A Frederick Hurten Rhead vase for Rhead Pottery in Santa Barbara, Calif. achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

A Frederick Hurten Rhead vase for Rhead Pottery in Santa Barbara, Calif. achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK – Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942) may not have been a good businessman, but he was one of the best ceramicists of the Arts and Crafts period.

Born into a family of artists in England, Rhead came to the United States in 1901 and began working at Avon Pottery in Wheeling, West Virginia. During the next decade, he worked at some of America’s most prominent ceramics companies, including Weller and Roseville as well as the University City collective, while making his way across the entire United States. During 1911-1913, he headed the pottery program at the Arequipa sanitarium in the San Francisco area for women recovering from tuberculosis and lung issues. “The idea there was to teach patients how to make pottery as part of their convalescence and sell the pottery to become a self-supporting venture. Rhead was not a good businessman; he didn’t last there very long, about two years,” said David Rago of Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey. “Most of what was made at Arequipa was made by the patients, but every once in a while you get a piece done by Rhead.”

This 1912 Frederick Hurten Rhead vase for Arequipa boasts fine glazed squeeze bag decoration. It nearly quadrupled its high estimate of $45,000 in May 2022 when it brought $160,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

This 1912 Frederick Hurten Rhead vase for Arequipa boasts fine glazed squeeze bag decoration. It nearly quadrupled its high estimate of $45,000 in May 2022 when it made $160,000 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Rago estimates there are probably only five or six great pieces Rhead made during his tenure at Arequipa. One of them is an important vase that dates to 1912 that nearly quadrupled its high estimate of $45,000 in May 2022 when it brought $160,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Rago Arts and Auction Center.

The vase, featuring stylized flowers, is expertly decorated with squeeze bag glazing, which is applied in the same way that cake decorators place frosting details on cakes. “Here’s the thing, he’s decorating matte glazes and he is decorating with a quantity that you would normally glaze with, but the problem is glaze runs in firing,” Rago said. “Gravity pulls it down, so normally when you paint or decorate with glazing rather than a decorating material like slip decoration … if it gets too hot, it becomes a mushy mess. This thing fired perfectly.”

In October 2012, a large peacock four-panel tile by Frederick Hurten Rhead, dating to his time at University City, attained $510,000 plus the buyer’s premium, a then-record price for art pottery. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

In October 2012, a large peacock four-panel tile by Frederick Hurten Rhead, dating to his time at University City, attained $510,000 plus the buyer’s premium, a then-record price for art pottery. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

The pieces Rhead made at the University City pottery in St. Louis, Missouri, a studio formed by Edward G. Lewis, were some of his best works. A large four-panel peacock tile that Rhead created at UC attained a then-auction record price for American art pottery in October 2012 when it sold for $510,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Rago Arts and Auction Center. That 1910 tile panel was given by Rhead to friend and Weller Pottery colleague Levi Burgess for his Zanesville, Ohio, home. It is now on display at the Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement in Tampa, Florida.

Designed circa-1906-1907 by Frederick Hurten Rhead for Roseville, this Della Robbia carved dragon bowl, artist signed “FLB,” brought $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers.

Designed circa-1906-1907 by Frederick Hurten Rhead for Roseville, this Della Robbia carved dragon bowl, artist-signed ‘FLB,’ brought $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers.

Lewis recruited some of the best potters of the time, including Rhead, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, Taxile Doat, and Emile Diffloth to join his studio. “He put together the best ceramic minds of America and Europe and gave them the money, time and the equipment to do the best work they could make,” Rago said. “He produced some kick-ass pottery at University City.”

Rhead’s story is an unusual one that personifies the Arts and Crafts movement, which launched in England and spread to America. As a teenager, Rhead began working at Wardle & Co because several members of his family were in the pottery business. After emigrating, he honed his skills in West Virginia, Long Island, Ohio and Missouri before ending up in California.

An experimental but unsigned Frederick Hurten Rhead Roseville vase earned $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

An experimental but unsigned Frederick Hurten Rhead Roseville vase earned $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023. Image courtesy of Freeman’s and LiveAuctioneers.

“Look at the course that the Arts and Crafts movement took from England to Boston, to New York, to the Midwest, to California. It ends in California because there’s no further west to go, but it bumps into Asian influence from the Chinese and the Japanese immigrants and the Hawaiians coming over,” Rago said. “Suddenly, the Arts and Crafts collides with Asian influence and ends around 1915-1916, which is when Rhead was there in Santa Barbara, making some very solid pottery.”

The evolution of Rhead’s technique can be seen from his earliest works, which were heavily European-influenced and graphic design-oriented, to his later work, which was more skilled but also reflected the serenity that comes with confidence. “By the time he got to California, he was more gestural, he was more restrained. He didn’t have to give you an entire bush, he’d give you a leaf edge or a little blossom, definitely a lot more laid back as an artist,” Rago said.

Another angle on a Frederick Hurten Rhead vase made for Rhead Pottery in Santa Barbara, Calif., which achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Another angle on a Frederick Hurten Rhead vase made for Rhead Pottery in Santa Barbara, Calif., which achieved $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

After leaving Arequipa, Rhead headed to Santa Barbara, where he formed his own pottery, making pieces with fine Della Robbia-style designs, such as a circa-1914-17 vase that sold for $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2022 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. The Della Robbia style was named for Luco della Robbia, who pioneered glazed terra-cotta reliefs of flowers and garlands of fruit that were often interwoven.

An unusual motif that appeared on Rhead’s ceramics at least twice in his career, most notably while at University City, were English warriors and combat-themed scenes. His vases featuring warriors holding pikes, a type of long spear, became known as Pikesman vases. A museum-worthy example Pikesman vase from 1911 earned $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Rhead used a combination of techniques on this hand-made piece, including sgraffito, excising, incising, enameling and reticulation. Rago said of it, “that piece is a masterpiece. Those leaves above the heads of the warriors, those are all reticulated through and through.”

This Frederick Hurten Rhead Pikesman vase for University City is a standout example of his combat-themed wares. The 1911 vase realized $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

This Frederick Hurten Rhead Pikesman vase for University City is a standout example of his combat-themed wares. The 1911 vase realized $65,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2022. Image courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers.

Buyers need to take care when seeking Rhead works, as he designed many pieces across the years but personally made few of them; often decorators or schoolgirls executed his designs. “It can’t just say Rhead, it’s got to say F.H. Rhead, and it can’t just say it underneath the pot, it’s got to say it on the surface,” Rago stated. “Now if you see a masterpiece and it’s a great one and it is signed F.H. Rhead on the side, OK, he did it, but very seldom do you see that kind of work.”

Prices are strong for original pieces Rhead created as they appear infrequently on the market. The bidding pool also tends to be small for these masterpieces, and if a particular player is not participating for whatever reason, prices can fluctuate. There are many more buying opportunities for works Rhead designed, such as a Roseville Della Robbia carved dragon bowl dating to circa 1906-1907. This bowl, signed ‘FLB’ by the artist, realized $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium at California Historical Design in December 2021.

Similarly, an unsigned experimental Frederick Hurten Rhead Roseville vase from 1904-1908 with squeeze bag decoration sold above its $3,000-$5,000 estimate, but only brought $6,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Freeman’s in March 2023.

Frederick Hurten Rhead designed this umbrella stand with peacock decoration for Roseville, but the decoration was executed by his brother, Harry. It made $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

Frederick Hurten Rhead designed this umbrella stand with peacock decoration for Roseville, but the decoration was executed by his brother, Harry. It made $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022. Image courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

A circa-1908 umbrella stand that made $3,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2022 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers also featured squeeze bag decoration of a peacock sitting in a tree. Although it was designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead for Roseville, the decoration was completed by his brother, Harry. The matte-decorated piece is notable for showing the excellence in design Frederick Rhead brought to Roseville when he became its art director in 1904.

The casual observer might look at a fine piece of art pottery and think that’s all it is, but the astute student will realize that the piece didn’t happen by accident. “Why does it look like that, and what does that pot tell you about its time and its place and its maker?” Rago said. “Rhead is very much about time and place, and as a maker he had extraordinary skills.”

Rhead’s journey and the maturation of his work follows the maturation of the Arts and Crafts movement at large. Collectors continue to seek out his works not only for their beauty and craftsmanship, but for the story they tell.