Inspired by the flora and fauna around us, Dedham Pottery designs are imaginative and distinctive.
By Catherine Riedel
Feb 04 2014
Bunnies and turtles and chicks, oh my! Dedham Pottery pieces pictured here were produced c. 1896
to 1928; several were signed by designer
“Nature is the art of God”: Those words by the 13th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri still ring true for the artist who finds his or her muse in the natural world. They also resonate with art lovers and explain why natural motifs endure in both fine and decorative arts. This homage to the raw beauty of nature was never more apparent than during the Arts & Crafts movement. Its back-to-nature aesthetic rejected the industrialization of the late 19th century and embraced a return to the simplicity of handmade goods. American artists heard this call of the wild and, so inspired, produced some of the finest decorative pieces ever made in this country. Beautiful ceramics were one of the movement’s greatest legacies, and among the most popular wares was Dedham pottery, made right here in New England.
You likely already know Dedham pottery: that simple tableware with the bluish-gray crackle glaze and cobalt-blue border of flora and fauna. The charming patterns repeat in a right-facing (or, occasionally, left-facing) rotation. It’s reminiscent of Chinese export porcelain, but with a whimsical edge. Both modern and traditional in its appeal, Dedham pottery’s most recognizable border design, the crouching “Dedham Rabbit,” doubles as the image for the company logo.
It was founded as Chelsea Keramic Art Works in Chelsea, Massachusetts, in 1872 by Hugh C. Robertson, an American descendant of Scottish potters. This first firm went bankrupt, but subsequently Robertson came up with his distinctive crackle glaze (accentuated by lampblack rubbed into the crevices) and around 1892 incorporated a successor company called Chelsea Pottery U.S. to produce his unique cobalt-blue-patterned dinnerware. The result was an instant hit. In 1896, however, as the dampness of his Chelsea factory began seeping into the kiln, Robertson moved the firm to Dedham and changed its name. It remained there as Dedham Pottery until ceasing operations in 1943.
“Dedham pottery takes its inspiration from all forms of nature,” explains Jane Prentiss, head of Skinner Auctioneers’ 20th-Century Design department. “Everyone knows the Dedham bunnies, but there are 50 patterns spanning the zoo and the greenhouse, including elephant, lion, chicken, Scottie dog, horse chestnut, butterfly, clover, duck, owl, magnolia, iris, turkey, grape, mushroom, snow tree and water lily, azalea, swan, birds in an orange tree, polar bear, lobster, dolphin, turtle, and crab.”
Pieces were painted freehand by artists who sometimes initialed their work, on either the border or the bottom, helping to identify the period in which an item was made. Wares by certain artists, including Maude Davenport, J. Lindon Smith, and Hugh Robertson himself, fetch a premium.
You’ll find dinnerware, salad and bread plates, cups, soup bowls, platters, vegetable dishes, pitchers, salt and pepper shakers, coffeepots and teapots, sugar-and-creamer sets, figurines, candlesticks, and more. Prices range from $100 to $500 for single items, with rare pieces fetching into the thousands. Robertson’s very early rabbit plates feature the decoration in a left-facing rotation; these wares are very scarce.
The Dedham Historical Society now owns the name and the original Dedham Pottery trademark and offers the largest public exhibit of original Dedham pottery; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts also owns a collection. Both the DHS (dedhamhistorical.org) and a firm in Concord, Massachusetts, The Potting Shed (harelooms.com), produce high-quality reproductions, with pieces labeled accordingly. (Although the glaze on original Dedham pieces contained lead, modern reproductions don’t, and are safe to eat from.)
Personally, I’m partial to the originals. Like the motifs of nature that adorn their crackled surfaces, Dedham’s appeal endures.