Though you might not know it since the Denver Art Museum displays so little of the collection at one time, the DAM has a wealth of architecture, design and graphics articles. Among the 12,000 objects are some dating back to the Middle Ages, but it's modernism from the second half of the twentieth century that’s the department’s greatest strength.
Recently, though, a hoard of somewhat older material came in as a single gift: a collection of over 200 pieces of Ruskin Pottery made between 1898 and 1933, put together over several decades by Carl Patterson, the conservator emeritus at the Denver Art Museum who purchased much of it in England.
Now department curator Darrin Alfred, with help from curatorial assistant Kati Woock, has brought out some eighty examples from the Patterson gift in order to conjure up the intimate exhibit, Artistry and Craftsmanship: Ruskin Pottery, Enamels and Buttons. The show has been installed in a lineup of four display cases in the small gallery just off the elevator lobby on the second floor of the Ponti tower.
The name Ruskin Pottery — especially in the context of the English Arts and Crafts movement — is a little misleading, as it suggests the involvement of John Ruskin, the noted nineteenth-century art and social critic. Although the ceramics factory was named in honor of him, Ruskin himself had nothing to do with the operation. Instead, it was founded by Edward Richardson Taylor, who had been an art administrator, and his son, William Howson Taylor, who had studied at the Birmingham School of Art, and who ran the pottery.
Ruskin employed both classic Western forms like footed bowls and baluster vases, as well as traditional Chinese shapes like lidded ginger jars. These forms are handsome but not ground-breaking; it was the glazes that cover them by which Ruskin Pottery gained its fame and significance. Some of the glazes are Chinoiserie, including the high-fire flambé which is regarded as William’s greatest achievement since it’s a difficult and sometime unpredictable process involving reduction firing. In addition to a nice grouping of flambé objects, curator Alfred has put out examples of the firm’s three other noteworthy glazes: luster, crystalline matte and the first one that William developed, launching the business, soufflé. All of the glazes are marvelous, with some of the colors toned up to the max, outrageously bright.
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When William closed the pottery in 1933, he destroyed the glaze recipes he had developed over his lifetime so that no one else could use them. If he didn't, he feared, someone might later use his glazes to cover cheap, mass-produced pottery — precisely the kind of thing that, along with the Great Depression, led to the demise of Ruskin Pottery and other art potters in Europe and America around that same time.
With this gift the DAM got an instant survey of Ruskin Pottery. Patterson, who gave up the collection as he downsizes, is still looking for the rarest and finest pieces that may remain out on the market, in hopes of also acquiring them and donating them to the museum.
Aside from these works and a handful of others, the DAM does not have a proper collection of pottery. Alfred says he hopes this gift may inspire others to donate related pieces.
Artistry and Craftsmanship: Ruskin Pottery, Enamels and Buttons is set for a long run; it closes on May 7, 2017, at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway. Call 720-865-5000 or go to denverartmuseum.org for more information.