Charlotte Antoinette Adolphine Rhead was born into a talented Potteries’ family on 19 October 1885 at 12 Newport Street, Burslem, one of the six towns which are now part of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, in Staffordshire, England. Lottie, as she was known to her family and friends, was the fourth child of Frederick Alfred Rhead, a pottery designer, and his wife Adolphine Hurten, who was, before her marriage, an amateur actress and singer.
The Rhead family moved from Burslem to a house in London Road, Stoke, near the Minton factory, in 1890. It was there, in London Road, that Mintons had built Italianate villas to house the Continental artists whom they employed. Two years later, at the age of seven, Charlotte suffered a gastric illness so severe that she had to be nursed day and night. Shortly after recovering from this, she broke her leg which added to the considerable time that she lost from her schooling.
In 1894, Frederick Rhead built a large house in Porthill, near Burslem, for his family. Charlotte was sent to Longport School and it was around this time that Frederick started to give her lessons in drawing and painting. Four years later, another move took the Rhead family to 28 Regent Road, Fenton, and Charlotte to the Hanley Higher Grade School (until 1900).
Charlotte and her sister, Dollie, enrolled at Fenton Art School, where they learnt a number of skills, including enamelling. Soon Charlotte joined Wardle and Co (where her brother, Frederick Hurten Rhead, was art director until 1902) to work in tube-lining. In time she became a leading exponent of tube-lining, a skilful relief decoration, where designs are given a raised outline in liquid clay. The clay is squeezed from a bag through a fine glass tube, in a way similar to the narrow piping used in decorative cake icing. By 1905, business at Wardles was declining and Charlotte moved with her sister, Dollie, to Keeling & Co, at Burslem. Keelings did not use tube-lined decoration, so both girls were employed as enamellers, though they were sometimes called upon to do heavier work. In December 1906, their father wrote to William Moorcroft, the distinguished designer and a leading exponent of the tube-lining process, seeking an opening for his daughters, but nothing came of it.
Charlotte Rhead’s next job was a big step forward when she became art director at the tile-makers T & R Boote. In 1912, her father was appointed art director to Wood & Sons of Burslem, which owned a number of potteries in the area, mainly producing tableware, and Charlotte joined him, working first in training the staff in tube-lining (and doing the most difficult work herself) and later as a designer in her own right. Around 1915, she may have worked for AG Richardson in Tunstall for a while, though she still supplied designs to Wood’s. Charlotte had certainly returned to Wood group by 1922, this time at Bursley Ltd, who made Bursley Ware, and at the Ellgreave Pottery, because her name began to appear on the backstamp as Lottie Rhead Ware. Her design output at this time was prolific.
Late in 1926 Charlotte Rhead joined Burgess & Leigh, where she continued to produce a flood of new patterns for both tableware and decorative items. The move may have been prompted by the economic instability of the time (there was a general strike in 1926), a major fire at Wood’s Crown Works, or simply a better offer. Burgess & Leigh announced their coup in a full page advertisement in the Pottery Gazette and Charlotte set about finding and training skilled staff to produce her new designs for Burleigh Ware ware. From this time her name appeared on the base of the wares and she attracted a good deal of favourable comment in the pottery trade press.
Five years later Charlotte was working in Tunstall for AG Richardson, whose brand name was Crown Ducal Ware. In the next decade, she produced many designs which sold very well at home and abroad. These included children’s ware and freehand painted decoration as well as tableware and the more expensive tube-lined items. Charlotte Rhead was a thorough businesswoman, always looking for ways to cut costs and mindful of the need to meet the requirements of the marketplace. The most notable developments were her new lustres and glazes, of which the snow glaze attracted a very enthusiastic reaction throughout the ceramic trade.
After her father’s death in 1933, she and her mother moved to a smaller house in Chell to be near Charlotte’s work but, in 1938, they returned to Wolstanton to a larger residence. The following year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent successful treatment in London. From 1942 to 1947, she worked once again for Wood’s at HJ Wood, in Burslem. Her cancer returned in 1947 and she died on 8 November, at the aged of sixty-two.
Charlotte Rhead’s work been re-assessed in recent years (along with that of her famous Staffordshire contemporaries Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper). It is proving remarkably collectable – and expensive. Charlotte was a very gifted designer and an exceptional craft potter, who perhaps suffered somewhat in comparison with the more original and flamboyant Clarice Cliff, Charlotte’s junior by thirteen years. Though they both worked in the Art Deco style, Charlotte Rhead’s designs have echoes of the Arts and Crafts movement and from Art Nouveau, whereas, from the start, Clarice Cliff’s work anticipated the bolder styles and simpler shapes of the nineteen-fifties and -sixties. Charlotte may have been more technically gifted as an artist, but Clarice wanted the brush strokes to show. Though she was as effective as Clarice Cliff in championing the rights, pay and conditions of the women who worked for her, Charlotte was altogether a more retiring and modest personality. However, with the passage of time, Charlotte Rhead’s artistic talents, her professional and craft skills and the commercial success of her work have been fully recognized.
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