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When fired clay sounds edible: Ruskin Pottery and a Smethwick firm’s rise into the international arena

11/13/2009
Ruskin Pottery Vase, Crystalline Glaze

Ruskin pottery vase with a crystalline glaze.

Soufflé and flambé. What? Sounds like we should be in the kitchen, but if you were anywhere around 173-174 Oldbury Road, Smethwick in the early years of the twentieth century, you might have known of a place that made not food, but pottery, flambé and soufflé being two (of several) types of pottery glazes used by Edward Taylor, founder of the world-famous Ruskin Pottery.

Why ‘Ruskin’?

‘Ruskin Pottery’ actually refers to the factory itself, which was originally named Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works, but is used to refer to the wares produced as well. It was named for the artist, writer and thinker John Ruskin, with whom Taylor felt an affinity in his ideals of quality and beauty. These beautifully imaginative pieces were prized the world over for their vivid colours and sheer variety of patterns.

The Glazes

The Taylors used a number of glazes, some of which he is credited with inventing, including soufflé (or bleu soufflé), crystalline, lustre and flambé.

Ruskin Pottery Clock Face (Soufflé Glaze)

Ruskin pottery clock face with a soufflé glaze, and our object of the week. Soufflé glazes had a 'misty' look and were often in blues or greens.

Smethwick Success Story

The pottery was successfully exhibited in the UK, but gained worldwide acclaim after being awarded a ‘grand prize’ in 1904 at the St Louis International Exhibition and went on to win awards in Milan, Brussels, New Zealand and London, among others. The dream would not last forever, however. Ruskin pottery was expensive to make and expensive to buy, the glazes requiring an unsually large number of firings, and when the Great Depression hit in the 1920s, the resulting sales decline was to lead to the eventual closure of the factory in the 1933. Taylor died two years later, leaving his son to guard the secret formulae of the Ruskin glazes, which he, in turn, never revealed; the surviving staff, too, presumably, kept whatever they knew silent.

Ruskin Pottery Vase (Flambé)

Ruskin Pottery Vase, flambé glaze. Flambé glazes were created using reduction of copper and iron oxides at high temperature.

The Dying Secret

One glaze in particular was a jealously guarded treasure of Taylor’s – only he and a few members of factory staff knew the secret to the world famous and incredibly valuable – not to mention excitingly named – flambé glaze, which was termed sang de beouf (beef blood) for its intense blood red hue. In 1993, a piece sold for £11,000. To put this in perspective, in 1993, the average price for an ‘average’ house in the UK was around £50,000, as opposed to around £150,000 today (source: House Price Crash).

Ruskin Pottery Today

You can see some spectacular examples of work from the Ruskin Pottery at Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery. If you’re lucky enough to own any pieces, we’d love to hear from you in the comments, and as usual there are more photos over on flickr.

To find out more about Ruskin pottery, you could visit Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery’s Ruskin page or pop along to the exhibit.

For more detailed research you might like to check out Ruskin Pottery: The Pottery of Edward Richard Taylor and William Howson Taylor, 1898-1935 by Paul Atterbury and John Henson, ISBN 0-9520933-0-8.

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