-More Style Than Tile

by Don Treadway

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Winter/Spring 2005

Rookwood Pottery
Spring Lake, Carl Schmidt, 1919

The production of ceramic tiles is based on an ancient form of pottery craftsmanship, ultimately perfected in the United States at Rookwood Pottery. Rookwood has long been considered America’s finest pottery, with its heyday beginning in early 1900 and progressing through the 1930s.

Shortly after the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, American ceramic artists began making wares primarily for utilitarian purposes. In many cases, these products also possessed decorative value. This is where the dividing line is drawn between plaques and tiles, which are separate and distinct from one another. Tiles most likely were produced for architectural and utilitarian reasons, while plaques were almost purely decorative. The production period between 1910 and 1930 was, in my opinion, the apex of their output. During that time, buyers were given the opportunity to acquire landscapes, seascapes and the occasional figural painting - all on a Rookwood plaque.

Primarily, these plaques were made by slip decoration and finished in a vellum glaze. The overwhelming majority were landscapes, and many took on a tonalist quality. During this particular timeframe, plaques displayed a variety of pastel colors, a few had snow scenes, and the majority had a bit of crazing. Crazing is the phenomenon where the outer glaze contracts at a different rate than the underglaze painting or the ceramic body, leaving a lightly checked outer surface immediately after production. Rarely will you find plaques of the early period, particularly the teens, without the presence of this crazing. In later years, the people operating the kilns presumably had a better handle on the clay bodies or silica recipes - and quite possibly the firing time and temperature - thereby enabling them to produce uncrazed plaques. Interestingly, the original price hand written on the back of an uncrazed plaque was usually higher in comparison to the price shown on the reverse of a crazed plaque

Considering the entire production of Rookwood’s major types of wares, which would include standard, iris, vellum, matt and porcelain glazes, the plaque would represent one of Rookwood’s rarest outputs. I have been asked many times but have never found the answer to why their market value seems to exceed that of vases of the same proportion. The production of a plaque would be simpler than that of a vase, in that the artist had a flat tile "canvas" on which to work, as opposed to a rounded vase where the scene had to connect and flow together. Granted, with tiles there is the matter of warpage, but in spite of this exception to condition, the value of plaques today exceeds that of their vase counterparts from the same time period.

In most cases, the scenes depicted on Rookwood plaques were taken from local landscapes, with the obvious exception of the Venetian scenes by Carl Schmidt and Ed Diers. You will occasionally find a scene of snowcapped mountains that certainly were not part of the surrounding landscape, but more likely taken from a painting viewed at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Art Museum, located near the Rookwood pottery works. In the case of some early standard glaze plaques, primarily produced between 1900 and 1905, you will see paintings of Dutch or English gentlemen, as well as American Indians. The images of Indians probably came from photographs, and the European gentlemen, from famous paintings - also, perhaps from a local museum.

Venice, Carl Schmidt, 1926
Rookwood Pottery

Rookwood plaques come in a variety of sizes, the smallest usually being 4 by 8in, and the largest, 14 by 16in. I have encountered a number of the latter, unusually large plaques, which were produced between 1930 and 1940. Quite often, these plaques are uncrazed and not adversely affected by warpage. Because of their impressive size and top-rate decoration, these plaques bring a premium with today’s collectors. They truly fall into the category of fine art, as they are the size of an average painting.

When considering the production of these plaques as opposed to the production of a painting, the artist who is utilizing oil on canvas views his work as it is being produced - the colors, the brushstrokes, everything is there for him to see and correct, if necessary. On the other hand, a Rookwood plaque was produced in the same method with one important exception: while slip painting a piece, the artist could not be sure of how the color would appear after firing. Perhaps the application of slip would be heavy, thus rendering "crawling" to the glaze. Or, perhaps the green trees would appear more blue, the pink sky too pale, or blue water some other shade. This is the one aspect of the artistry seen on Rookwood plaques that I find most impressive.

Woodland Interior, Ed Diers, 1916
 Rookwood Pottery

It would be difficult to estimate the amount of work that might have been destroyed over the years by Rookwood’s artists who designed plaques. You will seldom see a plaque that is not nicely done. Unlike their counterparts from the vase category, rarely do "rejected" plaques surface in the marketplace. As with other categories of Rookwood, the value of plaques has climbed steadily since my involvement in the market began. There has not been any apparent depression in their prices or desirability.

Some collectors seek plaques by a certain artist. Others go by theme or other criteria. There were a few decorators at Rookwood who excelled with plaques, there were some who never painted them, and a few who shouldn’t have painted them at all. You are likely to see a high standard of artistry in designs by E.T. Hurley, Fred Rothenbusch, Ed Diers, Lenore Asbury, Sara Sax and Sallie Coyne. Outside of portraits, you won’t find many plaques painted by A.R. Valentien, Sturgess Lawrence or Grace Young.

E.T. Hurley was among the best at producing quality tonalist plaques. Hurley’s later work included Venetian scenes and harbor scenes that, in my opinion, are a bit stiff and too reminiscent of the 1940s style of painting.

Sara Sax was a superb artist with a wide artistic repertoire, from a Japonesque style to beautifully illuminated landscapes, mountain ranges, sparsely decorated landscapes with thin delicate trees, and snowscapes that are absolutely cold to the touch. Her work draws a lot of interest, as well as premium prices.

Fred Rothenbusch produced some of the best large plaques I have ever seen - many times Impressionistic in style, but often with a glaze that is second to none.

Ed Diers painted great landscapes, and in terms of trees, he was one of the best. In the genre of landscapes that he reigns supreme.

Seascape, Ed Diers, 1929

Sample Rookwood Pottery
Lenore Asbury painted distinctive trees and employed a wonderful range of colors. When her work was well done, it was a beautiful piece of art.

Carl Schmidt was famous for his Venetian scene plaques. Small or large, all were painted with precision, undeniably the work of a genius. Schmidt plaques are extremely easy to recognize. His landscapes are like a photograph, beautifully detailed, with an artistic treatment of sky, trees, water and ground that is very different to that of his peers.

What makes Rookwood plaques so special? Probably the fact that they are somewhat unique in the world of art and, almost always, pleasant forms of artwork. I suspect that, in the years to come, their appreciation will grow, resulting in rising values and an ever-greater scarcity. As our collecting population increases and more people are exposed to these works of art, Rookwood plaques will undoubtedly remain in homes and institutions, proudly displayed on walls and enjoyed by their owners. In the overall scheme of what was produced by Rookwood, their plaques stand alone.

Contact: Treadway Gallery (513) 321-6742

All images courtesy Treadway Gallery Inc.

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