Friday, 3 October 2014

WEDGWOOD SAVED: 12: Forces acting in Harmony

Stop Press - Wedgwood Collection Saved

"Fire is an awe-inspiring, unaccountable element, and it is good that this wild partner should at times assert his share in the potter's work.  But then the human contribution, the shape and ornament of the pot, must be correspondingly robust.  When the two forces act in harmony, … the resulting wares have a power to stir the imagination…"
Style in Pottery  Arthur Lane (of the Victoria and Albert Museum) 1948

A view inside the kiln - at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Longton, Staffordshire
© All rights reserved, photographer Graham Davies

For centuries potters had to judge the firing of their kilns by experience, and rule of thumb; results could be badly affected by changing wind direction and quality of fuels. Wedgwood  had no proper instrument for measuring kiln temperature when he was firing his thousands of jasper samples; he would mark each sample according to its place in the kiln - TBO for 'top of biscuit oven', TTBO for 'tip-top', etc.

His friends and colleagues in the Lunar Society were searching for ways to standardize scientific measurements and Wedgwood was experimenting with a thermometer to withstand the high temperatures of the kilns.  From his first attempts which measured kiln heat by colour changes in the fired clay, he developed (helped by chemist Alexander Chisholm) his Pyrometer, which measured kiln heat by shrinkage of clay at particular temperatures.  For this invention he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1783.

Wedgwood's far-reaching associations with other entrepreneurs and scientists are fascinatingly portrayed in The Lunar Society by Jenny Uglow,  who based much of her research on contemporary correspondence in the Wedgwood Collection archives, which public donations have kept in its  UK home for the public, both British and overseas visitors. See

Saving Wedgwood 11: The Dancing Hours

Sir William Hamilton,  British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples, is popularly better known for losing his wife Emma, Lady Hamilton, to Admiral Nelson.  Fewer people know that he was also a pioneering vulcanologist, observing close-up and recording eruptions of Vesuvius, and an avid collector of classical antiquities, particularly vases and cameos, many newly excavated.  It was from his collection and particularly the illustrated engravings in Baron D'Harcanville's catalogue (The Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon'ble Williiam Hamilton)  that Wedgwood drew inspiration for his finest vases. " Good models give birth to ideas by exciting the imagination."

Sir William Hamilton, blue jasper portrait medallion,  c. 1772
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Wedgwood jasper vase, with relief of The Dancing Hours modelled by John Flaxman junior, c.1788
  © Fitzwilliam Museum


The son of a plaster modeller, the sculptor John Flaxman junior began designing for Wedgwood in 1775,  and helped create some of Wedgwood's finest pieces, including the Pegasus Vase; the Dancing Hours relief remains one of his most popular designs.  

He drew Wedgwood's attention to the famous antique  Portland Vase when it first came to England: "I wish you may soon come down to see William Hamilton's Vase, …. it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring to bring your bisque and jasper."  

for Sir William Hamilton's career see Fields of Fire, David Constantine
and to stop the Wedgwood Collection dancing away:

Monday, 29 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood No 10: Four noteworthy potters

Four of the key names of the Stoke on Trent potteries in the late eighteenth century were Thomas Whieldon,  Josiah Wedgwood, William Greatbatch and Josiah Spode.  All four worked together at  different times, and were all innovators in various respects, yet  only the two Josiahs -- Wedgwood and Spode -- went on to become household names.

Green lead glazed teapot, probably Josiah Wedgwood, c. 1759-66.
© Fitzwilliam  Museum

Wedgwood was a partner of Thomas Whieldon from 1754 to 1759, working on improving existing glazes and bodies.  He began systematically recording his experiments in February 1759,  perfecting this vivid green glaze soon after.  He set up his own works in May 1759, keen to strike out in new ways.

Whieldon was highly respected with high standards of workmanship, but concentrated on already popular wares for a wide market, which made him wealthy.  In 1780 he retired, demolished his factory,  building an ornamental garden on the site, and enjoyed his position as gentleman and Sheriff of the county.

'Apple' teapot, earthenware with splashed lead glazes, attributed to Thomas Whieldon c. 1760
© V&A Museum

Moulded creamware sugar bowl, by William Greatbatch, c. 1765-70
© V& A Museum

William Greatbatch also worked for Thomas Whieldon in the 1750s,  and was known for his modelling and block-making skills,  needed for making the moulded and slip-cast pieces which were so much quicker to produce in large numbers.  He supplied Whieldon and Wedgwood from his own pottery works (1762 onwards) but went bankrupt in 1782, and worked for Wedgwood after this.   His designs show an individual, imaginative flair.

'Aurora' teapot,  William Greatbatch, c. 1770-82, leadglazed, transfer printed earthenware painted with overglaze enamels. This image of the heavens reflects the period's growing interest in science.  © Victoria & Albert Museum

Josiah Spode had just finished his apprenticeship with Thomas Whieldon, and was well paid as a skilled workman, at the time Wedgwood joined the firm as a partner.  He too benefited from Whieldon's methods, but left to make his own way in 1762. Without Wedgwood's capital, he aimed for the mass market, perfecting blue underglaze transfer printing by 1784, which replaced the costly and time-consuming painting skills of Wedgwood's workers.

Underglaze blue transfer-printed earthenware tea wares, by Josiah Spode, c. 1800
© V& A Museum

This  1760s tea canister and bowl represent the collaboration of these potters whose careers overlapped: Wedgwood's improved clear green glaze, Greatbatch's pineapple design moulds, Whieldon's high standards, and the skills of their workmen, such as young Josiah Spode.

Tea bowl and canister, lead glazed earthenware, Whieldon or Wedgwood, c. 1760-65 
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Wedgwood defined the factors of a potter's success as "professional knowledge, sufficient capital, and a real acquaintance with the materials he was working upon".  Both Wedgwood and Spode also relied on a mass market product, efficient factory organisation, and the early use of steam powered engines.

and see English Pottery 1620-1840  by Robin Hildyard, on the development of the pottery industry.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 9: The World we have Lost

 Wedgwood's  famous Frog Service made for Catherine the Great brought him enormous publicity and international prestige, but he made only a very small profit on this commission. Making the 952 pieces of plain creamware cost £51. 8s. 4d., but all these hand-painted views of Britain cost £2239 4s. 0d.

Wedgwood creamware platter, hand painted 1773-4, showing Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire
© Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, photographer Sean Pathasema 

Fifty years ago, Peter Laslett pushed historians to study not just famous Empresses and entrepreneurs, but ordinary people's lives,  as revealed in Parish Records statistics for example, providing a more accurate picture of 'the World we have Lost',  bringing closer these unsung people of the past.

The Wedgwood Collection Archives do this for Nathaniel Cooper (painter of the Frog service borders), for Miss Pars (paid 10s. 6d. per week for painting of ruins), for James Bakewell, (a week and a half painting views of Fingal's Cave on a compotier) or the kiln firemaster who worked 98 hours in one week, to complete the service.  These are just a tiny few of all Wedgwood's skilled workers whose names are carefully recorded in the factory books, which will be lost if the Collection is broken up.

See  The World We have Lost  Peter Laslett 1965
and   The London Decorating Studio and Josiah Wedgwood's Trade with Russia, G. Blake Roberts 
© Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Ltd,  in The Genius of Wedgwood  ed. H. Young, © Victoria & Albert Museum 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 8: The Frog Service

In 1774, Josiah Wedgwood sent a dinner service of 952 pieces to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia.  In 1995,  around three hundred pieces of this "Frog" service, (only a few of which had ever returned from Russia  for exhibition in England since 1774), were the climax of the V& A's 1995 bicentenary  exhibition, "The Genius of Wedgwood", on loan from the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Creamware plate, hand-painted at Wedgwood's Chelsea workshop with a view of West Wycombe Park,  to be part of the service made for Catherine the Great, c. 1773-4, for her new summer palace outside St. Petersburg.  Each piece was decorated with a green frog motif, after the Frog Marshes where the palace was sited.
© Victoria & Albert Museum

The Empress's new summer palace was built in the fashionable Gothic style, and her tableware was to be in keeping with its country setting: cream earthenware with no gilding, decorated with monochrome views of Britain's landscapes, great country houses, ruins, monuments and new industries.
"... the Gothic style carried connotations of uncorrupted strength and virtue, while the English landscape garden had become a celebrated emblem of liberty.  As an enlightened monarch, Catherine wanted to demonstrate her sympathy with these ideals."
© Michael Raeburn, "The Frog Service and its Sources"  in The Genius of Wedgwood, edited Hilary Young,  1995 © Victoria & Albert Museum

Cream earthenware, painted with ruins, a view of Wakefield, W. Yorks in the background, c. 1773-4
© Victoria & Albert Museum

The service was displayed in Wedgwood's Greek Street showrooms in London, in June and July 1774, to great wonder and acclaim.

"It consists, I believe of as many pieces as there are days of the year, if not hours. …  There are three rooms below and two above filled with it, laid out on tables, every thing that can be wanted to serve a dinner; the ground the common ware pale brimstone, the drawings in purple, the borders a wreath of flowers, the middle of each piece a particular view of all the remarkable places in the King's dominions neatly executed.  I suppose it will come to a princely price; it is well for the manufacturer, which I am glad of, as his ingenuity and industry deserve encouragement."
Autobiography  Mrs Mary Delany

Hardly surprisingly, Mrs Delany misremembered some details: the garland borders were of acorns and oak leaves for the dinner settings and of ivy leaves for the dessert service.

 See Josiah Wedgwood, entrepreneur to the enlightenment  Brian Dolan
and see  "Interpreting Ceramics" journal online

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 7: 100 Objects - Time for Tea

Object 92  in Neil Macgregor's groundbreaking BBC Radio 4 series of 2010  ("A History of the World in 100 Objects") was a Wedgwood Victorian teaset,  a teapot, sugar bowl and cream jug, made about 1840-45.  He then describes the complex historical  processes involved in bringing the tea, sugar and fresh milk of the tea-drinking ritual to the British mass-market of the 19th century.

A History of the World in 100 Objects  Neil Macgregor  © Trustees of the British Museum and BBC Radio

Wedgwood's contribution was to provide the practical and pleasing-to-use tea services with which the ritual was enjoyed.  He developed earthenware which was heatproof, smooth, washable, and affordable and mass produced.  The tradition of fine design for tablewares continues to this day (e.g. see Martin Hunt's "'Plato" tea service in the V&A).

 Wedgwood teapot, rosso antico, c. 1805-1815
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Bone china teapot designed by Victor Skellern,  Wedgwood's Art Director, c.1937.
© Victoria and Albert Museum

Wedgwood jasper dip teapot, early 19th century, with reliefs designed by Elizabeth, Lady Templetown 1785-90
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Wedgwood earthenware teaset, Falling leaves pattern, 1939
© Victoria & Albert Museum

By 1800, tea was the new national drink.  Celina Fox (quoted by Neil Macgregor) explains the impetus it received in the 1840s.  "Temperance was huge.  Drink for the Victorians was a very big issue.  The desire to have a working population that was sober and industrious was very strong, and there was a great deal of propaganda to that effect.  Sobriety was tied in with dissent, Methodism and so on, and tea really was the drink of choice.  So it's happening on two levels: dissent and having an upright working population which gets to the factory on time and isn't drunk out of its mind, which always seems to be a British problem, and on top of that you have the ritual of afternoon tea.  So tea drinking really takes off in a massive way in the nineteenth century."

The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment  Celina Fox

Wedgwood, Dr. Darwin's pattern service,  blue jasper dip, c. 1820
© Victoria &  Albert Museum

Historians and curators like Macgregor and Fox depend on the availability of detailed archives like the Wedgwood Collection for their expert research, which is then shared with a much wider public.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 6: Erasmus Darwin

Erasmus Darwin of Lichfield was a physician, botanist, inventor and philosopher.   From his friendship with Matthew Boulton, the Birmingham manufacturer,  was born the Lunar (or Lunatic) society, shortly to be joined by Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, and James Watt, and other freethinkers. These friends and entrepreneurs met when the full moon gave them light to travel by, sharing ideas and discoveries  (and see The Lunar Men, by Jenny Uglow).  Erasmus and Josiah's close family friendship led to the marriage of their children, Robert Darwin and Susanna Wedgwood. 

Erasmus Darwin,   Wedgwood jasper portrait,  c.1850-1900, originally modelled by William Hackwood 1780, (after the portrait by Thomas Wright of Derby 1779)      © Fitzwilliam Museum

After his friend's death, Erasmus praised his achievements  in his poem The Botanic Garden of 1803, 

  "And pleased on WEDGWOOD ray your partial smile,
A new Etruria decks Britannia's isle.
Charmed by your touch, the kneaded clay refines,
The biscuit hardens, the enamel shines,
Each nicer mould a softer feature drinks,
The bold Cameo speaks, the soft Intaglio thinks."

This rich Waterlily design dinner service, based on accurate illustrations in botanical journals, was ordered for Erasmus's son, Dr. Robert Darwin (father of Charles) in 1807.  The brown underglaze printing was unusual and the overglaze gilding and hand-painted enamels made it expensive to produce;  production changed to the  much cheaper blue printing in 1811.   

Waterlily Plate, c. 1807-1808
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge