Frederick Hurten Rhead
(1880-1942) was a potter who was born in England but worked in the USA for most of his career. He was born in Hanley
, into a family of potters
. His father Frederick Alfred Rhead
began his career as an apprentice
at Mintons Ltd
learning to be a pâte-sur-pâte
artist. He went on to work for a number of other potteries including a business of his own which failed. Young Frederick's mother Adolphine (née Hurten) also came from an artistic family. Frederick Hurten's siblings included Charlotte Rhead
, a talented designer who remained in England, and Harry Rhead, who was to follow his brother to the United States of America.
Rhead was educated in Potteries district of Staffordshire, where he was born and lived until he emigrated to the USA. At that time the conurbation consisted of separate towns, which have since united as the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Rhead went to school in Hanley. He then served an apprenticeship in Burslem
under his father and attended classes at the Wedgwood Institute
in the same town.
Early Career in England
After completing his education he taught art in Longton
and was art director
of a pottery called Wardle and Co. in Hanley. His sister Charlotte also joined the firm.
Career in USA
In 1902 Frederick Hurten Rhead emigrated to the USA. He was not the first member of his family to move there, as his uncle Louis Rhead
(1858-1926) had already established himself as a successful graphic designer.
Frederick was to work at many American potteries, and began in Ohio
deposits were being exploited by a significant pottery industry. In 1903/1904 he worked briefly for the Weller pottery
in Zanesville, Ohio
before becoming art director at the rival Roseville pottery
in 1904. Roseville was a large pottery which produced some art pottery as well as more utilitarian lines. In 1908 the company reduced the amount of handcrafting in its production and the following year Rhead moved to University City, Missouri
, although his brother Harry stayed on at Roseville.
Rhead was recruited by Edward Gardner Lewis, the founder of University City, to teach at the People's University there. This institution specialised in distance learning, and accordingly Rhead created a pottery correspondence course, although there were also some pottery students in residence at the Art Academy. Apart from teaching, Rhead found time to produce some vases and tiles, sometimes working with his wife Agnes. Unfortunately, Gardener become bankrupt in 1911. The French potter Taxile Doat was able to continue pottery production at University City for a few years, but the Rheads moved to California.
Rhead's first California position was in Marin County at the Arequipa tuberculosis sanatorium, where the director had decided that it would be a good idea for the patients to take up pottery. Although the Arequipa Pottery was something of a sideline for the sanatorium, Rhead was ambitious in his plans, sourcing suitable clays, experimenting with glazes and teaching decorative techniques such as tubelining (a technique also associated with his sister Charlotte). Rhead's methods were not regarded by the management as economic, and in 1913 he was replaced at the Arequipa Pottery by Albert Solon, another potter from Staffordshire. Rhead remained in California, starting his own studio pottery in Santa Barbara. The Rhead pottery lasted until 1917 and its products are now highly valued - a Rhead vase currently holds the record as the most expensive American art pottery at auction. However, in the later part of his career Rhead moved in the direction of larger-scale, more commercial production.
Rhead returned to Zanesville, this time working for American Encaustic Tiling Company. The words encaustic tile refer to the nineteenth-century revival of a medieval technique for the production of floor tiles: during Rhead's time there the company combined production of some art tiles (for fireplaces etc,) with large-scale production of more utilitarian ware. American Encaustic was reputed at one time to operate the largest tileworks in the world, but was to close in the 1930s, a victim of the Great Depression.
In 1927 Rhead was hired as art director of the Homer Laughlin China Company
in Newell, West Virginia
, holding this position until his death in 1942.
In the 1930s, Rhead conceived and designed a line of glazed dinnerware called Fiesta. It was based on a spherical theme in Art Deco style. The pottery came in five colors and the idea was for the customer to acquire pieces of different colors so that they could be mixed and matched according to taste. The line was introduced to the public in January 1936 and was an immediate success. The idea of mixed solid colors on dinnerware was not new (it had previously been done by two California potteries, the Catalina pottery of Santa Catalina Island in the early 1930s and the Bauer pottery) but Rhead's version was more successful.
The Homer Laughlin Company expanded the line with new shapes, and eventually new glaze colors as well. It became the best selling line of dinnerware in the USA.
Rhead designed a similar line called "Harlequin" which was sold in Woolworth's, an important customer of Homer Laughlin.
Frederick Hurten Rhead died in New York City in November 1942 from cancer.
Significance of Rhead's Legacy
The legacy is somewhat difficult to assess as he was active in two different fields, studio pottery and industrial ceramics where there was sometimes less scope for artistic originality. His reputation as a studio potter is very high, as evidenced by sale prices. However, perhaps the mass-produced Fiesta
designs are his most important achievement as the line has remained in production, although not continuously. After Rhead's death the production of "Fiesta" ran into some problems related to war-time conditions. The United States Government took control of all available uranium
in connection with the development of the atomic bomb
. An oxide
of uranium was necessary to produce the vibrant orange-red glaze of Fiesta
, and without that key color, and with the severe reduction in variety of open-stock items available, the appeal of the line was hurt. Consumer interest in, and sales of, the line did remain strong for some time, but in spite of the introduction of a new palette of glaze colors, sales progressively declined over the following twenty-seven years until the entire line was discontinued in January 1973.
After an absence of thirteen years, the line was revived in an altered clay body and glaze composition. Some vintage Fiesta
casting molds designed by Rhead were used in production of the new ware, but most shapes had to be slightly altered, or completely redesigned to meet the requirements of the new materials being used. However, in the new Fiesta,
Rhead's original concept and basic shape-styling remain as a testament to his talent. This second incarnation of Fiesta dinnerware
was first marketed in early 1986 to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of the original line's introduction.
- Bumpus, Bernard Collecting Rhead Pottery: Charlotte, Frederick, Frederick Hurten, 1999
Bernard Bumpus (1921-2004) was the leading authority on the Rhead family, and knew a great deal about Frederick Hurten Rhead's background in England. In the 1980s Bumpus curated an exhibition at the Geffrye Museum, Rhead Artists and Potters which toured other UK Museums including the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. He hoped to take a version of the exhibition to the USA, but, despite American interest in the Rhead family, this project foundered.
- Dale, Sharon Frederick Hurten Rhead: an English Potter in America, 1986, Erie Art Museum
A detailed study with good illustrations. It was published in connection with an exhibition held in 1986. It is better on Rhead's American career than his English background.