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Della Robbia Art Pottery Birkenhead 1894 – 1906

Della Robia Cassandia Annie WalkerThe Della Robbia Pottery was established in Birkenhead in 1894 and took its name from the celebrated Italian renaissance sculptor Luca Della Robbia whose colourfully glazed creations had graced Florentine churches since the 15th century. This Merseyside Company was founded by Harold Rathbone and the sculptor Conrad Dressler at a time when the Birkenhead area was witnessing a dramatic influx of workers seeking employment in the shipbuilding industry. In 1820 the village of Birkenhead numbered 200, however by the time Messrs Rathbone and Dressler opened their doors for business the “town” boasted a population of close to 100,000 souls.

Pictured: Della Robbia Chalice and cover decorated by Cassandia Annie Walker

Harold Rathbone, (1858-1929), had the benefit of being a member of the wealthy Liverpool merchant family of that name – a name which to this day still figures prominently in the financial sector based on Merseyside.

He was also a man of vision at a period in time that had begun to witness the emergence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This radical cause was essentially a reaction against the products of debatable taste emerging from the factories and dark satanic mills of that machine age. In contrast the Movement’s mission was to re-establish the importance of hand crafted objects of unquestionable artistic merit at affordable prices, and consequently to re-affirm the position and importance of the craftsman or woman.

Rathbone was unquestionably a man on such a mission and it was his aim to supply the growing wealthy classes setting up home on the southern shores of the river with beautiful hand crafted “art” pottery. He did not however limit his parameters to the domestic and soon began executing commissions for public buildings and churches – this was a time when the growth in church building exceeded that witnessed last during the 15th century. Rathbone has been described as a painter, designer and a poet.

Della Robia Marianne de CaluwePictured: Della Robbia two handled albarello decorated by Marianne de Caluwe after Peruginos 1902

His father Phillip Rathbone was not only the head of a wealthy and socially wellconnected family but also the Chairman of the Arts and Exhibitions Sub- Committee at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery between 1886 and 1895. His son would have accompanied him to the studios and workshops of some of the most respected artists and craftsmen of that time and almost through a process of osmosis would have been influenced into recognising the talented and the brilliant in later years. The fact that the celebrated pre- Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt painted his portrait gives a reasonable indication of the circles within which he made regular orbits. Add to this the non-conformist leanings of the Rathbone clan and you soon begin to appreciate that young Harold was, at least at an aesthetic level, also a man of his time. Here was also a man determined to achieve and maintain high artistic standards that within a short period of time attracted the patronage of Queen Victoria, the Prince and Princess of Wales and that great patron of the arts, Sarah Bernhardt.

Outside the pottery he was able to call upon the services of such artistic luminaries as William Morris, Walter Crane, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Lord Leighton and not forgetting William Holman-Hunt. But it was inside the pottery that he was able to establish a team of talented designers and decorators that collectively provided the individual spark which ignited a range of wares that made strong use of incise carved (sgraffito) decoration complemented by colourful glazes. Subject matter tended to be dominated by floral and figural themes that also provided the staple for many of their contemporaries both in the United Kingdom and the United States. Rathbone was determined to provide a working environment that allowed for individual interest and dignity, which contrasted starkly with the harsh conditions and mindless toil personified by the Victorian factory system that was the lot of the working masses. These “Utopian” ideals attracted a loyal artistic workforce that included several lady decorators such as Cassandia Annie Walker, Ruth Bare, Emily Margaret Wood, Liz Wilkins and Annie Smith.

Della Robia ruth barePictured: Della Robbia twin handled bottle vase decorated by Ruth Bare

When it comes to value, size and quality of decoration is always an important factor, with collectors often paying a premium for portraits and Art Nouveau inspired subjects. All decorators tended to sign their work using a painted signature or monogram on the base of a pot near the incised ship trademark motif flanked by the letters D and R. In Conrad Dressler he had a co-director who was keen to establish the company’s credentials as a supplier of fine quality architectural pottery and who initially shared Rathbone’s artistic ideals. This was made manifest in a lecture Dressler gave to the Liverpool Ruskin Society in1896 titled “The Curse of Machinery”, which in all honesty fails to sit well on the epitaph of a man who in later years was to invent the revolutionary “Tunnel Kiln” that allowed for the continuous gas firing of tiles and pottery with great energy savings. Regrettably Dressler was unable to achieve any meaningful success and left the pottery in 1897.

The name of the sculptor Carlo Manzoni, originally a native of Turin, is also synonymous with the Birkenhead venture, having opened his Hanley Granville Pottery in about 1894 with limited success and which appears to have terminated as the result of a disastrous fire. In 1898 he accepted the invitation to join the company and stayed until the pottery’s closure after which he continued to work in Birkenhead where he provided headstones and crosses until the need for the same with his death in 1910.

Even so, Manzoni’s artistic contribution is difficult to determine, as only a few pieces appear to survive bearing the painted letter M. From all accounts this most mild mannered of men appears to have stoically endured Harold Rathbone’s apparent eccentricities and is credited with maintaining a presence that contributed artistically whilst helping to maintain a fragile solvency issue.

As a result of this on-going problem, in 1900 Rathbone joined forces with Emile de Caluwe’s ecclesiastical and architectural works, trading as the Della Robbia Pottery and Marble Company limited, with an order book dominated by church paraphernalia including fonts, gravestones, pedestals and mosaics. However the 48-page 1900 catalogue gave little more than 2 pages to art pottery production, which was a reflection of the problems the pottery had found itself in within recent years. It is difficult to be absolutely certain as to why what began in 1894 with such promise should find itself in such desperate financial difficulties. Problems in finding suitable stable raw materials had plagued production but Rathbone’s business acumen appears to have been a major contributory factor and as a result it is amazing that the business was able to survive a further six years. Credit here should probably be directed to de Caluwe’s wife, Marianne, who showed herself to be both an artist and sculptor of real talent and whose work today is highly prized by collectors.

The 1900 catalogue also showcased the metal work of Llewellyn Rathbone including altar rails, lecterns, alms dishes and even door handles, latches and bolts. As luck would have it I just happened to be on duty at an Antiques Roadshow held at Prideaux Place in Padstow when a lady brought along an interesting Arts and Crafts cabinet fitted with decorative polished brass strap hinges and swing handles, the latter stamped on the reverse “Rathbone”. The icing on the cake came about when the cupboard opened to reveal four relatively modest but still charming Della Robbia pots. It all helped to make the 600-mile round trip truly worthwhile.

The Mecca for Della Robbia collectors and enthusiasts is the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum, Birkenhead to whom I am indebted for their kind assistance.

For further information telephone 0151 652 4177 or fax 0151 670 0253 The museum is open Tues –Sun 10 till 5pm and closed on Mondays except on Bank Holidays.

Della Robbia Art Pottery Birkenhead 1894 – 1906 by Eric Knowles first published in ARC Magazine

Della Robbia Art Pottery Price Guide