Low Art Tile Book Collection

About this collection
Low Art Tile Works, located in Chelsea, Massachusetts, was founded in 1877. It was one of a handful of companies, including the Chelsea Keramic Art Works, to advance the development of decorative tiles in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Low Art Tile Works specialized in high relief decorative art tiles for fireplaces, walls, cast-iron stoves, and soda fountains, establishing a prominent reputation for innovation in design.

Inspired by European tiles at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, John Gardner Low, along with his father John Low, established J. & J.G. Low Art Tile Works in Chelsea the following year. The company reached prominence in the 1880s, when it garnered several prestigious awards in the U.S. and Europe. Also during this period, the company’s name changed, after J. F. Low, son of John Gardner Low, replaced his retired grandfather.

Of the artists and designers who worked for Low Art Tile Works, some went on to establish successful companies. In 1890, George W. Robertson, a chemist and glaze expert for Low, established Robertson Art Tile in Morrisville, Pennsylvania. William H. Grueby, who apprenticed with the company for ten years, founded in 1894 Grueby Pottery, which was known for its matte green glaze called “Grueby Green.” English sculptor Arthur Osborne, who designed the renowned “Plastic Sketches” for Low (which published booklets by the same title) returned to England in 1898, where he began producing his acclaimed “Ivorex” plaques in the market town of Faversham.

During its 25 years of business, Low Art Tile Works published several editions of catalogues. It marketed one catalogue in particular as an art book. VCU Libraries’ Digital Collections include three Low Art Tile publications: two catalogues (1884 and 1887 editions) and the art book, Plastic Sketches (partial 1887 edition).

A complete edition, the 1884 catalogue includes two photographic plates of fireplaces and 28 plates of unglazed designs, a historical chronology, a reference key for the plates depicted, a price list of Low’s art tiles, and 36 pages of advertisements. The VCU Libraries’ copy also is inscribed, "Compliments of J.G. & J.F. Low."

The 1887 catalogue is incomplete. Compared with a 1990 reproduction of an intact 1887 catalogue, VCU Libraries’ copy lacks the following: six of 51 plates of unglazed designs (1-4, 12, and 51), the front and back covers, a title page, a reference key, a price list, and at least three pages of advertisements. Of particular note, however, are four lithographed plates (7-10) labeled “Moorish Designs,” which are not present in other Low catalogues.

Plastic Sketches contains a special series of 47 unglazed tiles modeled by Arthur Osborne. It was published in 1882 as a small, inexpensive booklet and, later, in 1886 as a deluxe edition with a satin cover. The digitized version is of an incomplete deluxe edition of 27 of the plates. Arthur Osborne’s signature, the letter “A” inside a circle, is evident in the bottom right corner of each modeled tile.

Items in this collection were digitized in 2011.

This material is in the public domain in the United States and thus is free of any copyright restriction. Acknowledgement of Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries as a source is requested.