sensation from the first, it achieved major international acclaim within three years – a rapid rise to prominence by today's standards, astonishing given the pace of the times.
It was decorative art, and it was expensive.
Important awards kept piling up and, by 1904, the pottery had reached its zenith in stature and production. Even by then, though, the seeds of the Pottery's ultimate departure from the art pottery arena (about 1910) had already taken root. Ironically, the firm had planted them itself. Its highly visible success – and its coincidental contribution to popularizing the color green – had already encouraged other potteries to create and begin marketing less expensive “green pots” of their own as early as 1903, many aping the Grueby look.
Some major potteries, including Hampshire, Wheatley, Teco, and Owens, were to deliberately cast Grueby look-alikes complete with yellow “buds.” Others, including Weller, Roseville, and McCoy, dedicated whole lines to more easily afforded matte green ware.
"Ultimately, more than 100 studios and companies imitated [Grueby's] style and glazes, and this was no accident. Cashing in on Grueby's success seemed an obvious move." – David Rago
Some of these glazes were excellent, but most were little more than a dip job. It really didn't matter: Their cumulative effect was to increasingly saturate the market with more or less valid choices -- all of them “green,” the vast majority priced well below Grueby. Significantly, only a very few potteries had an investment in green that rivaled Grueby's. For most, this color was merely a new profit center, a trendy add on to already varied product lines. Grueby offered no such variety, its ware regardless of basic color, form, or modeling being perceived correctly as a single aesthetic, a single kind of pottery.
Thus, the company's art pottery business plateaued, then gradually withered in the 1904-1908 period – a decline hastened by increasing competition, an ever more crowded field, rather like a giant being slowly nibbled to death by rabbits. Under severe financial pressure by 1907, the firm's art pottery end received something of a death blow when
It ultimately resurfaced as still another corporate entity – and thrived – as a firm once again, as in the beginning, dedicated exclusively to tiles and architectural installations. But the art pottery era was over.
Grueby looks and feels as good today as it did 100 years ago, and one might wonder not so much how it found critical favor at the time, but why it has never lost it.
It is perhaps more than merely interesting that many advanced pottery collectors today are convinced that great hand made art pottery is literally alive. That it in some inexplicable way it seems to pulse with and radiate a certain energy that, to them, is quite apparent.
Among American makers the work of George Ohr, Newcomb College, and WJ Walley come to mind immediately in this regard – as does Grueby in a big way. The best works of each, as different as they are, share much common ground. They were created primarily out of an artistic impulse, entirely by hand, honestly, and with a keen respect for the materials. (Fortunately for us, the Gods also bequeathed commercial viability on them, at least for a time.)
The size of the accomplishment, though – and that curious energy – seems to beg a further explanation. This, simply because the finished products were of far greater consequence than they might have been, somehow more powerful than all the talents and good intentions that went into them. For those with a spiritual bent it is tempting to speculate that, once the kiln door closed and the heat came up, the various players had no choice but to stand back and wait...on Nature Herself to look in, smile her approval, and actively fuse and energize the pottery, once and for all time.
And so, perhaps, She did.