Born in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1875 to a family of bricklayers and carpenters, Ernest A. Batchelder came to Pasadena at the dawn of the 20th century to teach art at Throop Polytechnic Institute (now CalTech). Decisively contradicting the old "Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach" adage, in 1910, Batchelder set up a kiln at his home overlooking the Arroyo Seco and began producing distinctive decorative tile.
What started as "a back yard experiment with a portable kiln having a capacity of one hundred and fifty 6x6 tiles," in the artist’s own words, soon became a runaway success. By the 1920s, Batchelder tiles could be found in homes, shops, restaurants, and hotels across America. At its peak, Batchelder’s factory had 150 artisans working to keep up with demand.
But like so many other businesses, the company fell victim to the Great Depression, and the artist reverted once again to a home studio. He continued to produce pottery until the early 1950s, and make a further impact on the artistic landscape through his many students and acolytes.
This week, the Pasadena Museum of History unveiled the first local exhibition dedicated to the work and legacy of the artist, author, and educator. The exhibit was curated by LA’s preemininent architecture scholar, Robert Winter, who has lived in the renowned tilemaker’s former home since 1971. At a press preview on Wednesday, the historian offered some insight into Batchelder tile’s popularity:
"Not only were they beautiful, they were affordable to middle-class people. Not cheap, but relatively inexpensive—unlike today!"
Though he could have undoubtedly netted a pretty penny selling it, happily for the general public, Winter has donated an extensive collection of Batchelder tile, art, and archival materials to the museum. Items from Winter’s collection on exhibit include iconic floral-, mythical-, and avian-themed tiles.
The show also features works supplied by the tilemaker’s family, including a massive carved medallion with Batchelder’s initials and insignia—"the Green Rabbit"—that once hung outside his Pasadena home.
Other highlights include a large panel from the Dutch Chocolate Shop, one of Batchelder’s earliest large commissions, unearthed in 2012. Visitors can also take an immersive 3-D tour of the chocolate shop and Ernest Batchelder’s historic bungalow via a virtual reality headset designed by Matterport and Craig Sauer.
Batchelder: Tilemaker will be on display through February 12, 2017.