Nick Davies cracks open the secrets of a pottery started in an Edgbaston back garden
In the late 19th Century the founder of Ruskin Pottery, Edward Taylor, a leading figure in the arts and crafts movement and head of the Birmingham School of Art, had a lifelong ambition to create a new kind of pottery. He built a small kiln in the garden of his home at 26 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, where he and his son William Howson Taylor experimented with various glazes inspired by Chinese ceramics dating back up to 700 years. In December 1898, after some success, they opened a small pottery works on Oldbury Road, West Smethwick named the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works. This factory was to grow and change its name in 1904 to become Ruskin Pottery as a nod to writer and art critic John Ruskin’s ideals of quality and beauty. In this year there was a major breakthrough for the company when it was awarded the Grand Prix prize for a display of pottery at the St Louis Exhibition in America – an accolade which opened doors across the United States for the export of wares such as Soufflé, Lustre, Crystalline and the high-fired ‘flambé’ range. It also signalled a boom time for the factory.
LIBERTY & CO
Ruskin Pottery made not just vases but also ginger jars, bowls, buttons, jewellery, lamps and perfume bottles as well as silver-mounted pieces for companies such as Liberty & Co. In the 1930s with the Depression and a change of fashion, demand for Ruskin began to wane and troubled by ill health Howson finally closed the works in December 1933. He destroyed every shred of research and development he had spent years compiling, determined no one should ever make or copy Ruskin Pottery again. He died two years later aged 59, taking his secrets to the grave. Ruskin Pottery with its clear marks and unique glazes is now collected all over the world and can be purchased from as little as £30 for a small crystalline piece, reaching thousands of pounds for a high-fired item. Examples can been seen in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Ruskin is one of my favourite ceramic factories due to its simplicity and timeless elegance – but being born and bred in Birmingham maybe I am just a little bias…