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

Monday, 15 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 5. The Useful and the Ornamental

"Usefulness is no more than a condition to be fulfilled.  Grace in fulfilment is an extra, properly called art."     Style in Pottery  Arthur Lane (of the Victoria and Albert Museum)

Wedgwood divided his production into Useful and Ornamental Wares.  The Useful Wares, such as the creamware table services, funded his research and the design outlay on the costly Ornamental Wares.

19th century Portrait medallions of Thomas Bentley (L) and Josiah Wedgwood (R),  from eighteenth century models.
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Josiah met Thomas Bentley, a Liverpool merchant, on a visit to his suppliers in 1762.  Bentley became first Wedgwood's mentor, then his business partner ( in 1768) and lifelong friend.

Through Bentley, he widened his education in the arts and literature, and also gained introduction to the wealthy members of Society, who became his patrons and clients for Wedgwood's finest artistic wares  - the Ornamental goods, especially the classical-styled vases, which made the firm's reputation. Bentley oversaw the Ornamental wares, the jasper plaques, portrait medallions and statues and vases.

The fifty-four years of detailed correspondence between the two partners is a precious key part of the Wedgwood Museum archive.  (see

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Saving Wedgwood 4: the enlightened Scotsman

"We walked hence to see the Palazzo Barberini, design'd by the now Pop<e>s Architect Cavaliere Bernini, & which I take to be as superb, and princely an object, as any modern building in Europ for the quantity:
…to this is annexed a Gallery completely furnish'd <with> whatsoever Art can call rare and singular, & a Library full of worthy Collections, Medails, Marbles, and Manuscripts;"

Diary entry, Rome,  November 1644, John Evelyn, (ed. E.S. de Beer)

Among the Collections, was a Roman blue glass cameo vase,  decorated with scenes in white relief,  dating from the reign of Augustus, which (already famous for its beauty and mystery) was acquired by the Barberini family in 1627.  Over a century and a half  later in 1780 it was sold to meet gambling debts and in turn was sold on by James Byres to Sir William Hamilton in 1783.

James Byres, the dealer and intermediary, was an architect, antiquarian and scholar from Aberdeen, whose family fled to France after the Jacobite rising, then living in Rome and leading English visitors around the sights.
 "My guide was Mr. Byres, a Scottish antiquary of experience and taste.  But in the
daily labour of 18 weeks the powers of attention were sometimes fatigued."   Memoirs  Edward Gibbon


Temple of the Sybil in Tivoli,  etching, G.& F. Piranesi, c. 1756

Byres made a serious study of Etruscan painted tombs, on which the Adam brothers drew for their fashionable neoclassical interiors. His scholarly and philosophical interests also stretched to fossils and volcanoes, interests he shared with Sir William Hamilton, and it was the influence of Byres's pioneering work that led Wedgwood to name his new factory "Etruria".

see:  The Portland Vase  Susan Walker © Trustees of the British Museum