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Freeman Gallery

Ernest Batchelder Tiles in the James Allen Freeman House, Pasadena

The Batchelder  tiles in the 1913-14 James Allen Freeman House are mainly in the classic Craftsman mode, but the fireplace in the entrance hall, not illustrated in any of the Batchelder catalogs, is extremely colorful and even seems to relate to the Viennese Secessionist or Art Nouveau styles. This has suggested to some observers that it is not Batchelder’s work. No one, however, knows where else it could have come from.

In his early days Batchelder avoided high color, preferring a soft (engobe) finish with blue-green coloring in the indentations but otherwise brown or gray predominating in the body of the piece. This product went particularly well with Craftsman interiors, where the dark treatment harmonized with the unpainted woodwork. And Batchelder’s designs, drawn from Medieval sources and from nature, fit beautifully into the evocation of the past that was part of the Craftsman aesthetic.

In the 1920s Batchelder used more color in his tiles, partly because tastes changed and partly because in 1922 he had hired Ivan Branham, a recent graduate of the University of Illinois who was an expert on color. After that, Batchelder tiles took on many colors and also many styles, such as Mayan and Art Deco. But the same soft glaze remained a part of the Batchelder palette.

Ernest Batchelder

Born into an old but poverty-stricken New England family, Ernest Batchelder (1876–1957) somehow found the money to attend the Massachusetts Normal Art Institute in Boston, where he learned to be a teacher of manual training. Taking Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man,” he lit out for California, where he eventually found a job at the Throop Polytechnic Institute in Pasadena. As he saw Throop changing from what was essentially a trade school into the scientific university that is now the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he realized that manual training would be fading from the curriculum and began to think about opening his own school of arts and crafts.

In 1909 he resigned from Throop and bought property on the Arroyo Seco, where he built a house and shed with a school in mind, but for some unknown reason opened a workshop instead and began to produce decorative tiles. His little industry flourished so that by 1926, when it had moved to a new location it had 11 kilns and some 175 employees. It developed a national reputation producing tiles that may still be seen all over the United States and even in western Canada.

Batchelder lost his tile business in the Great Depression of the 1930s, but later in that decade he bought a shed in the Kinneloa Mesa district of Pasadena and began to produce slip-cast ware, a totally different medium from tile. He was extremely proud of his late success in a life well lived.

Robert Winter

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