Diminutive and Sublime

David Rago on the Enduring Charm of Roblin Pottery

Roblin was the reason for my first trip to California in 1977 at age 23, where I ended up in Carmel by the Sea. One of the top American ceramic dealers of the time, Californian Robin Crawford, had just settled on the Dorothy (Dora) Robertson estate, a virgin hoard of Golden State ceramics from the turn of the century. Bear in mind that, at that time, in New Jersey at least, such things as Roblin, Halcyon, and FHR Los Angeles held an almost mystical status. Rare even when first produced, the respective bodies of work were steadily winnowed by earthquakes, ignorance, and the natural attrition that befalls objects of clay. And yet, in a simple house in a quiet town with no street numbers, hundreds of pieces with family provenance graced my arrival.

Roblin is a special case. It is the synthesis of English and American Arts and Crafts, honed by the Robertson family bloodline, passing from England through Chelsea, Massachusetts, and ending where the continent stops. The confluence of what were said to be the most superior clays found in America to that time, the spectacular (and relatively unblemished) vistas, flora, and fauna, the Robertson lineage, and perhaps the spur of love, resulted in sublime work, understated and diminutive, powerful and just perfect.

We can’t know for certain what Linna Irelan and Alexander Robertson truly intended, since so much of their production was lost in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. We’re left to sift through what survived, or sold prior to that catastrophe, a palimpsest of that place and time and those two artists. Most of what was seen then, and in the ensuing decades, is small, simple, often unglazed, and seldom bearing the elegant decorative work for which Ms. Irelan was regarded. More common were the tooled bands of minute beading imparted by Alexander, which makes both pieces in this sale all the more special. Thrown by Alex, signed and decorated by Linna, together they show slip relief, incising, modeling, and applique, and represent all the decorative techniques the company employed. Both, in their way, look like Robertson family work from Chelsea Keramic, but updated, softened, and representing that synthesis earlier described.

I fell in love with California on that trip and have become an ardent admirer and promoter of the art pottery made there prior to World War I. But that first visit, with abalone steaks, honey milkshakes, and the sun setting over the Pacific, left an indelible mark.

Roblin Pottery

San Francisco-based Roblin Pottery was one of the earliest California art potteries. Founded in 1898 by Alexander W. Robertson and Linna Irelan, its name was derived from the first syllables of Robertson’s surname and Irelan’s first name.

Alexander Robertson began his career as a founding member of Chelsea Keramic Art Works in Chelsea, Massachusetts and was already an accomplished potter before moving to the San Francisco area in 1884. He initially worked as a potter in Oakland until 1891 and did not partner with Irelan until later that decade. Irelan, a German immigrant, studied at the California School of Design and was an accomplished watercolorist. Her husband was a state geologist, leading her to an interest in California clays. She published an article about local clays in the 1890s in one of her husband’s publications, which is perhaps how Robertson became acquainted with her.

Their wares were of modest size and characterized by refined, simple forms, muted colors, and minimal decoration. Robertson threw the pots and Irelan applied the decor, which were often floral motifs, mushrooms, or lizards. Their staff remained small and included Alexander’s son, Fred, by 1903. The pottery submitted works at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, and won Irelan an honorable mention. Roblin Pottery was short-lived, becoming one of many businesses destroyed in the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent horrific fire, after which Irelan retired from ceramics altogether and Alexander and his son moved south to Los Angeles. Fred Robertson would go on to develop his own independent line of high-fired, crystalline-glaze pottery.

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