By Donald-Brian Johnson

A palette of vibrant color. Nature’s essence, captured in clay. These are the magical elements behind the enduring appeal of Van Briggle. Until its closing in 2012, the firm was America’s oldest continuously operating art pottery. Nestled at the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, Van Briggle Pottery turned out its first artware in 1899. Soon, collectors were clamoring for the pieces created by Artus and Anne Van Briggle and their successors. The lines are simple, yet evocative, the glazes deep and velvety, the finished product hypnotically alluring.

Born in Felicity, Ohio in 1869, Artus Van Briggle moved to Cincinnati while still in his teens, finding employment at the famed Rookwood Pottery. His skill as a decorator brought him to the attention of Maria Storer, Rookwood’s founder. In 1893, Storer sponsored Van Briggle’s further studies in Paris.

There, he became fascinated by pottery produced during the Chinese Ming Dynasty, particularly by its soft matte glazes. The technique used to produce these true-to-nature’s-colors glazes had been lost in the mists of time; resurrecting it became his obsession. (Another Paris-inspired obsession: fellow art student Anne Lawrence Gregory who, in 1902, became Anne Van Briggle.)

In 1896, Van Briggle returned to the United States. In 1899, the couple moved to Colorado. Artus, suffering from the onset of tuberculosis, hoped that the higher, drier climate might benefit his health.

Settling in Colorado Springs, he continued his glaze experimentation, utilizing native clays from the vicinity of the Garden of the Gods. In 1900, Artus Van Briggle finally achieved his goal: the marble-like soft glaze of the Ming period was successfully married to the sturdy clays of Colorado. In December, 1901, Van Briggle pottery was first offered to the public; all three hundred pieces in the initial run were immediately snapped up, and a pottery legend was born.

For Artus Van Briggle, the search for pottery perfection lasted longer than the success that followed. In 1902, the Paris Salon recognized his innovative glaze and design work with varied awards. In 1903, “Despondency”, a Van Briggle vase with the figure of a sorrowful woman coiled about the vase mouth, was a Salon first-place winner. But in July, 1904, at the age of 35, Artus Van Briggle died. The company was now in the hands of Anne Van Briggle.

Anne built on the creative foundations the pair had established, expanding the company’s output and workforce. More importantly, she also spearheaded the 1908 construction of the famed “Van Briggle Memorial Pottery” complex.

From the moment it opened, the Memorial Pottery was a must-see tourist destination. “In the shadow of Pikes Peak” was no exaggeration: the pottery’s handy Monument Valley Park location proved ideal for attracting tourists already in the area. What could be more enticing than a restful hour or two perusing pottery in production? And, after viewing demonstrations of “the oldest art” in full swing, who could resist a Van Briggle purchase or two? For travelers, Van Briggle meant a free tour. For Van Briggle, those free tours meant big bucks.

In 1910, a desire to focus on a painting career prompted Anne Van Briggle to lease the Pottery. The years that followed her exit were difficult ones for the firm. There were financial crises, as the business passed through several owners. A 1919 fire gutted much of the building’s interior, and a 1935 flood laid waste to records and moulds. World War II meant a three-year closure. But somehow, Van Briggle Pottery survived. A second facility, ensconced in a former railroad roundhouse, opened in 1955. It attracted even more tourists, thanks to its location on the main highway leading to the Garden of the Gods.

As at the beginning, today’s Van Briggle collectors remain entranced by its stylistic timelessness. The richly muted colors, swirling lines, and soft-edged shapes blend well with any décor. A Van Briggle piece “fits” because it doesn’t compete. Instead, Van Briggle complements.

Van Briggle artware courtesy of Photo Associate Hank Kuhlmann

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com