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Review by Michael Padwee
"The Endless Possibilities": American Arts and Crafts Tiles from the Two Red Roses Foundation

Susan J. Montgomery. “The Endless Possibilities”: American Arts and Crafts Tiles from the Two Red Roses Foundation. Palm Harbor, Fla.: Two Red Roses Foundation, 2016. 360 pp.; 329 color, 350 b/w illus., introductory essay, appendix, notes, selected bibliography, index. $75.00.

With her seminal writings about William H. Grueby and the companies he organized, Susan Montgomery has been a major influence in advancing knowledge of our national tile industry, the artistic movements that influenced its development, and the tiles themselves.[1] Her most recent work for the Two Red Roses Foundation (TRRF) expands and continues this advance­ment with meticulous and insightful scholarship.

“The Endless Possibilities” is concerned with Arts and Crafts tile production from the 1890s to World War II. It is organized by the tile’s intended use into seven overlapping and interrelated chapters: “Individual Tiles”; “Modified Tiles” (such as advertising and souvenir tiles); “Panels and Plaques” (discrete compositions); “Borders and Friezes”; “Fireplace Facings and Overmantels”; “Installations” (which is partially a compressed rendition of Montgomery’s The Aloha Boathouse and the Iris Bathroom); and “Faience and Fountains.”[2] Montgomery explains that these divisions “provide a framework for considering the design, production, and marketing of tiles at a ­particular point in American culture, the transition between the highly mechanized manufacturers of the nineteenth century and post World War II inde­pendent studio artists, when craftsmanship and individuality were paramount” (p. 8). An introductory essay, “Color in Architecture: Tiles and Faience in America,” sets the historical scene for the catalog.

In her narrative, Montgomery focuses on the ways in which tile designers and makers balanced the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement with the need to succeed commercially. This was, in essence, the same contradiction found in the British Arts and Crafts movement, on which the American movement was based. The British Arts and Crafts reformers, reacting against the harshness of nineteenth-century industrialization, wished “to foster spiritual harmony through the work process and to change that very process and its products.”[3] Their goal was to end the divisions between art and industry and between art and craft and to unite these into one. In the United States, Arts and Crafts goals “were the revival of handcraftsmanship, the creation of more satisfying working conditions and the promotion of simple, uncluttered houses and interiors achieved through a unification of all art forms.”[4] According to Montgomery, in the final analysis Arts and Crafts tile makers wanted “to create beautiful, useful objects that could make a contribution to the built environment” (p. 19).

Montgomery focuses on the manufacture of Arts and Crafts tiles as a collaborative effort between the designers/tile makers and the other artisans who worked for them, such as glazers and mold makers. Usually the designer—George P. Kendrick or Addison LeBoutillier—or the manufacturer—Grueby, Hartford Faience, Rookwood—was given the credit for a tile, but in reality many artisans were needed to produce a work of ceramic art, and a mistake by one of these could cause the piece to fail. Montgomery tries to give as much credit to these individuals—mainly glazers—as possible in the catalog entries, but this effort is limited by the anonymity of most and by the greater credit given to the designer/maker.

Montgomery writes a history of each design in the collection—how or why it was developed, how it was crafted, the clays and glazes used. In the first, and largest, chapter, “Individual Tiles,” each type of design—for example, flora, boats/ships, animals, knights—is examined from maker to maker whenever possible. The book’s structure and Montgomery’s documentation also allow the reader to visualize a design’s change from maker to maker, as well as its progression of use from, for example, individual tile to frieze to architectural piece.

An appendix, “Designers and Tile Makers,” gives brief background summaries of each designer/tile maker represented, acknowledging that a “comprehensive history of each of these tile manufacturers would require a monograph of its own” (p. 304). The histories of the designs, their designers, and the manufacturers were fascinating, and I found myself constantly downloading and reading sources cited in the text. This volume only whets one’s appetite for more comprehensive treatments of each of the makers represented.

Montgomery writes in the preface that the TRRF collection is not comprehensive; it is an annotated catalog reflecting founder Rudy Ciccarello’s personal taste and choice (p. 8). This is both a strength and a weakness. Ciccarello has chosen the best items he could find for his collection and museum and has had the advice of exceptional Arts and Crafts experts. Sixteen tile makers/designers are represented—fourteen American and two British companies, Doulton and William Morris.[5] The American companies include some but not all the innovative designers and artists who contributed to the development of an American Arts and Crafts aesthetic.[6]

This shortcoming is not of Montgomery’s making. The book is limited by the collection itself, which is top-heavy with tiles from one company, Grueby. Why only these tile makers? Is this a collecting choice, an availability choice, or both? Mr. Ciccarello began his collection by acquiring “rare individual tiles and sets” made by leading designers and manufacturers (p. 6), but a collection of American Arts and Crafts tiles should be as broad and representative of this movement as possible and include lesser-known companies and designers.

This being said, Montgomery’s book is a monumental work with lavish photos and is well researched with a wealth of supporting documentation. It is an indispensable reference work about Arts and Crafts tiles and the Arts and Crafts movement in the United States.

Michael Padwee
“Architectural Tiles, Glass and Ornamentation in New York” blog
(http://tilesinnewyork.blogspot.com)

Ceramics in America 2016

Contents
  • [1]

    Susan J. Montgomery, The Ceramics of William H. Grueby (Lambertville, N.J.: Arts and Crafts Quarterly Press, 1993); Grueby Pottery: A New England Arts and Crafts Venture; The William Curry Collection, exh. cat. (Hanover, N.H.: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 1994); Susan J. Montgomery, The Aloha Boathouse and the Iris Bathroom: Two Installations by the Grueby Faience and Tile Company (Tampa, Fla.: Two Red Roses Foundation, 2013), among others.

  • [2]

    For installations, see Montgomery, The Aloha Boathouse and the Iris Bathroom.

  • [3]

    Elizabeth Cumming and Wendy Kaplan, The Arts and Crafts Movement (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1991), p. 8.

  • [4]

    Ibid., p. 143. 

  • [5]

    American tile makers represented are Art Academy/People’s University, Batchelder, CALCO (California Clay Products), California Faience, Grueby Tile and Faience Company, Hartford Faience Company, J. B. Owens Floor and Wall Tiles, Marblehead Potteries, Mosaic Tile Company, Newcomb Pottery, C. Pardee Tile Works, Paul Revere Pottery/Saturday Evening Girls, Rookwood Pottery, and Van Briggle Pottery.

  • [6]

    American tile makers who made significant contributions to the American Arts and Crafts movement but are not represented include, to name a few, the Mueller Mosaic Tile Company (even though Herman Mueller is represented through the Mosaic Tile Company), Enfield Pottery, Flint Faience and Tile Company, Franklin Tile Company, and American Encaustic Tiling Company.