Looping around the old wooden house like a graveled and oil-coated oxbow, the driveway eased up into a yard littered with bits of sunlight-snagging metal: enameled porch chairs; galvanized tubs reserved for icing down watermelon; a hand pump hung with dippers and buckets.
At either end of the just slightly bowed roofline, ceramic insulators surrounded an array of lightning rods. Inside the house, ceramics overflowed the kitchen – mis-matched mixing bowls, pie plates, an orange refrigerator jug – while smooth, hexagonal tiles spread across the floor.
Apart from an étagère tucked into a living room corner to provide a resting place for tiny porcelain vases, candy dishes and a caterpillar won at the County Fair, the only purely decorative bit of ceramic art in my grandmother’s house was the cheese board kept in her kitchen.
Given that she departed Sweden for the United States from the Baltic Sea port of Gefle, and given that Bosättningsaffär translates roughly as “household furnishings store”, it seems likely the board was an advertising piece for a local shop. Still, its provenance remains uncertain. Perhaps my grandmother received it as a departure gift. Perhaps she herself purchased it, then wrapped and carried it away as a comforting reminder of her old-country home. Whatever the explanation, it arrived in America as one of her most cherished possessions, and throughout her life it rested, icon-like, inside a glass-fronted cabinet.
Once, I asked if I might hold it. The look she gave me suggested I’d asked to blow up the house, but the cabinet doors swung open and for a moment its surprising weight rested in my hands. “You take it, Grandma,” I said, my heart pounding with anxiety, my child’s mind convinced that, should I drop it, I’d be forever banished from my family.
Today, the weight of it hangs on my wall, sufficiently well-secured to please even my grandmother. An object of beauty in its own right, it testifies beautifully to the power of family ties and history. Still, as far as I know, it’s never held a chunk of cheese. It probably never will.
In truth, Grandma’s cheese board is an overgrown ceramic tile, an art form common enough in our country but one I rarely noticed during my formative years in the Midwest. I was more impressed by South Dakota’s Corn Palace than by Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza, itself an extraordinary example of architectural tiling.
Not until a sailing trip landed me on the shores of Catalina Island did I find both my eyes and my interest caught by a remarkable vision of tiled fountains, archways and facades.
The Island’s tiles were produced locally by Catalina Clay Products, a company founded by William Wrigley, Jr. and developed in partnership with David Malcolm Renton, a builder from Pasadena, California who specialized in Craftsman homes and Mission-style bungalows.
They made an interesting pair. Wrigley not only owned the Island, he also owned the Chicago Cubs, whose spring training (War years excepted) took place on Catalina from 1921-1951. Prior to his work on Catalina, Renton was responsible for the construction of the observation tower and astronomers’ quarters at the Mt. Wilson Observatory. After teaming up with Wrigley, he also supervised construction of the Casino Ballroom, a primary landmark on the island.
The pottery itself, located near Avalon at Pebbly Beach, operated from 1927-1937. Its tiles were distinguished by the use of native clay and native oxides for glazes. Associated with a period known as the Spanish Colonial or California Revival, the tiles combine primitive design with shimmering traditional colors -Catalina blue, Descanso green, Toyon Red and Manchu yellow.
In Avalon, tiles are everywhere. Many depict the natural world – brightly colored birds or fish, cactus and buffalo. Others suggest Moorish influences, while many reflect the popularity of the 1920s Art Deco movement.
Today, finding and obtaining original Catalina tiles requires luck, perseverance and plenty of cash. It doesn’t take much research or time on sites like eBay to realize that terms like “historical”, “hand-crafted” and “real vintage” often translate to “made in my garage last weekend”, or that paying hundreds of dollars for a four-tile Catalina table is common.
On the other hand, if a historical connection to Catalina is enough to make you happy, Gladding, McBean tiles are far more common and affordable. In 1937, Gladding purchased Catalina Clay Products and moved their facilities to the Los Angeles area. The company continued to use the tradename “Catalina Pottery” on select dinnerware, art pottery and tiles, but rather than incising the name, as was done on Island-made pieces, Gladding used paper labels or an inked mark that says, “Catalina Pottery USA”.
When I discovered this lovely Gladding tile in a box at an antique shop, I mistook it for a true Catalina Island piece because of its mark. In the end, I didn’t mind my mistake. In the process of identifying it properly, I learned a good bit about the history of California pottery and even more about the importance of marks – useful knowledge for any collector.
Over the years I’ve accumulated a small clutch of other tiles – some beautiful, some historically interesting and a few representative of the best of the Arts and Crafts movement.
This transfer-printed and polychromed Cushion tile made by the Wheeling Pottery of Wheeling, West Virginia, dates to c. 1890. It has no artist’s name or initials, although the usual pottery marks are present. When I pulled it from a box of sale items in rural Oklahoma, I couldn’t help imagining another woman, much like my grandmother, wrapping and cosseting this fragile bit of clay, intent on keeping it close throughout her journey toward an uncertain future.
A quite different tile from the same period exemplifies the English Aesthetic movement. Stylized motifs taken from nature, an obvious Japanese influence and dedication to transforming ordinary household objects into useful bits of beauty characterized the Aesthetic decorators’ work. Many American potters adapted Aesthetic designs for their own wares, hoping to compete with such European imports as this Staffordshire tile.
If I could keep only one tile to carry with me in my travels, it might be this Art Nouveau wonder produced by Minton Hollins & Co. of Stoke-on-Trent, England. Minton & Co began production c. 1828. When their tile-making began to be managed by partner Michael Daintry Hollins in 1840, the new brand name was adopted. Minton Hollins tiles have been incorporated into the Palace of Westminster, the U.S. Capitol, the Victoria and Albert Museum and my entry way, where this single tile has taken on its own icon-like status.
Still, if it came to a choice, I’d be hard-pressed to relinquish my Arts and Crafts tiles. Tokens of my years in the San Francisco Bay area, they continue to evoke rich, visceral memories – deep, blue mornings, afternoons redolent of eucalyptus and French roast, evenings draped in fog.
This exquisite floral, just over three inches square, was framed with an open back to allow for easy reading of the incised mark – “California Art Tile, Richmond, California”. Founded in 1922 as the Clay Glow Tile Company by James White Hislop, a third generation brick maker, the business incorporated a year later as California Art Tile. Known for soft, muted glazes, the company was responsible for one of the most prolific and artistic bodies of work in Northern California.
After the death of an old tile setter in El Cerrito, California, much of his stock was auctioned off, including this set of four Woolenius tiles. Representative of the Mayan theme popularlized by Ernest Batchelder, they were meant to be used as fireplace inserts but never were installed.
Woolenius Tiles was established in 1927 by Charles Elsenius, a fellow who moved to Berkeley from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. A brick mason by trade, he specialized in fireplace and chimney work, and decided to begin producing his own tiles as well. When he began his business at his house on Woolsey street, he created the business name by combining the first syllable of his street with the last part of his name, a common custom at the time.
To say Woolenius was influenced by Batchelder hardly is remarkable. The importance of Ernest Batchelder to the Arts and Crafts movement, both as an artist and as a businessman, was so widespread and so pervasive that installations of his tiles can be found around the country. By 1930 the Batchelder-Wilson Company had showrooms not only in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also in New York and Chicago, and major installations had been placed in Minneapolis and Vancouver.
Because Batchelder was devoted to the cause of beautiful fireplaces as the centerpiece of a home, thousands were installed in even quite modest bungalows. As a result, more than a few homeowners have been astonished to find themselves in possession of a piece of architectural history.
Having seen Batchelder’s work in person and having absorbed the history from Robert Winter’s fine book, Batchelder: Tilemaker, I caught a light case of Batchelder fever myself and set out to find a representative tile for my collection. It took some time, but eventually I purchased this elegant piece, incised with the Batchelder mark and shown here actual size.
While I consider each of my tiles to be beautiful, this one meets both requirements of William Morris’s famous exhortation to “have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”.
Not only do I believe my little bit of Batchelder to be beautiful, I know it to be useful. It lives on the corner of my desk as a paperweight, an old-fashioned but necessary occupation. Now and then, I reach over and pick it up, surprised each time by its substance and heft.
The weight of it resting in my hand is deeply satisfying. It reminds me of California, of sunlight streaming across the floor of a friend’s house on Woolsey street not far from the home of Charles Elsenius. It reminds me of the importance of joining art to craft, but above all it reminds me of that long-ago day when the weight of my grandmother’s cheese board rested in my hands. Feeling this tile, remembering that day, I smile, and feel a weight lifted from my heart.