” The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” John Ruskin
I woke up on Thursday morning having dreamt about moving Ruskin Pottery around. Luckily my dream wasn’t a nightmare and I didn’t drop any in my sleep! Anyway the reason for this dream was that moving Ruskin Pottery around is one of the things I have actually been doing in my waking life as we have been re-displaying this fabulous colourful pottery in a new gallery at Wednesbury Museum (Sandwell’s Museum and Art Gallery).
When people think about the area that is now Sandwell around 1900 they usually think of heavy industry and not decorative arts, but actually there was lots of artistic creativity going on in the area as well as heavy industry.
Ruskin Pottery – 1898-1935
The pottery created at the Ruskin Pottery factory in Smethwick, began production in 1898. It was notable for experimental glazes in a range of vibrantly coloured pots, vases, bowls, buttons, tea services, plaques and jewellery. It became an award winning studio pottery, but was an expensive commodity which was out of the price range of ordinary Black Country people.
173-174 Oldbury Road, Smethwick
173 and 174 Oldbury Road were bought by Edward Richard Taylor who, with his son William Howson Taylor, converted the site into the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works. In the early 1900s the pottery was renamed after John Ruskin, who was a Victorian writer and critic. Ruskin believed that there was not enough beauty in everyday life and these ideals seemed to fit with the ideas the Taylors had for their new, modern pottery.
The Ruskin Creators
Edward R Taylor was the headmaster of Birmingham School of Art. He invested his entire life savings of around £10,000 to set up the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works in Smethwick. Despite being in his sixties it is believed that Edward Taylor would stay up until the early hours of the morning taking an active role in the production of the pottery. He was often seen travelling to and from the factory on his tricycle.
Edward’s son, William Howson Taylor had a small kiln in the garden at the family home in Highfields Road, Edgbaston where he conducted experiments with pottery and glazes which later inspired the exciting patterns in Ruskin Pottery glazes.
In 1912 Edward Taylor died and William Howson Taylor took full control of the pottery business. William Howson Taylor was a kind employer who worked long hours. He was also a perfectionist, personally supervising all areas of production insisting on the high standards of the pottery being maintained.
Black Country People at Work
The twenty or so employees were a close knit and well trained workforce. Many of the workers were related to each other by blood or marriage and lived in the Smethwick area, in Spon Lane, Oldbury Road, Lonsdale Road and Thimblemill Road. Workers at the Ruskin factory had good wages and were treated well compared to similar employment at the turn of the 20th century.
The working day began at 8am when a whistle summoned the workers to the factory. There were three breaks during the day; a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch and the day finished at 6pm unless the kiln was being fired, when it had to be watched all night.
A Day in the Country
Sometimes on Saturdays, William Howson Taylor and his workers went on day trips and picnics into the nearby countryside. They caught a train to Stourbridge and then walked to Arley, Kinver or the Clent Hills seeking fresh air and inspiration from nature.
When William Howson Taylor wrote to one of his workers, Harry Hill while he was away fighting the First World War, he often mentioned the outings into the countryside writing “What tales you will be able to tell us all when we go to Clent of Sats, and may those days be soon.” Harry Hill returned from the war and joined the other workers on many outings.
The women who worked at the factory went on their own outings organised by Mr Howson Taylor, often taking refreshments at the Vine Inn, Clent after a brisk walk.
The Great War 1914-1918
Many workers volunteered to fight and after January 1916 were conscripted into the conflict. While they were away fighting William Howson Taylor kept their jobs open and wrote to them on the front line. At the end of the war all of the craftsmen returned to the factory and William Howson Taylor sent each man to his tailor for a new suit, which he paid for himself. He also raised their wages to £4.10 shillings a week which was a very good wage at the time.
The Secret to the Grave
In December 1933 a notice was posted on the wall of the factory informing workers that the factory would close at the end of the week.
The day that the factory closed was the first day William had not been there, as he could not bear to see the factory close. Howson Taylor’s health was failing, he had no children to carry on the business and his loyal skilled workforce was growing old.
After years of hard work he needed a rest. Mr Howson Taylor married Florence Tilley, who he had been engaged to during his father’s lifetime. Florence had once worked at the factory but had been living in America for many years. They moved into the house attached to the factory and spent the next year selling off remaining stock. In September 1935 they retired to Devon, but shortly after William Howson Taylor died aged just fifty-nine. Howson Taylor refused to sell the secret of how his unusual pottery was made and the knowledge went to the grave with him.
Today Ruskin Pottery is collected all over the world. Examples of Ruskin Pottery are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other museums throughout the country.
Ruskin Pottery is now acknowledged as one of the most important small-scale studio pottery factories of the early twentieth century.
Sandwell Museum Service holds one of the largest public collections of Ruskin Pottery the nucleus of which is believed to have been donated by William Howson Taylor himself. The collection has since been developed through private donations and purchases.
Visit our new Ruskin Pottery gallery at Wednesbury Museum and come along to one of our fascinating talks and photo display and learn more about life at the factory celebrating the opening of the new display. You can also see more of our collection with our ‘Ruskin on Tour’ exhibition at Haden Hill House from the end of July until the end of October. Also look out for our school holiday arts and crafts activities inspired by the fabulous colours and shapes of Ruskin Pottery
Certainly Ruskin Pottery is something Sandwell should be very proud of.
Jane- Museum Services Manager