The history of Shelley pottery goes right back to the foundation of the Foley Potteries in 1827, but it was the arrival of Frederick Rhead in 1896 as Art Director of Wileman & Co that heralded the beginning of 40 years of creative innovation and huge success for the company. Although Rhead was only at the company for nine years he made a substantial contribution.
Between 1896 and 1936 Shelley produced a large range of outstanding decorative and table ware. Due to the quality of the products and clever marketing the company became one of the leading brands at home and in the export market.
Frederick Rhead, although still young, had already a reputation as a talented potter. Rhead’s best known work at Shelley was his earthenware designs and especially the Intarsio range, which was inspired by Moorish and Persian influences, as well as the work of continental potters, like Della Robbia. The results were fantastic with design themes incorporating architecture, people, animals and flowers. By 1905 the economic climate had worsened and the company needed a safer, more commericial approach to their design and Rhead left the firm. Therefore the earthenware ranges designed by Rhead were only produced for a very short time, which make them extremely scarce today. Examples in good condition are sold for hundreds and thousands of pounds.
Walter Slater replaced Frederick Rhead as Art Director at Shelley. During his first five years he designed ranges of commemorative and advertising wares that could be mass-produced relatively cheaply and was affordable to the mass market. By 1910 the economy had recovered and there was once again scope for the production of lower volume decorative ware.
Slater took full advantage of this – his flambe and lustre glazed designs in the Art Nouveau style were very popular and they remain collectable today. The most popular are lustre designs incorporating fish, as well as any pieces that were marked with Slatre’s facsimile signature.
In 1919 Eric Slater, Walter’s son, joined Shelley. Tought by his father he soon took responsibility for the design of whole new shapes and ranges. His first major success was the Queen Anne shape. This china design was a huge success and was produced until 1933. Art Deco collectors love the Mode and Vogue shapes, launched in 1930. Their angular and unconventional shapes were complemented by the ‘Blocks’ series of patterns, which were based on overlapping squares and rectangles in solid colours. These cubist designs captured the spirit of Art Deco and were very successful. To this day Mode and Vogue remain the definitive Shelley Art Deco tableware designs and even incomplete sets fetch good prices at auction. Although very beautiful, they were definitely not the most practical china. In order to address this a third shape, Eve, was designed. Eve’s hollowed out handles and narrower opening meant that it was easier to use, although this was at the expense of the purity of design.
Although Eric Slater’s tablewares had been very successful they did not appeal to everyone. In 1925 Shelley hired Hilda Cowham to produce designs for a new range of nursery wares and in 1926 she was replaced by Mabel Lucie Attwell. Atwell’s designs appealed to children and their parents alike and were a huge success. Most of the output was actual nurseryware such as baby plates etc but there was also a range of figurines which is of more interest to collectors. The figurines were three-dimensional versions of the characters depicted on the tableware. First to be introduced in 1926 were the Boo-Boo characters, the elves which feature in many of Atwell’s designs. In 1937 a range of figurines depicting the children who had featured in Attwell’s original transfer print designs was introduced. They were shown in unlikely adult roles, such as ‘The Golfer’ or ‘The Bride’. Original examples of these are very collectable, but beware, there are many modern reproductions out there. You would need to pay several hundred pounds for an original.
The history of Shelley Pottery shows that Shelley’s success was due to a combination of talented design and inspired management. Collectors might want to concentrate on a particular designer or a particular period. Shelley is now very scarce and to put together a good collection would take time and trouble, but it would be very rewarding.