Low Art Tile Company, Chelsea, Mass.
Situated in Chelsea, Massachusetts, this tile company produced very high quality earthenware pictorial tiles between 1877 and 1907.
The company was founded by John Gardner Low, an artist, who had trained in Paris, but who was a native of Massachusetts. He started his ceramic work in the Chelsea Keramic Art Works but soon founded his own business in partnership with his father, John Low.
Thus the company was called the J. & J.G. Low Art Tile Company. During its inception, the company included the talents of George Robertson, one of the family members of the Chelsea Keramic Art Works. Most Low tiles are marked on the back with date and copyright as well as with the title of the image.
One of the best artists working at Low was Arthur Osborne (1855-1942) – a designer and low relief sculptor active there during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He emigrated to the U.S. from England to become Low’s chief modeler. His works are sometimes marked A.O. on the back of Low art tiles. Osborne was born in Faversham, Kent in 1855 and emigrated to join the firm in Chelsea in 1879.
He departed America in 1898, leaving the Low Company in order to start his own business in Faversham, England. Osborne there produced plaques called “Ivorex” for many years before he died in 1942.
From The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States: An Historical Review of American Ceramic Art from the Earliest Times to the Present Day by Edwin Atlee Barber A.M. Ph.D.:
Mr. John G. Low, the founder of the Low Art Tile Works, was born in Chelsea, Mass., in 1835, where five generations of the same name had preceded him. From the age of sixteen until the year 1877 he devoted himself to various lines of painting, commencing with fresco and decorative work. In 1858 he went to Paris, where he studied with Thomas Couture and with M. Troyon, the celebrated cattle painter, for three years. In 1877 he became deeply interested in ceramic manufactures, and, in the following year, formed a copartnership with his father, Hon. John Low, and at once commenced the erection of a tile manufactory in his native place. Having never seen a tile made in any factory, he began experimenting on purely original lines and soon overcame the mechanical difficulties which presented themselves. A novel method was resorted to in the ornamentation of his earlier productions, which he patented and called the “natural ” process. To secure accurate impressions of delicate objects, such as grasses, leaves, laces, etc., the article to be reproduced was placed on the surface of the lightly shaped and unburned tile and forced into the clay by means of a screw press. On this impression was spread a piece of tissue paper, and over this was piled a quantity of the prepared dust, which was subjected to a second pressure. The tile, or pair of tiles, of double thickness, was then separated and the paper removed, when the impressions of the objects appeared in relief and intaglio, showing every minute detail of marking. These Mr. Low called “natural tiles.”
The method employed in making embossed or relief tiles is that now used by all tile works in this country, which was patented by Mr. Richard Prosser, in England, in 1840, for making buttons, and shortly after applied by Mr. J. M. Blashfield to the manufacture of tiles, called the ” dust ” process, which consists in slightly moistening the dry, powdered clay and subjecting it to great pressure in dies containing the designs to be impressed upon them. They are then burned and afterwards glazed or enamelled in delicate colors. In a little more than a year after the works were started, we find this firm competing with English tilemakers at the Exhibition at Crewe, Stoke-on-Trent, which was conducted under the auspices of the Royal Manchester, Liverpool, and North Lancashire Agricultural Society, one of the oldest in England. There they won the gold medal over all the manufacturers of the United Kingdom for the best series of art tiles exhibited. This record, probably unsurpassed in ceramic history, serves to illustrate the remarkably rapid development of an industry new in America but old in the East, and shows the vast resources at command of the American potter.
In 1883 Hon. John Low retired from the firm and Mr. John F. Low became associated with his father under the style of J. G. & J. F. Low.
Mr. Arthur Osborne, who has designed the majority of the tiles produced here, joined the Lows a few months after they commenced experimenting, and is still connected with the factory. He is a talented and versatile young artist, whose conceptions are chaste and classic and possess marked originality. Among his numerous designs are ideal heads, mythological subjects, portraits, Japanese sketches, and an almost endless variety of animal, bird, and floral studies. His “plastic sketches,” on a larger scale, are particularly meritorious, some of the most pleasing being a group of sheep in a pasture, a drove of swine entitled ” Late for Dinner,” a herd of cattle wending their way homeward (111. 177), and ” The Old Windmill.” These are made of plastic clay, called the “wet-clay ” process, and vary in size to upwards of eighteen inches in length. A beautiful conceit is the ” Fleeting Moments,” in which three cupids hover around an hour-glass, one being depicted in the act of winging his way upwards. In the high-relief tiles the undercutting is done by hand after the designs have been stamped in the press.
The Low Art Tile Co. also manufacture mantelfacings, panels, stove-tiles, calendar tiles, clothes hooks, paper-weights, inkstands, clock cases, candlesticks, bonbon boxes, and at one time made to some extent ewers and vases with relief ornamentation, or in plain colors, enamelled and glazed. They at one time also made tile stoves. Lately they have been making a specialty of the manufacture of art-tile soda fountains, in which work Mr. Osborne has found a broader field for the exercise of his talents.
A superb fountain made by this firm, and exhibited at the Chicago Exhibition, is probably the most elaborate piece of work produced by them. As an example of tilemodelling it has not been surpassed. The centre panel, measuring about six feet in width by five in height, is arched at the top, and on each side is a smaller panel of the same form. The design of the central piece consists of a group of human figures in high relief surrounding a fountain, and Cupids form the subject-design of the lateral panels. The delicate olive glaze which covers the tilework produces a rich and harmonious effect.
The Lows have never imitated other work, either domestic or foreign. They have never made hand-painted, mosaic, printed, encaustic, or floor tiles, and they have never employed men who were trained in other tile works. Consequently their products are characterized by a marked originality, both in style and design, which has caused them to be extensively imitated, both at home and abroad.
From Massachusetts of Today: a Memorial of the State, Historical and Biographical, for the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago, edited by Thomas C. Quinn, 1892.
JOHN G. LOW, the inventor of the art tiles that bear his name, has developed the greatest artistic industry of America in the department of fictile products. Mr. Low studied painting in Paris, and was long a leading member of the artists’ fraternity in Boston at the time of that celebrated semi-Bohemian organization, the Allston Club, of which he was a member along with William M. Hunt, Thomas Robinson, Joseph Foxcroft Cole and Albion H. Bicknell.
Perceiving the capacity for the artistic design and use of tile to a degree immensely in advance of anything done at the time, while the country was keenly alive to the impulse imparted to artistic activity by the Centennial exhibition at Philadelphia, two years before, he, with his father, Mr. John Low, founded in Chelsea, in 1878, the nucleus of the great works now conducted by the Low Art-Tile Company, — the largest establishment in the world for the production of this class of work. The tiles thus produced were of a new order; a revelation in the way of the possibilities of fictile art.
They soon became known all over the artistic world. In 188o, less than two years from the birth of this new American industry, these tiles were awarded in London a ten-guinea gold medal — the highest prize — over all the English manufacturers, with the experience and prestige of many years of prosperous activity behind them. Since then, at Barcelona, in Spain, and at the great Exposition Universelle in Paris, they have been awarded gold and silver medals. A comparison between the tiles in use before the Low tiles were made, and those which were soon turned out in great quantities at Chelsea, will show in the former products which now seem almost of a primitive crudeness in design and color.
The new American tiles exhibited a phenomenal variety and attractiveness in shape, size and design. For the first time tiles were made in relief, and their inventor, with a remarkable fertility of resource and a striking talent for structural design, adapted them to form decorative parts of many objects of every-day use — including stoves, clocks, furniture, candlesticks, wine coolers, paperweights, ash-trays, jardinieres, etc. Great as is their use for these purposes, however, the most extensive application yet made of them is in the recently developed tile soda fountains that are now revolutionizing this great and peculiarly American business. These fountains are of massive construction and most attractive appearance, being composed of beautifully artistic bas-relief panels in combination with rich architectural mouldings, making objects that are extremely decorative.
The care which Mr. Low has taken to give all the products of the establishment a thoroughly artistic character, in addition to their sterling technical merit, has been at the base of his success. An artistic triumph of the works was the production, a few years ago, of a series of “plastic sketches,” made in a limited number, and now having the value of great rarity for collectors. Mr. Low’s son, John F. Low, is associated with him, and to his rare ability as a chemist are due the rich and delicate color-tones of these tiles.
From The Pharmaceutical Era, Vol. XI, No. 9, May 1st, 1894: