They were either muddle-headed eccentrics or else hard-nosed entrepreneurs but the art potters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had the same aim: at a time when new techniques and advances in machine technology made mass-produced pottery a reality, they sought to maintain and enhance artistic merit, craftsmanship and decorative individuality.
Foot soldiers of the army that rallied round William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement, art potters such as Henry Doulton and William Moorcroft, led workforces that were encouraged to be individuals and given full rein when it came to creativity.
But as entrepreneurs Doulton and Moorcroft kept their respective eyes on the bottom line, the less well-known Harold Rathbone was among several eccentrics.
In 1894, Rathbone founded a pottery on the banks of the River Mersey at Birkenhead and named it grandly Della Robbia after the Italian Renaissance sculptor family of the same name whom he so admired. The enterprise lasted just 12 years.
However, in that brief but feverish spell, Della Robbia’s craftsman potters produced some remarkable pieces that today are coveted by museums and private collectors alike.
Birkenhead was not the obvious place for Rathbone’s venture. Nevertheless, there was a thriving industrial community which in the space of 60 years, had grown from a population of just 200 to around 100,000.
Increasing prosperity generated a greater interest in the arts and Rathbone had the financial wherewithal to indulge his ideals.
A painter, designer and poet, he had been a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, who with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rosetti founded the Arts and Crafts movement.
Using local labour and red clays found nearby Moreton, Rathbone set out to emulate the architectural ornament of the 15th century Della Robbias.
By combining their designs with domestic and ecclesistical pottery, he hoped to serve the homes, businesses and churches of merchants and businessmen who chose to live out of Liverpool in the pleasant surroundings of Wirral.
His co-founder was patron of the arts Conrad Dressler (1856-1940) himself a sculptor and inventor of the tunnel kiln, a method of firing pottery that revolutionised the industry.
Dressler was a member of the Art Workers’ Guild from 1891-1918 and first set up a foundry in Chelsea where he fired bronzes for other sculptors, notably William De Morgan.
Sadly, the partnership with Rathbone was short-lived and Dressler, frustrated by his partner’s lack of focus on the practical side of the business, left after three years to set up his own Medmenham Pottery, near Windsor.
Ironically, in the same year that the Della Robbia factory was founded, a gifted young Italian sculptor named Giovanni Carlo Manzoni (1855 – 1910) had visited Birkenhead, having been invited to exhibit some of his sculpture at Dressler’s home.
Originally from Turin, Manzoni was an accomplished linguist who taught languages and anatomy. He was also a gifted sculptor and a skilled carpenter, working in mosaic, marquetry and carving, but a potter he was probably not.
However, fate brought him to England, where he founded the Granville Pottery in Hanley, Staffordshire.
Output was crude and spasmodic, but the ware had a geometric and colourful style all its own.
Production was based on trial and error and the business went out of existence after only a short time when the works was hit by a disastrous fire.
When Dressler quit Della Robbia to start his pottery, he no doubt hoped Manzoni would join him at the Medmenham Pottery, but instead, the Italian threw his hand in with Rathbone becoming his chief artistic director.
Manzoni went on to become one of Della Robbia’s most innovative and vibrant designers.
His masterpiece was a fine two-handled vase decorated with a painting of a Renaissance beauty set within a medallion.
Such rarities might take a lifetime to find today, but among his other superb examples of Della Robbia pottery, is a clock case with Latin inscription designed by Ruth Bare and decorated by Alice Jones, two of Manzoni’s protégés.
It can be seen in the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum in Birkenhead where you’ll find probably the finest collection of Della Robbia on permanent public display anywhere.
Next year sees the centenary of the closure of the Della Robbia factory and the Williamson Museum and Art Gallery — which has one of the finest displays of the pottery on display anywhere — hopes to mark the occasion with an exhibition. Watch this page for further details. In the meantime, I recommend a visit. The museum is open from 10.00am-5.00pm every day except Monday.
After the demise of the Della Robbia venture, Manzoni finished his days making headstones and crosses for cemeteries.
Naturally enough, examples of Manzoni’s work from both his Granville and Della Robbia days are extremely scarce.
Pieces from his Hanley works bear an inscribed mark which reads: “Hand Drawn and Painted” usually ranged around a CM monogram which also sometimes bears a date.
Sadly, he appears to have been too modest to mark much of his Della Robbia output, although pieces have appeared marked “M,CM”. Further research may well throw more light onto this talented but shy artist.
Another highly talented and most consistent Della Robbia designer was Cassandia Annie Walker and her name is associated with much of the factory’s best work.
As the name suggests, there is a strong Renaissance influence in the pottery Rathbone produced.
The lustrous glazes, patterns of interweaving stems, symbolic plant and organic forms of Art Nouveau are combined with heraldic and Islamic motifs achieving a harmony between the shape of the pots and the designs that are woven across their surfaces.
Rathbone used coloured lead glazes rather than the tin-glazed earthenware or faience of the early Italians and Della Robbia pottery is usually recognisable by its blue-green, yellow and brown colouring.
Another distinguishing feature is its distinctive “scraffito” decoration, the term given to the technique of carving decoration into the wet clay before firing.
Rathbone’s own work often shows Art Nouveau influences, with flowing lines on figures and foliage decoration, but he gave free rein to art students like Cassandia Annie Walker who often included children and woodland flowers in her designs.
Not surprisingly, it was the technical superiority and remarkable results achieved by the innovative production team that proved to be the company’s failing.
The clay proved hard to work and decorate to Rathbone’s satisfaction but he was an eccentric and erratic boss.
His fixation with hand-crafting took precedence over commercial considerations and his temperament cost him first the services of Conrad Dressler and ultimately the business.
Pictures show, top: A selection of Della Robbia from the stock of A.D. Antiques, Stone Staffs. :eft to right: a vase decorated by John Fago £795; another by Alice Louise Jones, £1,950 and a jug by Gertrude Russel.
Below, delightful Della Robbia from the Williamson Museum Collection. Left to right: A Dutch vase (lid missing) with simple snaking scraffito decoration and minimal colour; a circular plaque with daffodils around the rim and the sun in the centre and an Algerian style two-handled vase with painted decoration, rather like that used by the Glasgow School of artists.
PICTURES COURTESY THE WILLIAMSON ART GALLERY AND MUSEUM, BIRKENHEAD