Ernest A. Batchelder (1875~1957) was one of the strongest design personalities in American art-tile production. Born in New Hampshire and educated in Massachusetts, he also trained at the Birmingham School of Arts and Crafts in Britain. He became associated with various American crafts schools, eventually setting up his own school of arts and crafts in Pasadena, California, in 1909. Although he was a writer and potter, he is best known as a tile designer, one very much influenced by the Gothic Revival and the English Arts and Crafts Movement. Among his distinctive cast-ceramic tiles were images of medievalized lions, Art Nouveau peacocks, leaping hares and deer, and Japoniste trees and landscapes. Although very much akin in spirit and subject matter to the painted tiles of William De Morgan, the relief tiles of Batchelder are very much American, with their strong, moulded-relief designs. By 1930, the fashion for the art tile in the United States had diminished to the point where such tiles were regarded as merely utilitarian objects. The Depression forced many commercial firms to close, with art potters turning to university teaching to ensure their financial survival. Indeed, some American tile-producing potteries are still open — and studio potters still create lovely tiles — but there is nothing like the popular demand and consequent mass- production that existed in the six decades encompassing 1870 and 1930. However, the significance of American tiles in the history of tile-making has been recognized and interest in them has grown considerably in the last decade, as several museum exhibitions and commercial publications have shown.
Batchelder’s life took a turn in 1909 when, behind his house overlooking the Arroyo Seco, he built a kiln and entered the business of creating hand-crafted art tiles. The tiles were hugely popular, and by the 1920s, Batchelder’s tiles could be found in homes and buildings across the United States. Batchelder’s prominence in Southern California’s art community included his involvement in the founding of the Pasadena Art Institute and his membership in the Pasadena Society of Artists. Batchelder was also the third Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Pasadena Playhouse, to which he contributed an original tile fireplace and fountain (recently restored).
The style in which Batchelder worked was highly distinctive. First, he used a single-fire process known as engobe in which a primary wash of colored clay slip (usually pale blue) was applied to the surface of the tile before being fired, pooling in the recesses of the design, with excess being wiped off. Then the tile was fired. A typical glazed tile is fired twice–once before glaze, and once after, thereby sealing in the added color. Batchelder’s designs often drew on Medieval themes but also included flowers, vines, and California oaks; birds, particularly peacocks; Mayan patterns; Byzantine themes; and geometric shapes.
Batchelder architectural tiles met with great success, and the company moved twice, expanding each time. Its tiles appear on the walls and floors of many New York City apartment house lobbies, and can be found in shops, restaurants, swimming pools and hotels throughout the United States.
One of Batchelder’s last and largest projects was the Hershey Hotel in Hershey, Pennsylvania, built by the famous chocolate manufacturer in 1930, in order to give jobs to many local residents who would otherwise have been unemployed during the Depression. Batchelder tiles appeared on the walls, floors and stair risers of a dazzling fountain room, complete with central pool and a mezzanine level. Unfortunately, Batchelder’s company, which had employed 150 men at its peak, was forced out of business by the Great Depression in 1932; although Batchelder continued to make pottery in a small shop in Pasadena until the early 1950s. In addition to the Batchelder Tile Company, there were numerous other California tile manufacturers. The abundant local clays, inexpensive fuel, power, and cheap labour were all factors that contributed to an active tile industry, while the rapidly growing population led to a continual demand for new buildings. Moreover, the most popular local architectural styles, such as Spanish, Mediterranean and Colonial Revival, use large amounts of tile.
One of Batchelder’s famous earliest commissions became Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument No. 137: a Dutch-themed Chocolate Shop. The cocoa-brown walls were crowned with tiles of Dutch maidens, wooden clogs, and windmills.
“It’s certainly one of the most beautiful and extravagant tile interiors in Los Angeles or anywhere,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of the city’s Office of Historic Resources. “It’s a remarkable example of the use of ceramic tile and a preeminent example of Batchelder’s work.”
The Batchelder House built in Pasadena, California, in the early 1900s, and where he set up his first kiln, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The current resident, Dr. Robert Winter, wrote the definitive Batchelder history, “Batchelder Tilemaker” (Balcony Press, 1999, 112 pp, ISBN 1-890449-03-2). Although the house is not open to the public, some Batchelder tiles, stamped with heraldic animals and figures, may be found on the walkway in front of the dwelling.