Cowan Art Pottery of the Art Deco Era

April 15th, 2009

Carol Jacobs talks about Cowan art pottery, specifically who R. Guy Cowan was, the history of his company, and the different shapes, designs, and glazes that he produced. Carol is the curator of the Cowan Pottery Museum at the Rocky River Public Library in Rocky River, Ohio. She can be reached via the museum’s website.

"Spanish Dancers" by Elizabeth Anderson - 1927

“Spanish Dancers” by Elizabeth Anderson – 1927

I’m the curator here at the museum in Rocky River, a suburb west of Cleveland. I look at Cowan pottery from a historian’s angle because this is part of Rocky River’s cultural history. I’m not a collector, but I personally enjoy and value Cowan pottery. I was on the board of trustees of the library about 10 years ago and did a lot of work to make sure that the Cowan Pottery Museum continued and was a strong entity. It’s been a part of Rocky River public library since 1978.

I have a library science degree and I was an archivist for 17 years, and I studied history in graduate school, so the cultural history aspect of Cowan pottery has always appealed to me. I retired from my job at the Cleveland Orchestra as archivist, but didn’t want to really retire, just maybe do something closer to home. This job came up and I’ve been here for about two years now.

Collectors Weekly: Who was Guy Cowan?

Jacobs: His full name was R. Guy Cowan. The R is just for Reginald, which he never used because he hated the name. He was a ceramicist, a bit of a chemist, an artist, an educator, and he grew up in a family of potters. He was born in East Liverpool, Ohio, which is a great pottery center. There were many potteries there over the years, and his father was chief designer at one of them, so that was his heritage.

Large Bowl - Shape No. B-15

Large Bowl – Shape No. B-15

His family moved to Syracuse, New York, also a pottery town, while he was growing up. After college he ended up coming back to Cleveland, Ohio because he obtained a job to start the ceramics department at a technical high school in 1908.

It was always his aim to have his own studio, his own kiln, but he had to start slowly, so he began as a teacher. He also taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and finally, in about 1912 or 1913, he started his first studio, which at that time was called the Cleveland Pottery and Tile Company in Lakewood, Ohio. That lasted for about four years, but it had to close because everybody went off to the First World War.

When he returned from war, he discovered that the gas well on the property, which was used to fire the kilns, had dried up, so he had to find a functioning gas well. He found a good piece of property in Rocky River which backed up to the railroad, which was good for shipping goods and receiving supplies, and it had a gas well. He started his studio there and named it the Cowan Pottery Studio.

At one time, he probably had as many as 30 to 40 different artists and craftspeople working for him, as well as technicians and office people. There was a little group of about 10 buildings, each doing the different phases of pottery manufacture.

While in Rocky River, they focused on production items that were used for everyday living and more unique limited-edition fine-art items. Regardless of whether it was a teapot or a candlestick or a figurine, they always had the highest of artistic standards. Cowan Pottery became known as a bridge between the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the modernist movement of the mid-20th century.

Much of his work came to be known as very fine examples of the Art Deco style. The term “Art Deco” came into common use in the 1960s and has been applied retroactively to much of Cowan’s work, but it’s not all Art Deco. Some of it’s more classical-looking or a little bit Arts and Crafts. It’s just a great variety of styles, shapes, and glazes.

It became very popular in the 1920s to the extent that by the end of that decade, nearly 200,000 pieces per year were being produced at the Cowan Pottery Studio, which at that time had barely 5,000 people. This is quite a claim to fame for Rocky River. In their catalogs, they had to put “Rocky River, Ohio” and then in parentheses “a suburb of Cleveland” so people knew where in the heck that was.

A number of prominent artists worked for Cowan, many from the Cleveland Institute of Art, both on the faculty and in the student body. There was one American sculptor, Paul Manship, who became very famous in the mid-20th century and did one piece for the Cowan Pottery Studio. It was a statue known as Europa, and this one piece was just totally distinctive and unique. We have that piece on display right now. Manship’s most famous work was the Prometheus Fountain, which is seen in the center of Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

“Back then everybody smoked, so the studio created teeny ashtrays that could be used as bridge party favors.”

One of the more famous names associated with Cowan Pottery was Viktor Schreckengost, who was the creator of the famous Jazz Bowl. That was created at the Cowan Pottery Studio about 1930 and was actually commissioned by a dealer in New York who had an order from a housewife who wanted a very special punchbowl for a very special occasion. Mr. Schreckengost got this job. He had just been to New York City on New Year’s Eve and there were so many images swimming around in his head of the skyscrapers and the musicians and champagne glasses and he incorporated all of this into a visual story. It came to be known as the Jazz Bowl.

The New York housewife was thrilled with this piece and ordered two more, one for Hyde Park and one for the White House, and so it became clear that this order was from Eleanor Roosevelt. After the initial first three jazz bowls, a run of 50 more were created, and the Cowan Pottery Museum has one of those 50. Others are in museums around the world. So Viktor Schreckengost was probably the most prominent name associated with Cowan Pottery, but that was a very small part of his career. He went on and created artworks in just about every different field of art and industrial design imaginable. He died recently at age 101.

Collectors Weekly: Was it all hand made or did they have machines?

Jacobs: Some were production pieces that were produced en masse and some were individually made as unique works of art or limited editions. In a sense, they were all handmade, but the production items were simpler in design and didn’t have a lot of the handwork that went into the more unique items.

Another indication of the popularity of Cowan was the fact that in some of the classic movies of that time, you can see Cowan pottery in parts of the sets. It’s quite recognizable, and we have identified six movies in particular in which you can easily recognize certain pieces of Cowan pottery.

One of them was The Divorcee, with Norma Shearer, which came out in 1930. There’s a piece of pottery on the mantle in the background while she’s explaining to her husband that she has just committed adultery because he has done the same. The camera focuses on this beautiful figure called Margarita by Waylande Gregory, who created many pieces for Cowan Pottery.

There’s supposed to be some Cowan in one of the Laurel and Hardy movies, the one called Chickens Come Home. We had a Cowan classic film festival in the early fall, and the last film that we showed was a movie called The Woman in the Window, with Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett, and this had several pieces of Cowan in the background. It was a lot of fun to be able to pick those out, and sometimes we find that there’s more than one. For example, in The Divorcee, there were at least two other pieces of Cowan that we didn’t know about.

Collectors Weekly: Who were Cowan’s contemporaries?

Jacobs: In Ohio, there was Rookwood pottery, Roseville Weller, and Hall China. Those potteries were all booming. Many of them closed, as did Cowan, because they were victims of the Depression. Cowan was the only major art pottery in the Cleveland area, whereas the other areas of Ohio had multiple potteries.

Collectors Weekly: Were the artists working at the studio making their own designs or did Cowan tell them what to make?

Nautch Dancer by Waylande Gregory - 1930

Nautch Dancer by Waylande Gregory – 1930

Jacobs: They were pretty much given free rein to create their own designs. Mr. Cowan wanted them to do that. He only hired people who were creative and who he knew about. He was a very collaborative type of person, and many pieces were created with one, two, or three artists working together.

The artists were also doing other things. There were some that mainly worked at Cowan, but many were teaching at the same time, like the artists who came from the Cleveland Institute of Art. There were some like Paul Manship who actually lived in another city and would come to Cowan for a short while to create something and then go back to his regular work. All of the artists associated with Cowan continued working after the studio closed in 1931. Some stayed in ceramics; others went into other fields of arts.

Cowan closed due to the Depression. Dealers started reducing their orders, and with fewer orders coming in, income and the revenue went down. They actually went into bankruptcy in 1930 but were able to continue for another year until the end of 1931. Finally they just couldn’t cut it, so the inventory was sold to a local department store and the artists were encouraged to continue on their own. Some of them were allowed to take their molds with them, so they actually made a few more pieces of Cowan after the studio closed.

Guy Cowan himself remained in the Cleveland area for a couple more years. He worked for Ferro Corporation, which was more industrial and ceramic engineering, and he commuted to Syracuse three days a week to work at Onondaga China, which later became Syracuse Pottery. That commute was a bit much, so he finally moved his family to Syracuse in 1933. He remained extremely active in the pottery ceramics field, was instrumental in starting the National Ceramics Exhibition at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, and was the chief designer at Syracuse China. He died in Syracuse in 1957.

After he died, it became known that he wanted to be buried in Rocky River and that that was the site of what he considered to be his greatest success. More than 25 years later, his remains came back to Rocky River.

He didn’t create as much work himself after he left Rocky River. He was more in the production end at Syracuse China, working as a designer and promoter of the Ceramics Exhibition. His work shifted away from the creative end and more into promotion and production.

Our museum focuses on the work from the Cowan Pottery Studio, but we have very early pieces from the Lakewood area as well. When the museum began in 1978, we started with a collection of 800 pieces. Today the collection is a little over 1,200 pieces.

Donation is a large part of it because there’s a lot of Cowan out there in attics, basements, and people’s private collections. We did make one really interesting purchase this year from eBay. I have a very small acquisition budget so I wait for those very special items and I used part of that to obtain this piece. A similar one also came up that was purchased by a member of our support group who then donated it to the museum. Sometimes we’ll get a few pieces through auctions, but mainly it’s donation.

Collectors Weekly: What types of shapes and styles were being created at the Cowan Studio?

Jacobs: There was just a huge variety. Different artists had different specialties. For example, the artist Waylande Gregory really liked animals, so many of his pieces show stags and dogs and swans. Guy Cowan really loved the human figure, especially figures in movement, and he patented the idea of having a figurine in the center of a flower frog.

A flower frog is simply a little piece with holes in it that florists use for a flower arrangement. Cowan patented the flower frog figurine and created at least a dozen different figures in really beautiful and graceful poses and positions. One is modeled after the ballerina Anna Pavlova, who came to Cleveland 1924. Guy Cowan took his daughters to see her and was just so enchanted with her performance that he modeled one of his flower frog figurines after her, so we call that one the Pavlova figure.

"Bird & Wave" by Alexander Blazy - 1927

“Bird & Wave” by Alexander Blazy – 1927

Back then everybody smoked, so the studio created a lot of different little accessories for smokers, including teeny ashtrays that could be used as bridge party favors. Mr. Cowan and his wife were great bridge players so they thought it would be a great thing to manufacture a line of little accessories that could be used as favors. There were cigarette jars and all different kinds of ashtrays. Some were quite beautiful.

A lot of Cowan’s glazes were newly developed in house as well. They developed over 150 different glazes. One of the distinctive ones was called oriental red, which actually came in two different versions: the plain matte oriental red and a more speckled version. Then they had a series of glazes that were known as lusters, and when you look at articles that have these particular glazes, like marigold luster or larkspur, it’s like you can almost see a rainbow when you look at the items in a light.

Some of Cowan’s innovations were picked up by other potteries. At the time, there weren’t factories, but there were a lot of individual people creating things. Once they hit upon something that was popular, they would produce many of them, but you didn’t find a whole lot of duplication. Later on, some items were produced in the fashion of the Cowan flower frog figurines, for example. They weren’t exactly the same, but they were similar, so there would be a little bit of copy art going on. If something was successful and especially beautiful, it would inspire similar things, and sometimes they actually did try to just do copies or fakes.

Collectors Weekly: How did they make the glazes?

Jacobs: Cowan had a background in chemistry. We have some of his notebooks with the glaze compounds. He hired technicians who were very skilled that also worked on this.

Cowan was a graduate of the Alfred University in western New York state, which had a very good ceramics program that involved ceramic engineering and all aspects of production, both artistic and more technical. Plus his father had been active in this area as well, so he had a pretty good grounding in the scientific aspects of pottery production.

Collectors Weekly: What was Cowan best known for?

Jacobs: For producing such a huge variety of materials that were affordable and usable in everyday life, such as items for the middle-class housewives’ dining room table. They marketed things like this a lot towards the everyday life in the average home.

On the other hand, the wealthier family found lots to like, too, in the more unique artworks that in some cases were really unique or of a very limited edition. It matched the spirit of the age, the jazz age, the desire for modern-looking things, and they did have a lot of items that were in sync with this modernist phase that later came to be known as Art Deco.

Collectors Weekly: What kind of items do you have at the museum?

Jacobs: There’s a lot of Art Deco, but also a lot that’s more modernist-looking from the 1920s and 1930s. We have the finer artworks (in some cases one of a kind) and we have a lot of production items, but even those are so beautiful that it’s easy to create displays. I have 24 display cases. Some of them are small and some are large, so we have a lot of space for display, and even then I can’t get half of the collection out on display at once. We have room to display about 40 percent of the collection, and then the rest of it is stored in various places in cupboards so we can create different displays from time to time and keep the interest level up. You don’t want to put out everything at once.

A lot of people come to the Cowan exhibit by accident, because not everybody knows about it. They come in and say, “Wow,” because it’s real clear when you walk into the library’s grand reading room on the first floor that this is both the library and the museum. The print collections and the pottery collections are integrated. You’ll have the displays of books intermingled with the display cases. Thanks to our renovation that was completed in the spring of 2007, we have some really lovely display cases with dark wood that are professionally lit. All the cases have the same background, so it looks like a museum. It’s well done and looks professional.

Collectors Weekly: When Cowan closed the studio, was there still a demand for Cowan pottery?

Jacobs: The inventory had been sold to a department store and dealers across the country still had some Cowan left in their inventory, so it was still being sold for a while. I mentioned that some pieces were in movies, and that continued into the 1940s, so even though new pieces weren’t being produced. People knew about it pretty much up until the ‘50s, and after that time it went underground and people forgot about it.

A library director in the 1970s here at Rocky River was responsible for reviving Cowan pottery, at least in this area, and making people aware of our heritage. That library director started researching Cowan and made connections with local collectors and found out about a collection of 800 pieces that a collector wanted to sell. After we got a bequest from a private donor, we were able to purchase that collection in 1976, and then at the beginning of 1978, the museum opened.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of collectors of Cowan pottery?

"Chinese Horse" by Ralph Howard Cowan - 1931

“Chinese Horse” by Ralph Howard Cowan – 1931

Jacobs: Yes. In the past 10 years, it’s really picked up speed and the value has gone down a little bit. With a resurgence in interest, more and more people discovered Cowan in their attics. At first the value was sky-high, and then it appeared that there were more pieces available than everybody realized, so the value leveled off a little bit. You’ll always find pieces of Cowan on eBay, for example, and anybody who’s into antiques and collecting knows about Cowan, and people who are into the artistic end of ceramics and pottery also know about it.

I definitely think interest in Cowan will continue to grow. The value will probably continue to reflect the economy, but the interest is definitely there. For example, the Cleveland Museum of Art has been going through a huge seven-year renovation project and they’re gradually reopening their different collections. When they reopen their decorative arts division, Cowan will be on permanent display as part of the local decorative arts area, and that wasn’t always the case. It’s really gained legitimacy in the past decade in the art world and the antiques world.

The valuing of regional art has become more prominent. People appreciate what was created in their own areas in the past and recognize the classical pieces that will endure. I think you’ll see all over the country that people are more interested in their own cultural and artistic heritages.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any organizations or clubs that are dedicated to Cowan pottery?

Jacobs: The museum has a group called the Cowan Pottery Museum Associates. That group did the beautiful website, and they’re solely devoted to supporting the museum and Cowan pottery. That’s probably the only group that’s solely devoted to Cowan pottery, but there are other antique groups where Cowan is one of their interests. A lot of them will come in for tours, because we do tours for anyone who’s interested, and there are some antique stores in the area that always try to have a little supply of Cowan pottery for sale amongst their other ceramics items.

Collectors Weekly: Did Cowan mark his pottery?

Jacobs: Yes, there are definite marks. I’m not sure exactly how many, but there are at least a dozen very common ones. We have some little booklets that show samples of the marks, and there’s a big reference work on Cowan pottery that has examples of them. Most of the pieces have some kind of distinctive Cowan pottery mark if you turn it over. Sometimes it’s worn off, and sometimes people would paste velvet or felt over the bottom of it in the ‘30s so it wouldn’t scratch their dining room table, for example. Then it’s a problem. Occasionally Mr. Cowan allowed the artists who created really special pieces to put their signatures as well as the Cowan mark.

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the rarer pieces you have in the museum?

Jacobs: We have a ceramic tile, a mural, which hangs on the wall. It’s two and a half feet wide by four feet high, so it’s a significant piece. The design is of Egyptian maidens gathering water in jugs from a stream, and it’s very colorful. It was created by an artist who also did painted murals in the grand foyer of Severance Hall where the Cleveland Orchestra plays. She created both those painted murals and the ceramic tile mural in 1930, and there were only five of both created, so that’s a pretty special item.

Of course, the Jazz Bowl is probably our most valuable item. The last time it was sold on auction – not that piece but one of the initial run of 50 jazz bowls – was about 2004 and it went for $254,000. It’s so highly valued and there are few enough copies that its value is right up there.

(All images in this article courtesty of Cowan Pottery Museum Associates).

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