American Arts and Crafts Pottery at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg

By Lennie Bennett, Times Art Critic In Print

December 7, 2008

For having existed so briefly in actual history, the American arts and crafts movement is an enduring and beloved legend. Consumers who may know little if anything about the movement buy quantities of furniture reproductions that emulate its sturdy, 90-degree angles and, even more, versions of its pottery famous for flat, off-color glazes and stylized, slightly Asian ornamentation.

Some of the finest authentic examples of arts and crafts furnishings, especially ceramics, are on display at the Museum of Fine Arts. They come from Rudy Ciccarello, who lives in the Tarpon Springs area. He admired one of those reproductions years ago, found and fell in love with the real thing and became obsessive about acquiring more. He has since amassed one of the largest arts and crafts collections in the United States, lending his choicest ceramic pieces from his Two Red Roses Foundation for this show along with furniture and a few paintings. I admit to being lukewarm to the style. The furniture seems as unyielding as the sturdy oak from which most is hewn. The pottery insists on dominating a space. Yet those characteristics also give it great integrity. Like it or not, arts and crafts objects demand respect.

Counterpoint to the Industrial Age

Curators Dr. Martin Eidelberg and Dr. Jonathan Clancy arranged the ceramics by workshop, highlighting the 10 most prominent: Gates Pottery; Grueby Faience and Grueby Pottery; Marblehead Potteries; Newcomb Pottery; Overbeck Pottery; Paul Revere Pottery; Rhead Pottery; Rookwood Pottery; Van Briggle Pottery; and Walrath Pottery. In some instances, their success lasted only a century-spanning decade; some persevered into the mid 20th century. Only Rookwood, the most famous, held on until 1967. Though they had in common a dedication to organic forms, each had a distinctive style, often based on local materials such as the nature of the clay or flowers that grew in the area. Glazes, developed by individual workshops, were also distinguishing features.

Its principles were imported from Great Britain in the late 19th century where William Morris rebelled against what he considered shoddy, soulless Industrial Age production standards. American interpretations became increasingly independent stylistically but the basic philosophy remained: to create practical things that bore the marks of individual creation. Pride of workmanship was as important as that of ownership

Such a noble aspiration has generated some cynicism. Though its most famous purveyors did try to improve working conditions for laborers, rarely was the pottery the work of a single artisan. The process in many cases resembled an assembly line. Those (usually men) who made the forms - sometimes thrown on a wheel and sometimes cast from molds - and those (usually women) who decorated and glazed them, rarely had a free hand in aesthetic decisions.

In the workshops, women at work

Still, it's an issue of degrees. The workshops were generally small and "mass production" was minimal compared with a real factory. If the designs were preordained by management, the workers could provide subtle variations. It was a forgiving uniformity. And it was especially friendly to women both as bosses and laborers. A number of women established workshops and, whether owned by men or women, they all provided employment opportunities for women beyond the domestic pool and sweatshops. Conditions usually were better than the latter two options. For example, work areas were usually bathed in sunlight from lots of windows.

Overbeck Pottery of Cambridge City, Ind., was among the most interesting of the group. It was small, comprised eight sisters who had been trained by their mother to believe marriage was a waste of women's time, and sought careers as teachers. They also studied art and began painting china professionally, an acceptably genteel occupation. They decided to set up their own pottery operation, not only decorating but also throwing their own pots. Like many arts and crafts potters, their designs had a strong Japanese influence that gradually merged with the newly popular art deco style that supplanted the arts and crafts movement aesthetic around 1915.

Paul Revere Pottery was another female enterprise. It was begun as a charitable enterprise by three Bostonians wanting to help young women, many of them new immigrants, who became known as the Saturday Evening Girls. Their wares were always functional pieces such as plates and bowls. The designs, created by one of the founders and copied by the girls, often were fanciful parades of birds around a rim.

Newcomb Pottery was founded in the late 19th century at Newcomb College, the women's branch of Tulane University, to provide its students with practical applications of their art training. The signature color was blue, not by choice but because of its durability when fired. Because of the New Orleans humidity, designs were painted directly onto the clay with mineral tints after its first firing rather than using the barbotine method of many other shops in which tinted clay (called slips) was applied in thick layers.

The predominance of Rookwood

The behemoth was Rookwood Pottery, established in the 1880s and named after the large crow (rooks) population in the Cincinnati area. Rookwood was the brainchild of Maria Longworth Nichols, who persuaded her wealthy father to bankroll a commercial venture based on her china painting. She assembled a staff to increase production, then sold her interest to its manager in the early 1890s. He led Rookwood into prominence, encouraging and financing experimentation with glazes and design that gave the label its reputation for excellence.

An anomaly in this exhibition is the presence of work by Adelaide Alsop Robineau (1865-1929), who was not affiliated with any workshop but was among the most respected members of the arts and crafts movement. One of eight children living with her divorced mother, she helped support the family as a china painter. She married in 1899 and with her husband founded the magazine Keramic Studio, which became an influential journal and the main source of their income. She learned to make ceramics, and her work in porcelain is exquisite, delicately unlike that of her peers.

Such diversity dispels many preconceptions and cliches about arts and crafts in the ceramics medium. The catalog, on sale at the museum's store, offers a wealth of historical detail and an essay by the curators presenting a thorough overview of the movement. Among the wonderful stories is that of Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942), one of the most distinguished ceramicists of his time. His arts and crafts workshop in Santa Barbara, Calif., lasted only from 1914 to 1917 but he went on to use the new art deco influences to create Fiesta dinnerware.

And by the way, though I'm still lukewarm toward arts and crafts furniture, I'm now a fan of its ceramics.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at or 1-727-893-8293.