The Arts and Craft movement took place at the end of the 19th century it connected many outstanding creative talents across Europe and North America.
It responded to the dehumanising trends of industrialisation by rediscovering the dignity of labour in workshops, influenced by an idealised vision of the Middle Ages, rooted in the teachings of John Ruskin and exemplified in William Morris’ work.
While it was prone to cynicism in the 20th century – for example, it was often pointed out that Morris’ handmade goods were too costly for anyone other than the wealthy he claimed to despise. However, through a fertile and now highly valued time of applied art, the Arts & Crafts wove a distinctive pattern.
The designers and artists fled the shadow of the factories to pursue their handicrafts in rural surroundings, a notable contribution to this international movement arose from that least promising district of the West Midlands, Smethwick.
Founded by William Howson Taylor
Edward Taylor, headmaster of the Birmingham School of Art, and his 22-year-old son, William Howson Taylor, founded The Ruskin Pottery in Oldbury Road in 1898. Originally named the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works, in recognition of his influence it adopted Ruskin’s name.
Edward Talyor (1838-1912) was a prolific artist whose very traditional Victorian paintings, exhibited at the Royal Academy, offer no indication of his devotion to Ruskin’s and Morris’s philosophy.
Nevertheless, after arriving in Birmingham in 1877 as the first headmaster of the first municipal art school in Britain, he quickly developed it as an Arts & Crafts hotbed in a building designed by another Ruskin follower, John Henry Chamberlain, in which students were required to master a variety of craft skills in addition to drawing and painting.
Taylor is known to have plunged about 10,000 pounds into the Ruskin Pottery in his early years, believed to have been a bequest from his mother who died in 1894. Still, nothing is known about his finances as hardly any documentation survives.
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Chinese ceramics from the 12th-19th centuries were the inspiration. The red glazes created by the Chinese potters were much admired in Europe, and considerable research was carried out from the mid-19th century to unravel their mysteries.
Edward Howson Taylor expanded on this with his experiments. Still, since Howson Taylor destroyed the kilns and formulas when he closed the pottery in 1935, Ruskin glazes are themselves a mystery, and none of his employees subsequently betrayed his secrecy.
This loyalty reflects, by William Morris’s principles, the favourable working conditions on offer at the pottery. During its 37-year existence, the company hired thirty men and women, with a limit of 16 at any one time. With weekend picnics at the Clent Hills in which Howson Taylor took part, a family environment seems to have prevailed.
During the First World War, when many employees joined up, Howson Taylor kept their jobs open for them, presenting each with a handmade suit on his return.
The reality is that he could have afforded a Rolls Royce as Howson Taylor cycled to and from work. His pots quickly won international awards despite their unpretentious roots – at the St Louis Centennial Exposition in 1904, in Milan in 1906 – and many were shipped directly to America, where Liberty’s became a major customer.
Ruskin ceramics, as well as the pots, were integrated into jewellery and other metalware made in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.
In 1935, Howson Taylor donated a collection of pieces to the museum, which is about a 15-minute drive from the pottery site. In memory of his father, he also gave a collection to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
The red flambe glazes are mostly admired by enthusiasts today, but this is just one of Ruskin’s five glazes. They are souffle, lustre, red flambe, crystalline and matt in the sequential development order, the last two were introduced in the 1920s when lustre and flambe had gone out of fashion.
The souffle was the first glaze types created in 1898 They produced lustre glazes and high-fired flambe from 1905, and in the 1920s, crystallines were introduced.
Howson Talyor, a reserved and self-facing man, married Florence Tilley, a former employee in 1934. He moved to Devon after closing the pottery in 1935 but died of prostate cancer shortly afterwards.
Nothing remains of the Ruskin Pottery today, except that a cue-sac named Ruskin Way is included in the new trading estate that replaced it. A commemorative plaque was installed in 1979 on the former home of Taylors in Smethwick.
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Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing. https://amzn.to/3ElmSlL
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