NEW YORK — What began as a therapeutic pottery-making program for women diagnosed with nervous disorders grew into one of the great brands in American art pottery: Marblehead pottery.
Named for the Massachusetts North Shore town where the therapy program was located, the Marblehead Pottery lasted only a few decades, but its wares were — and still are — highly sought after. In 1904, Dr. Herbert Hall created a pottery program as part of his handicrafts-as-therapy work with women and the following year, chemist/potter Arthur Eugene Baggs was hired to run it. Four years later, Marblehead Pottery became a separate commercial entity, and Baggs purchased it in 1915. The company made all manner of potted vessels in simple forms evocative of the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic, with muted glazes and naturalistic or geometric decoration. By 1936, presumably hobbled by the Great Depression and the waning popularity of the Arts and Crafts style, the company ceased production.
David Rago, partner and co-director at Rago Arts & Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, sells several types of fine American art pottery, but he has a fondness for Marblehead. He praised the firm’s small but top-quality production, high decorative standards, and its ability to reflect the intensity and purity of Arts and Crafts design. “It always has been rare, since production was restricted by the diminutive size of their studio, especially early on, and the work captures a moment that is both naive and supremely sophisticated,” he said. “You can see this same dichotomy in early Saturday Evening Girls [pottery], say from 1908-1910, before they too expanded production to accommodate their growing popularity.”
Within the realm of Marblehead wares, collectors favor the earlier work, as it is seen as less commercial and more gutsy. Objects made between 1907 and 1910 are among the most coveted, particularly those pieces rendered in raw, dark green on pea green with geometric and those featuring subtle outlining of the designs with incised tooling. The stock colors in 1919, the first year the firm issued a catalog, were “Marblehead blue,” warm gray, wistaria (sic), rose, yellow, green and tobacco brown. The pottery’s wares were typically marked with the letters “MP” and also the initials of the designer and decorator. In keeping with its seaside location, its maker’s mark features a sailing vessel between the letters M and P.
“These are powerful examples of American Arts and Crafts from a small studio, not only overseen but actually designed and executed by a master (Baggs),” Rago said. “Later work was still qualitative — hand thrown, individually decorated, and often of the highest order, but as they edged towards the World War 1 era, designs became more cartoonish, surface-painted only with no incising or modeling.”
Marblehead wares had a certain look, and Rago said most had a banded floral or geometric nature, which looked especially good with two-tone early pieces by Baggs and others. “Their iconic landscapes, influenced by Arthur Wesley Dow, are the best they ever produced,” he said. Dow, known for his Japanese-inspired teachings, ran a nearby summer art colony that clearly influenced several Marblehead artists. “Animals, especially if early in their oeuvre, and if tooled against a contrasting background color, are also among their better examples,” he added. Given the pottery’s harbor location, nautical motifs in designs were obvious favorites.
As the pottery shifted from relying on the labor of sanitarium patients to hiring professional artists, the firm attracted top talent. Among its noted designers and decorators were Arthur Hennessy, Annie Aldrich and Sarah Tutt, but the contributions of Baggs cannot be overstated. “Baggs was the visionary, and his creation of their form vernacular was of critical importance,” Rago said. “It seems to me that as the company grew from a small, quasi-experimental studio into a true cottage industry, his influence as a designer waned. The work became more and more commercial — though, again, hand thrown, hand made, hand designed and executed, which is still better than most of the art pottery made after about 1910 in the U.S. Hennessy and Tutt were good designers and decorators but, to me, Baggs would always be the driving force.”
While Marblehead produced much work that was simply thrown and glazed with a single color, the best examples were embellished “with designs that were tooled, modeled and gently incised, employing decoration that commanded the entirety of the surface, as opposed to banded decoration around the top,” Rago said. A matte yellow vase featuring a desirable pebbly finish and a simple banded decoration of flying geese sold for the healthy sum of $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2016 at Treadway Toomey Auctions.
Vases hold the highest auction prices for Marblehead pottery, but the firm also made low bowls as well as tea sets, wall pockets, covered jars, bookends, tiles and special order items. The Boston-based auction house Skinner Inc. reportedly holds the record price for a Marblehead vase that brought $303,000 in December 2018, including the buyer’s premium. Designed by Annie E. Aldrich and decorated by Sarah Tutt, the marsh landscape vase was one of only four known examples. A close second, and setting a record for the form, was an earthy green circa-1910 vase by Hennessey and Tutt with all-over decoration, which sold at Rago’s June 2020 for $150,000 plus the buyer’s premium. After the sale, Rago told a reporter that this strong example in perfect condition was precisely fired and with abundant modeling that brought out the nuances of the design.
Marblehead Pottery designed artful objects that represented the height of the Arts and Crafts aesthetic and created a lasting legacy. What flickered into being to soothe the jangled nerves of suffering New England women yielded beautiful, enduring works that charm and delight collectors a century later. Marblehead Pottery will no doubt continue to bring pleasure for generations to come.
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