Designs and Shapes
Some of the earliest Ruskin Pottery souffle glazed items have decoration. Several of the pieces submitted to the V&A museum in 1901 are decorated. The firm’s 1905 catalogue stated that when pattern was used it was hand painted and kept subordinate, no attempt being made to be painted realistically, flowers, landscapes or figures. The standard early vase shape 101 often has a circling band of tall Colts foot stems and other small items, vases, ink pots and scent bottles have designs of water Lily pads, Lily of the Valley, fruiting vine or trailing vine, Wisteria, Devil’s ivy and berried ivy. Table wares have rims decorated with bands of leaves with small flowers or berries. There are many variations on the theme of leaf garlands or interlocking leaves and one design has a circle of such leaves with tall plant stems growing from them bearing small bell-like flowers.
Most of the souffle designs were not carried forward to the lustre wares which began to appear in 1906. Many of the yellow and orange lustres of the period are decorated, most often with the fruiting or trailing vine designs. Few new designs appear until two elaborate schemes were introduced, thistle and flowering grasses, beginning in the 1910-1912 period. Decoration on lustres was discontinued in 1921.
There were problems in applying the design to specific coloured glazed backgrounds; over firing would cause the design to slip. The yellow and orange glazes seemed to develop well because the design was put onto a white slip before the colour was applied. Orange, yellow and rarer green were all prone to rubbing.
William Howson Taylor tried many ways of working around this problem of ‘design slip’. One way was to cut out the design in the clay state and then fill it in with glaze. Applying the design over the glazed vase or scratching the design before glossing were also attempted, but these are rare.
As part of the new style Howson Taylor began to develop from 1926 some new decorative ideas were tried; moulded Tudor roses or Celtic-style knots were attached to vases, tube-lined stems with moulded flowers encircle some larger shapes and on a few vases and bowls incised decoration was tried. In the 1928-29 period a distinctive scheme of tube-lined foliage in purple enamel on a turquoise souffle ground was new as was a band of moulded small six petal flowers.
The shapes of Ruskin Pottery are well represented in the series of catalogues and postcards issued over it’s lifestime. There is some evidence that it was Edward Taylor who was responsible for desgining and developing the early shapes. In his 1890 book ‘Elementary Art Teaching’, he considered the question of proportion in relation to pots and as illustration he selected some vase forms, several of which became the basis of shaped introduced by the pottery. Similar simple but well-proportioned examples are shown in Ruskin’s early ‘Forms in Pottery’ pamphlet where it is stated that they were handmade on the potter’s wheel under Mr. Taylor’s supervision. Twenty-two vase and bowl shapes were illustrated designed by Edward Taylor and they form the basis for the production of the 1900-1904 period. By the time of the catalogue issued in 1905, the number had increased to 255 and the range was further extended in about 1906 to 326, though some thinning out was already beginning and a lot of the shapes are not known in an example. Further additions in a catalogue of about 1909 take the number up to 353, though many more had been deleted. After Edward Taylor’s death in 1912, W. Howson Taylor issued a new catalogue with two colour plates and thirty black and white plates, which showed a selection of vases, bowls and caddies taking the number up to 440. These became the standard items of production for a decade.
Ruskin developed a new range of footed shapes to go with the new lustre glazes of the 1920s and issued a set of post cards illustrating the designs. The next change in style resulted in the production of a promotional folder showing the new Art Craft “A” shapes issued in 1928 followed by a number of coloured postcards at the end of the decade which featured the moulded geometric pieces being introduced. No more promotional material was produced before the closure of the pottery in 1933 so nothing is known relating to the range of lamp bases or the late decorative jugs. The Ruskin shapes of the pre-war period are often said to be Chinese in their inspiration but in fact only twelve of the 255 in the 1905 catalogue relate to Chinese examples though many share the style and proportion of the Chinese classic wares. Like the Chinese, the Ruskin are not subject to the vagaries of fashion and a century on appear timeless. The Art wares adopt, but do not copy, the style of Ancient Egypt and it is only the moulded geometric pieces of the late 1920s which now seem dated.