Early Rookwood Pottery advertising tile.
The Rookwood Pottery Company was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since their inception, the company continued to produce innovative art pottery for over 100 years. Always striving to stay ahead of current trends, their styles changed with the times, new lines being created and old ones being retired. Although they created an almost mind-boggling assortment of pieces, most collectors know very little about the earliest of Rookwood art pottery. In this article we shall explore the various lines, styles, and artists who created these early wares, and help set Rookwood Pottery on it's journey.
Early Limoges Rookwood pottery vase with fish.
Limoges and Cincinnati Faience
When the Rookwood Pottery began, they were considered the primary innovator of under-glaze painting, which is a process of applying various colored clay as a palette and painting it onto a piece of pottery before applying the final glaze. Their early work was referred to as both "Limoges" from the region in France which had pioneered the process, and as "Cincinnati Faience" in an attempt to differentiate it. The Cincinnati Faience style was usually produced on hand-thrown pieces, often carved and incised, with very thick decoration under the glaze. Some people refer to this work as "Halloween Rookwood" due to the subject matter, which often shows various grotesque insects, birds, dragons, fish, bats, spiders, spiderwebs, and nets. Nearly all of this thick, heavy under-glaze was created by Maria Longworth Nichols and Albert Humphreys, although Helen Peachy and several other members of the Cincinnati Pottery Club are known to have produced some. Very often there is added gold gilding above the glaze to highlight details. Collectors of Limoges face a daunting task, very little has survived outside of museums, and pieces by the founder of Rookwood often come with a hefty price tag. She produced very little after 1883, so this date is usually assumed as the end of the Rookwood Limoges line.
Lovely Japanesque Rookwood miniature perfume jug
The addition of several new artists refined the subject somewhat, adding sparrows, bamboo, owls, and other popular themes providing a more delicate design. Much of the artwork was taken from various Japanese texts, and as such is usually referred to as the "Japanesque Rookwood". The artwork is generally considered not to be a replication of Japanese style, but more of an interpretation of what Americans thought Japanese art was at the time. Most of the Japanesque pieces were decorated on molded pieces, and often on such mundane things as porridge bowls or ginger jars. Matthew Daly, Joseph Hirschfeld, Martin Rettig, Alfred Brennan, William McDonald, Hattie Horton, Laura Fry, Clara Newton, and Albert Valentien pioneered these Japanesque styles, mixing various sparrows, butterflys, owls, cloudy skies, landscapes, bamboo, and floral themes. Many of the artworks were originally standardized, with all of the artists decorating pieces with the same image, and they all appear nearly identical. However, very quickly each artist began developing their own styles and repertoire, expanding the variety of artwork available. Pieces by Daly and Valentein are considered slightly more collectible than the other artists in the Japanesque style, but they are generally not considered much more aesthetically pleasing than the others. Collectors of Rookwood Japanesque art pottery tend to pay less attention to the artist and more attention to the overall rarity of the piece and the subject matter. Most of the the early themes disappeared after 1885 and were replaced almost completely by floral compositions. This tradition continued somewhat with the cameo and dull glaze lines, well into the 1890's.
Early Rookwood vase carved by Harriet Wenderoth.
Incised and Carved
A third, and very overlooked early style was the production of pieces which were not decorated under-slip with colors, but instead were carved and incised. Various artists with talent in woodcarving as well as young schoolgirls were given the opportunity to decorate pieces and used a variety of methods to produce them. The simplest methods used nail-heads or dies to create repeating patterns on a piece of pottery, but some produced very intricate and delicate carvings. Fanny Auckland, William Breuer, Katherine deGolter, Agnes Pittman, and Harriet Wenderoth each have their own unique style, but those pieces which were hand-carved rather than impressed tend to have a better appeal to collectors. One notable exception is Ms. Auckland who has found quite a following among collectors. By 1883 the production of these carved and impressed pieces vanished, and carved pieces were rarely manufactured again until the Arts and Crafts period decades later.
Often overlooked by experts, the early Rookwood art pottery lines can provide a rich experience for collectors looking for unique and interesting pieces to display. Whether it is the heavy and often grotesque Limoges style of the founder, the delicate Japanesque style of the early artists, or the true roots of Art and Crafts in Cincinnati, there is something for everyone. Most major auctions will have a few such pieces, and collecting them can be a challenging and life-long endeavor. Aside from auctions, there are many sources on the internet where you can find Rookwood pottery for sale, although few have the art pottery desired by collectors of the early works. Now that you know what to look for, it is time to get out there and find them!