NEW YORK — One particular potter in New England was a standout during the Arts and Crafts era. The Grueby Faience Company was founded in 1894 in Revere, Mass., by Boston-born William Henry Grueby, who was both a potter and businessman. The firm employed many talented artists and its famous matte green hue — dubbed by some as Grueby green or “curdled green” — seen on its products became ubiquitous and instantly popular. Antique Grueby vases and lamps are relatively easy to find at auction, but locating Grueby’s elegantly decorated ceramic tiles in fine original condition is even more challenging.
Grueby tiles were not designed to be mobile but were meant to be cemented, or firmly and forever affixed, to a wall as a backsplash or design element. Some Grueby tiles were even set into furniture. Before they were thought to be desirable and collectible, these tiles were typically altered or, worse, destroyed during a home remodel.
Readers who live in the greater New York City area have probably seen Grueby tiles. Railways and transportation companies placed many commissions with Grueby to enliven New York City subway stations, such as the tile beavers at Astor Place. The former Lackawanna train station in Scranton, Pennsylvania is now a hotel, but it retains 36 tile murals that were commissioned from Grueby depicting local landmarks along one of its busiest and most scenic train routes.
Every so often, Grueby tiles that look practically new will appear at auction, and they usually go fast and bring big money. They are beloved by Arts and Crafts aficionados as well as anyone who enjoys making a design statement with tiles.
One of Grueby’s most well-known artists was Addison Brayton Le Boutillier, who began at the company in 1900 and was named its director of design in the spring of 1903. Under his tenure, Grueby produced some of its most architectural and artistic designs, including his The Pines collection, which was introduced in 1906.
Decorated in the cuenca style first popularized in Spain, Pines tiles feature deep impressions for the pattern that are filled with colored glazes. Owing to their interesting design as well as their pleasing appearance, tiles from this Grueby line are coveted. A set of two circa-1906 Pines tiles that combined to comprise a complete scene attained $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. This tile diptych measures 14 by 26¼in and, as is common with cuenca, they are thicker than traditional tiles; this set measures 3½in thick.
Ships were another well-regarded Grueby series, owing to Revere’s location mere miles from Boston’s harbor and shipping trade. A ship tile frieze, also in the cuerda style, brought $17,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2019 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. The 19 tiles depict many of the prominent ships of the 1910s and each measures 6in square.
Artist Russell Crook designed a set of images for Grueby around the year 1900 based on Rudyard Kipling’s now-classic children’s book The Jungle Book, depicting scenes with a panther, a wolf, an elephant with a child and more. A large tile, measuring 11¾ by 26¾in and showing a group of elephants, made $40,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.
Grueby’s customers often used its tiles to frame doorways, windows and fireplaces. At a handful of very special, highly glamorous estates, Grueby’s tiles decorated entire bathrooms. A five-tile fireplace surround, featuring a scene of a farmer leading a team of oxen pulling a wagon, sold for $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Heritage Auctions. The circa-1902 frieze also included 20 green Grueby tiles running up the sides of the hearth. “As the anchor of the room, both visually and socially, the fireplace was an opportunity to show off the best design of the time,” according to the catalog lot description. The detailed scene of the oxen is decorated in lush greens paired with warm yellows and earthy browns that evoke rustic comfort.
Originally designed for copper baron Thomas W. Lawson’s Massachusetts farmhouse, the surround was pictured in magazines. It elicited such demand that Grueby added it to its regular production line.
Besides standalone tables, tiles have long been used to enliven tabletops. In the 20th century, Grueby and the like-minded Gustav Stickley partnered to create furniture, from stands to tables, that employed tile accents. This collaboration came about after both companies exhibited at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. A fine example of a Grueby-Stickley tile table is an early 12-tile table boasting the distinctive Grueby green that realized $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers.
A lasting testament to the Arts and Crafts era, Grueby tiles are only becoming more rare and demand shows no sign of waning. Great examples are increasingly hard to track down, but dedicated buyers will be rewarded for their patience and diligence.