Looking at this pair of teacups and saucers, you’d never guess that they brewed up a long, bitter rivalry between two talented artists.
Following the advice of tastemakers like John Ruskin, William Morris and Charles Eastlake, ladies of the late 19th century added beauty to their homes with all sorts of artistic endeavors, including painting porcelain. As “china mania” swept the country, Cincinnati’s most elite ladies decided to auction 35 hand-decorated teacups and saucers at a May 1875 tea party to raise money to display artistic creations by female Cincinnatians at the country’s Centennial Exhibition to be held the next year in Philadelphia, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in that city. Two cups and saucers went for $25, the auction’s highest bid — one by Mary Louise McLaughlin, and the other by Maria Longworth Nichols.
Louise, the daughter of a successful dry-goods merchant, also expressed her artistic talent through woodcarving, a skill that she had learned from Cincinnati’s master woodcarvers, Henry and William Fry and Benn Pitman. Inspired by an illustration from Gothic Forms Applied to Furniture, Metalwork and Decoration for Domestic Purposes, a book written by Scottish Aesthetic Movement designer Bruce James Talbert in 1867, Louise carved a walnut and ebony cabinet to display at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. She painted tiles with images of women in fashions from 1776 and 1876 to make her creation even more special. Maria, mother of two young children, was the daughter of Joseph Longworth, one of Cincinnati’s wealthiest citizens. She displayed examples of her china-painting skill at the Centennial Exhibition.
Both Maria and Louise attended the exhibition and were inspired by what they saw. Louise marveled at the porcelain created by Haviland & Company of Paris, the first to be decorated under the glaze, instead of over it, which kept the decoration from chipping, smearing or rubbing off the vessel itself. Louise returned home from Philadelphia determined to discover the secret of Haviland’s technically difficult technique in which the colors used for the decoration would not fade in the glaze firing. Maria arrived back in Cincinnati fired up about Japanese glazes. She asked her father to import an entire Japanese pottery establishment, complete with workers, so that she could provide the means for artists to create outstanding ceramics. Louise was more successful than Maria in accomplishing their goals.
In 1877, Louise published China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain, the first instruction book on china painting in the United States. The best-seller was so popular that it was published in 10 editions and sold more than 20,000 copies. The following year, Louise became the first American to produce pottery that was decorated under the glaze.
A brainstorm came to Louise in August 1879. She would make the largest decorated-under-the-glaze vase in America. After four unsuccessful attempts, Louise made three vases in February 1880 and called them “Ali Baba” vases, after the jar that held 40 thieves in The Arabian Nights. Louise’s Ali Baba vase was displayed at the Cincinnati Pottery Club’s first reception on May 5, 1880; was listed for sale at $150 (over $2,700 in today’s money); and was proclaimed as the finest piece of decorated pottery ever made in the country.
When Maria heard that Louise had created the largest vase decorated under the glaze in America, she was not to be outdone. Using Louise’s technique, Maria created her own decorated-under-the-glaze vase and called it the “Aladdin.” Although more than seven inches shorter than the Ali Baba vase, the Aladdin was two inches wider. It was a real accomplishment because it was even more difficult to fire.
Later that year, Maria founded the Rookwood Pottery Company, named for her family’s Cincinnati estate that was built in 1848 by her grandfather, Joseph Longworth. Rookwood quickly became a force to be reckoned with in art pottery. Within its first decade, Rookwood began winning international awards, attracting talented artists, and capitalizing on its location, which offered plenty of natural resources for the production and distribution of ceramics.
While Rookwood was best known for its art pottery, it also produced fine examples of faience, the colorful decorated, glazed earthenware tiles that were often installed in homes, schools and businesses because they were durable and required little maintenance. This detail of a chimneypiece mantel was designed for a Cincinnati home in 1903.
The Rookwood Pottery Company enjoyed its reign of the art pottery market until hardships caused by the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression and World War II finally led the pottery to close in 1967. First, a collector, and then, a group of investors, rescued the Rookwood trademarks, molds and glaze recipes in order to produce a limited number of ceramics. Today, The Rookwood Pottery Company produces art pottery and tile in its studio, in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. The original Rookwood factory still sits atop a hill in Cincinnati’s Mt. Adams neighborhood; today, it’s home to a restaurant.
Maria’s brother — Nicholas Longworth III, a politician who served three terms as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, from 1925 to 1931 — was the last Longworth to live at the Rookwood estate on Grandin Road in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati. In 1950, his wife, Alice, the oldest daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, sold the home and 15 acres of grounds to a real estate developer who razed the home to develop a suburb. Alice didn’t like Rookwood near as much as the Long Island, New York home where she grew up, but that’s a post for another day.
To learn more about how Louise, Maria and Rookwood made Cincinnati one of the most important cities in the world for art pottery, visit the Cincinnati Wing of the Cincinnati Art Museum, where many of Louise and Maria’s creations, together with a large collection of Rookwood art pottery, are on display. Also check out The Ceramic Career of Mary Louise McLaughlin, by Anita J. Ellis; Maria Longworth: A Biography, by Rose Angela Boehle; Rookwood Pottery: The Glorious Gamble, by Anita J. Ellis; “On the Road to Rookwood: Women’s Art and Culture in Cincinnati, 1870-1890,” an article by Nancy E. Owen in the Winter 2001 issue of Ohio Valley History; and Rookwood and the Industry of Art: Women, Culture, and Commerce, 1880-1913, by Nancy E. Owen.