Organic — it’s a word we’re all familiar with. Or are we? In America’s quest to “go green,” the word organic has been plastered on everything from cheese curls to shampoo, burgers to baby clothes. To most folks, it’s shorthand for “all natural/no pesticides/hormone free.”
But once upon a time, organic was used to describe things derived from, and related to, the natural world and living organisms. It’s really about earth and sky and everything in between: soil and plants and animals and human beings, and the delicate-yet-powerful symbiosis that links each to the others.
Given that, it makes sense that an art form born from earthen clay, shaped by human hands to resemble plants and flowers, then glazed in nature’s muted tones, would aptly be called “organic.” That’s how Jane Prentiss of Skinner, Inc., describes Grueby ceramics — arguably the most desired wares of the American art-pottery movement.
Why “organic”? A piece of Grueby pottery looks as though it’s been grown rather than created. The surface features the subtle texture and matte sheen of a winter squash; its leafy decoration doesn’t look applied but seems to emerge from just below the surface, then to fade softly into its ground. Grueby’s glaze colors also come from nature’s palette: soft yellow, sky blue, oatmeal, rich pumpkin, misty gray, mauve. But by far, Grueby’s most celebrated achievement is its green — a color so rich, so elusive, that no one has ever re-created it successfully.
The story of this pottery line begins at the height of the Arts & Crafts movement, when ceramist William H. Grueby attended the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. There he admired the new matte-glazed wares of French art potters. After returning home to Boston, he worked nearly five years experimenting and perfecting his own matte glaze for the tiles and architectural ceramics he was designing. In 1897 he founded the Grueby Faience Company, and a year later, introduced his matte-glazed vases, bud bowls, jardinières, and other plant wares.
Grueby’s work found popular and critical acclaim worldwide. His innovative style attracted the interest of fellow Arts & Crafts icons, including Louis Comfort Tiffany, who paired stained-glass lampshades with Grueby pottery bases, and Gustav Stickley, who displayed Grueby wares alongside his furniture. Grueby’s success, however, though brilliant, was short-lived. Hundreds of potters produced lower-priced, inferior copies of the Grueby look. Crippled by the competition and the public’s waning interest in the Arts & Crafts style, Grueby Faience declared bankruptcy in 1909 and produced only architectural tiles until 1920.
For pottery collectors today, Grueby is the holy grail. When paired with Tiffany lampshades, say, wares may reach well into the six figures. Single pieces sell for $500 to $30,000 or more, depending on size and complexity of color. For most devotees, the ultimate appeal lies in the soft matte glaze on that perfect Grueby green. The effect is subtle at first, but naturally, it grows on you.
Catherine Riedel represents Skinner Auctioneers and Appraisers of Boston. skinnerinc.com