Erie Art Museum

©1998 Lowry Photography

Erie, PA



Poems in Clay: Arthur Osborne's "Plastic Sketches" for the Low Art Tile Works

A new exhibit Poems in Clay: Arthur Osborne's "Plastic Sketches" for the Low Art Tile Works opens at the Erie Art Museum on October 21, 1999 and runs through March 5, 2000. The exhibit showcases the unique sculptural tiles designed by Arthur Osborne (1855-1942) while he worked for the J. & J. G. Low Tile Works of Chelsea, Massachusetts from 1879 to the late 1890s.

The exhibition focuses on Low's Plastic Sketches, which Osborne designed and modeled in the 1880s. These decorative art tiles are low-relief sculptural images, press moulded by hand and designed to be framed and hung as art objects. Low's transparent color glazes were applied to the tiles, imparting a sense of light, transparency and atmosphere to the images. No other tile maker, in England or the United States, had taken this approach to tiles, treating them as works of art worthy to be displayed like paintings.

Osborne, who was Low's chief modeler, emigrated to the United States from England. He had a great artistic versatility, producing intricate and distinctive designs. Inspired by various cultures, nature, and mythology, Osborne's images depict portraits, animals, birds, classical, genre, and bucolic scenes. In addition to the Plastic Sketches, Osborne designed hundreds of individual tiles for Low. These stunning ceramic: tiles decorated the interiors of both residences and businesses, often for fireplaces, doorways, borders, and elaborate soda fountains. Today Osborne's tiles, with their elaborate sculptural designs, are highly sought by ceramic tile collectors.

The Erie exhibition opens in conjunction with a national symposium on art tiles which is presented jointly by the Erie Art Museum and the Tile Heritage Foundation, a national organization dedicated to promoting an awareness and appreciation of ceramic surfaces in the United States.


Arthur Osborne (1855 - 1942)

Arthur Osborne was born in Faversham, Kent, England on August 13, 1855 and emigrated to America in 1878. He began working for the J. & J. G. Low Art Tile Works in Chelsea, Massachusetts the following year and soon became the chief designer and modeler for the company. The Low Art Tile Works, formed by artist John Gardner Low in 1877, was a very successful and award-winning tile company, producing many unique glazes and art tiles. Arthur Osborne designed and modeled almost all of Low's tiles, and demonstrated his special abilities in a specialized line of products called Plastic Sketches, low relief sculptural tiles intended to be framed and hung like oil paintings.

Osborne's Plastic Sketches were inspired by various cultures, the natural world, and mythology. His versatility led him through a spectrum of subjects and stylistic variations. His images were of portraits, animals, birds, and classical, genre and bucolic studies, each of them signed with "AO" on the face of the tile. As one critic noted, Osborne's sketches seemed to "breathe in clay."

The plastic sketches, which include tiles and panels, won much acclaim for their artistry. After garnering the Gold Medal, beating out all the English entries at the exhibition at Crewe, Stoke-on-Trent, The Academy (the publication for the Royal Academy) praised, "the sketches are not only beautiful, but reveal a new phase of Art, somewhere between sculpture and painting, admirably suited for decoration."

Arthur Osborne left the Low company in 1898 to return to England and start his own business in Faversham, where he designed and produced his own "lvorex" plaques for many years until his death in 1942.

Images from top to bottom: #17 Evening; #28 To Apollo; Plate XIX, No. 81, 1882, Ligeneuse, #11 Springtime; #42 Going to Market

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