Visual Arts Commentary: Disshing it Out – Boston’s Arts and Crafts Movement Ceramic Leadership

By Mark Faverman

Believe it or not, Boston – the home of stick-in-mud, architectural and decorative conservatism – was the initial epicenter of the Arts and Crafts movement in America.

Saturday Evening Girls Paul Revere Pottery Bowl, 1911, by Sara Galner in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Photo: The MFA.

Originating in Britain in the second half of the 19th century, the Arts and Crafts movement was a creative reaction against the overly ornate, artificial and factory-made furniture of the time. It was also a rejection of the period’s excessive detailing on decorative objects. Surprisingly, Boston – the home of stick-in-mud, architectural and decorative conservatism – was the initial epicenter of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. And he focused on simple bowls and dishes.

Repelled by the crudely crafted domestic objects of mid-19th century industrial production, the godfather of the American Arts and Crafts version was Harvard and America’s first professor of art history, Charles Elliot Norton. He was an early convert to the English Arts and Crafts movement; he was introduced to it by his friend, the English art critic John Ruskin, as well as by the socialist designer William Morris. Norton embraced a return to handmade objects while emphasizing the study of simpler styles and historical artifacts. He believed in the moral value of good design.

Along with colleagues like Langford Warren, founder of Harvard’s School of Architecture (later Graduate School of Design), artisans, and an assortment of Brahmin social reformers, Norton called a meeting in January 1897 to display this more authentic style at Boston’s Museum. of Fine Arts. . The first American Arts and Crafts Exhibition was held at Copley Hall in Boston on April 5, 1897. It featured over 1,000 objects by 160 artisans, half of whom were women. The popularity of this exhibit inspired the founding of the Society of Arts and Crafts (SAC) in Boston, which sparked the creation of many similar groups in cities across the country.

Grueby Earthenware Pottery Vase, ca. 1898–1909 by George P. Kendrick in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: The Met.

A proliferation of studios and craft shops quickly grew in the Boston area. Great products from four of the hottest companies are now highly sought after. These include the Grueby Faience Company, Saturday Evening Girls of Paul Revere Pottery, Marblehead Pottery Studio and Dedham Pottery.

The Grueby Faience Company was founded in Revere, Massachusetts in 1894. It produced distinctive pottery, vases, and tiles. William H. Grueby visited the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he saw French ceramics with matte glazes on simple, organic forms and elegant Japanese pieces. He returned to Boston and developed fine glazes and applied them to elemental ceramic forms. He also sculpted and applied stylized leaves and flowers to surfaces.

Her most popular frosting was a rich cucumber green. The first Grueby Green wares were sold in 1897 and this coincided with Gustav Stickley (the leading figure in Arts and Crafts furniture design and architecture) presenting his Craftsman furniture at United Crafts in Eastwood, New York. Grueby’s matte green ceramic complemented Stickley’s distinctive oak furniture and Craftsman homes so well that Stickley included Grueby pieces in its furniture displays and in its advertisements. To the detriment of Grueby’s business, cucumber frosting was widely imitated by other competing companies, leading to bankruptcy followed by a weak recovery. Grueby Pottery fell out of favor at the start of World War I and closed permanently in 1920. Grueby’s impressive legacy can be admired today in major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Saturday Evening Girls Club (SEG) began as a library reading group to educate and assimilate immigrant girls, primarily Eastern European Jews and Italian Catholics. The program was launched in part as a strategy to keep them “off the streets”. It was also created to “Americanize” these young immigrant women by exposing them to middle-class WASP culture and to instill moral values ​​in them.

Founded by local reforming Brahmin philanthropists, the SEG program was located in Boston’s North End. At first it was created at North Bennet Street School. The SEG mainly attracted its members among the older daughters of the families, many of whom had dropped out of school to contribute to the income of their families. Paul Revere Pottery was created to provide women with a safe (and seamless) environment in which to earn a living surrounded by others like them.

SEG workers decorated bowls, plates, cups, tiles, vases, etc. with stylized images of animals, flowers, landscapes and other motifs. Colors included rich tones of blue, green, yellow, and earthy brown. Many bespoke sets have been made for children’s tea parties or to celebrate special family events. The outlines of these beautiful designs were originally created by adult female artists. Until they developed their own design and craft skills, the girls literally painted in the lines of the patterns before the bowls, dishes and cups were baked in a kiln. Today, SEG pieces can be found in many museum collections, including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Early Dedham pottery bowl, circa 1900, designed by Alice Morse and J. Lindon Smith, photo by Skinner Auctions.

Known for its high-fired stoneware characterized by a very fine, controlled crackle glaze with thick cobalt border patterns, Dedham Pottery was founded by Hugh Robertson in Dedham, Massachusetts in 1896. It operated until 1943. The he factory, which surprisingly rarely employed more than six people at a time, was located on Pottery Lane, near the High Street in Dedham.

A major motif used by Dedham Pottery was an image of a blue rabbit. He became known as the “Dedham Rabbit”. The decorative band was inhabited by rabbits squatting on the ground, their ears back; between each creature stood a stalk of vegetable. Over time, Dedham Pottery has created over fifty designs for tableware and other pieces. These featured attractive designs depicting a variety of flora and fauna as well as other parts of the natural world, including elephants, dolphins, polar bears, swans, sprouts, lilies, clovers and mushrooms. .

Marblehead Pottery Studio Vase, circa 1908-12, designed by Arthur Irwin Hennessey and decorated by Sarah Tutt, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photo: The Met.

In 1904, Marblehead Pottery Workshop began as a small pottery studio in a convalescent therapy program for sanatorium patients run by Dr. Herbert Hall. A year later, ceramic artist Arthur Baggs became the director of the project, and he brought a style of decoration that focused on hand-incised or surface-painted geometric patterns over subdued, slightly contrasting color patterns. In 1915 Baggs became the owner of Marblehead Pottery until it ceased production in 1936. The Marblehead Pottery Studio became one of the most respected art potteries of the Arts and Crafts era.

In the 1920s, as with many successful art pottery businesses, Marblehead Pottery Studio began to focus almost exclusively on high-production pottery as opposed to individual handcrafted pieces. However, machine-made pottery attempted to maintain the high quality of the hand-decorated originals. Typical glaze colors were blue, green, pink, yellow, brown, or gray. An extremely rare piece, a vase designed by Annie Aldrich and decorated by Sarah Tutt, was auctioned off by Skinner Auctioneers in December 2018. The vase’s final price skyrocketed beyond its pre-sale estimate of $10,000 at $20,000 – it sold for $250,000.

For several decades, the ceramic leadership of Boston’s Arts and Crafts movement elegantly dispensed it. What will be served next?


Marc Faverman is an urban designer specializing in the creation of strategic places, civic branding, streetscapes and public art. An award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, a design consultant for the Boston Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is editor of The artistic fuse.

Briana R. Cross