Interest has grown in the Arts and Crafts pottery pieces by William Grueby


September 26, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

It's harvest time and collectors of Grueby art pottery are eyeing the current crop of available squash- and gourd-like vases and earth-toned glazed tiles made in Boston from 1894 to 1920. In seasons past conditions were ripe for bunches of good buys: fewer collectors and a more bountiful supply. Choice pickings are slimmer now, thanks to heated competition, and many expect prices to start climbing again after wilting in the recession.

More attention is being paid now to the organic-looking pottery made by William H. Grueby's factory than ever before. David Rago, a dealer, auctioneer and publisher of Arts & Crafts Quarterly Magazine, recently issued the first book devoted entirely to Grueby, "The Ceramics of William H. Grueby," by Susan J. Montgomery ($42 softbound, $57 hardcover, postpaid from David Rago Arts & Crafts, 9 South Main St., Lambertville, N.J. 08530, [609] 397-4104).

Mr. Rago launched Ms. Montgomery's book in late August with a symposium, antiques show, and loan exhibition of 100 Grueby pieces from private collections. The well-attended extravaganza, with the trappings of a revival meeting for true believers in the Arts and Crafts ethos, was held at Craftsman Farms in Parsippany, N.J., once the home of furniture maker Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), the leading proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, which now is open to the public as a museum. (For tour information, call [201] 540-1165.) Stickley had incorporated Grueby tiles in some of his tables and suggested Grueby vases and lamp bases as appropriate


Timeless appreciation

"If anyone is interested in collecting great art pottery, Grueby is the one," said dealer Michael Witt, a partner in Boston's JMW Gallery, which specializes in Arts and Crafts furniture and accessories. "Grueby is timeless; the organic quality of its form and decoration will still be appreciated 100 years from now," he predicted.

Grueby pottery sums up the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement that was coming into full bloom a century ago. Adherents, reacting to the excesses of Victorian taste and the machine-made look of mass-produced furniture and deco

rations, championed objects inspired by nature which appeared hand-crafted. Arts and Crafts designers attempted to rekindle pre-Industrial Revolution traditions, so their work generally evidenced the touch of an artist's hand even though often it was factory-made. Intense Victorian colors, such as plum, orchid and fuchsia, were abandoned in favor of earth tones, brown, and what proponents called "the purifying color green."

"Like Stickley furniture, where construction is the ornament, the line between form and decoration is obliterated in the best Grueby pottery, making it truly a 20th-century aesthetic," claims Arts and Crafts dealer Nicholas Dembrosky, of Cathers & Dembrosky in New York City.

William H. Grueby (1867-1925) began his career producing glazed tiles appropriate for the then-prevailing Renaissance Revival style of architecture. He progressed to Moorish and other popular Aesthetic Movement tastes before converting to Arts and Crafts, and advertised tiles for fireplace surrounds and other interior and exterior ornamentation.

Subway and shower tiles

According to Ms. Montgomery's book, which reads like a doctoral dissertation -- strong on history, weak in quality photographs, and unfortunately without an index, Grueby completed large-scale commissions including tiles for several New York subway stations and buildings at the Bronx Zoo. Michael FitzSimmons, an Arts and Crafts dealer in Chicago, currently is offering for $18,000 a circa-1910 custom-made Grueby tile frieze decorated with a landscape from a Chicago Park District building designed by Prairie School architect Dwight Perkins.

Mr. Rago recently acquired nearly 40,000 plain glazed Grueby tiles, remaindered by the Pardee Tile Works of Perth Amboy, N.J., which bought the Grueby firm in 1919. The tiles were found in a chicken coop in the Garden State. Mr. Rago is selling them for $50 to $175 per square foot, depending on color and shape, and recently tiled his own shower with ocher-colored ones.

Grueby began making art pottery vases, which today command more collector interest and money than his other work, as a way to use wasted space at the center of a kiln where it was too hot to fire tiles.

NB Impressed by French and American art pottery at the 1893 World

Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he wanted to try his hand, and launched the Grueby Faience Company in 1894.

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