In the last decade of the 1800s, a small company opened its doors in Roseville, Ohio, under the name of Roseville Pottery Company. At first, its only objective was to survive in an area where pottery production was highly competitive. Its production of quality utilitarian pottery, such as stoneware and painted flower pots, earned a degree of financial stability for the infant company. But it was pottery as functional art that earned the prestigious reputation by which Roseville Pottery is well-known today.
When the company moved from Roseville to a new facility in Zanesville, Ohio in 1898, the company’s first art line was named Rozane, derived by merging the company’s name with the name of its new home. This pottery was a giant leap away from the utilitarian pieces that had started the company. It featured slip-decorated artwork with designs reminiscent of Victorian art, such as scenes from nature, floral designs, animals, and portraits. These were themes that were highly popular in the early 1900s; unfortunately, the Rozane line didn’t spark a great deal of interest from the public, since it was simply imitating what other pottery companies were producing.
In 1904, Frederick Rhead came from England to take a position as Roseville’s Art Director. He brought with him the squeeze bag method of decoration, which is a similar technique to cake decorating. This method turned out to be frequently used on many of the company’s early pottery designs. Two years after his arrival, Rhead developed what is largely believed to be Roseville’s finest and most artistic undertaking—the Della Robbia line. The process consisted of sculpting the piece, then cutting away parts of the surface and adding three-dimensional decorations. The pieces from this line were all individually hand-crafted by different artists; no molds were used, and production for each piece was limited.
Today’s collectors find Della Robbia items to be the most expensive of all Roseville Pottery, when they can be found. Sometimes the larger or more uncommon pieces can range in the tens of thousands of dollars. Moreover, artists’ signatures influence the value of a piece, as different artists had different reputations based on the quality of their work. Understandably, artists who demonstrated a higher level of talent are more sought after by today’s collectors, and bring higher prices. While an unsigned piece may have the same degree of beauty and quality, it will not bring the same price as a signed one.
As the company continued to develop, design inspiration was found in many diverse areas. Rhead and other Roseville designers looked to folk art for subject matter; the ancient Egyptians for their designs in low relief; and the deep red, high gloss designs favored by the Chinese. Before Rhead left the company in 1908, he had personally designed or overseen such lines of art pottery as Aztec, Egypto, Mongol, and Olympic. But the Della Robbia line will always be his greatest claim to fame.
In 1909, Harry Rhead followed his brother as art director for Roseville Pottery. His first line for the company, Donatello (after the great Renaissance sculptor), was an immediate success. Pieces from this line are typically ivory-colored, intricately fluted, with a wide frieze decorated with scenes that are suggestive of Donatello’s sculptures. Many of the scenes depict one of Donatello’s favorite subjects: cherubs dancing, frolicking, or playing music in pastoral settings. This Rhead brother followed up the success of the Donatello line by designing or overseeing the design of the Juvenile, Mostique, and Pauleo lines.
The Rhead influence on Roseville pottery ended in 1918, when Harry Rhead left the company and was replaced as art director by Frank Ferrell in 1919. Ferrell, along with glaze chemist George Krause, was largely responsible for conceiving the 1930s patterns that have become collectors’ favorites:
- Ferella is an Art Deco style that is in high demand by collectors. Designs include bowls, candlesticks, flower pots, vases, and wall pockets, and are mostly found in brown or deep red colors.
- The Pine Cone design is found in a variety of shapes and colors, the most prevalent being nature colors such as clear blues or browns and greens.
- The Sunflower design is featured on vases, bowls, jardinières, umbrella stands, and wall pockets in hues of greens, blues, browns, and yellows. This is a highly popular and valuable pattern, despite the fact that many people think the sunflower looks more like a chrysanthemum.
- The Roseville Baneda design can be seen on a variety of shapes, including bowls, jardinières, vases, wall pockets, and candleholders. The patterns in green are popular with Arts and Crafts collectors, and the pink designs are sought after by Art Deco enthusiasts.
The creative success of the Ferrell-Krause team continued into the 40’s and early 50’s with the “flower” designs:
- The Zephyr Lily pattern recreates the simple elegance of the lily on backgrounds of blue, brown, or green. This pattern can be seen on Roseville bowls, vases, candleholders, tea sets, wall pockets, and jardinières.
- The Magnolia line highlights the magnificent blossom of the magnolia tree, usually depicted on a background of blue, green, or brown. Brown is not as popular with collectors as the blue and green are. Some of the pieces in this line bear a sense of the Mid-Century Modern, as they combine curves and angles in unusual ways. Besides the typical shapes available in the other designs, there are also ash trays and conch shell bowls available in the Magnolia line.
- The charming Wisteria design showcases purple wisteria blossoms with their green foliage in relief on backgrounds of blue or brown. This design is featured mainly on bowls and vases, and provides a slightly higher degree of contrast than many of the other designs.
Roseville Pottery collectibles include many other designs including Blackberry, Snowberry, Futura, Capri, and many others. Predictably, the popularity of this pottery has spawned a high incidence of reproductions, especially from China. Although Roseville pottery has almost always been marked for authenticity, it’s not always easy to verify, as the triangular paper and foil labels from the earlier years have likely peeled off, and the early red crayon marks have worn off or been washed off. The more permanent marks came later on, and include raised or impressed printing of the words “Roseville USA” in the clay on the underside of the piece. The shape number and height of the piece are also usually included with the marking. Early pieces may have an ink-printed symbol with the letter “V” sitting inside a larger letter “R”.
Don’t rely on the Roseville mark on the bottom of a piece to ensure its authenticity. If the “USA” is not under the word “Roseville,” you may be looking at a fake, although there were a few genuine pieces that omitted the USA mark. Another good indication is the way the “R” is shaped. On authentic pieces, the right leg of the R is elongated to almost equal the length of the word “Roseville,” and it sweeps gracefully below the USA. The “e” at the end of Roseville is also elongated, and flows off toward the edge of the piece. Although reproductions attempt to imitate this mark, they are usually awkward or sloppy-looking. There are several books and websites that illustrate the contrast between genuine marks and fakes.
Faced with all the crafty imitators out there, collectors, especially novices, need to be wary when they have the “opportunity” to acquire a piece of Roseville pottery art. One thing to look for is a smooth, clear glaze with no drips or smears. In addition, a dull or flat-looking glaze is not likely to be an authentic Roseville piece. Since Roseville pottery is made from denser clay than most of the imitators, each article should also have a solid feel to it, not a lightweight, insubstantial quality. If the piece has handles, they should be delicate-looking but sturdy. Imitations will usually have heavier, ungraceful handles. If you’re offered a piece that features a bright background or has a cloudy appearance, say “Thanks, but no thanks!” The coloring of authentic Roseville pieces should be subtle, but rich. Learning to recognize what’s authentic and what’s imitation will save a lot of frustration and disappointment.
Although the Roseville Pottery Company has been out of production since 1954, collectors continue to search for pieces made by the company, and the search is likely to continue as long as there’s appreciation for function, beauty, and, of course, art.
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