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Josiah Wedgwood and His Jasperware
Of all Staffordshire potters, probably none did so much to advance the craft, both artistically and commercially, as Josiah Wedgwood. Born in Burslem in 1730, he started his career at the age of fourteen as a potter's apprentice. Before he was thirty he had his own business and had begun his unceasing experiments for producing newer and better wares.
He showed signs from the beginning of being both a master potter and a good business man. He had a talent for knowing what the public wanted and also believed and practiced the belief that superior quality paid dividends. He would not tolerate imperfect pieces and on more than one occasion was known to have broken an offending ceramic object with his cane, rather than have it sold to the detriment of the Wedgwood reputation.
Only a few years after his first pottery was established in Burslem, he bought a tract of 150 acres and began building his Etruria factory. This name is still impressed on Wedgwood pieces, with Barleston, the works built some fifteen years ago, now added. His cream-colored queen's ware was the backbone of his business, but he was constantly experimenting with other wares. During the 1760's, he established a shop and warehouse in London, opened a Liverpool branch with an eye to the American trade, and brought out a descriptive catalogue of his wares which was printed in several languages. He also found time for such civic matters as better roads through the Staffordshire area and other improvements in transportation, so that the products of the various Staffordshire potteries might be shipped to the outside world easily and cheaply.
The invention of jasperware was Wedgwood's master accomplishment. To the amateur, this beautiful ceramic and the Wedgwood name have long been synonymous. He began his experiments with it in 1773 and perfected it four years later. A hard, unglazed stoneware, it took its name from its resemblance to the semi-precious stone, jasper, both in texture and color. This was obtained by adding carbonate and sulphate of barium to a semi-porcelain clay and then using a metal oxide far the desired color. Blue is the most familiar, but there are six others-pale green, greyish green, pink, lilac, yellow, and black. Against this colored background, a raised white decoration produced a cameo effect.
Articles made in this ware were mainly display pieces-vases, covered cups, urns, pitchers, and bowls. Tea sets, plates , and other items were made, but were probably more for display than for use. Wedgwood had the good sense to employ artists and craftsmen of high quality, such as James Tassie, John Flaxman, and William Hackwood. These men modeled the originals in wax for many of the jasperware pieces, including the portrait medallions that were set in some of the fine mantels and furniture of the Hepplewhite years.
William Hackwood, who modeled the Dance of the Hours vase , was Wedgwood's right-hand man in the modeling shop. He began working there in 1769 and was still in charge of modeling jasperware and basalt decorations for some thirty-seven years after the great Josiah's death in 1795. His portrait busts and medallions show that he could have been a sculptor of reputation. Well-known examples include portrait reliefs of George III, David Garrick, and Wedgwood himself.
Designs on the Hackwood vase and the accompanying wine pitcher by John Flaxman reflect Wedgwood's partiality for classic art which was in high favor during his years as master potter. Vases and urns portraying classic figures in various poses were produced in fair numbers between 1780 and 1790, the height of the Adam influence in architecture, furniture, and decorative accessories. Flaxman, who modeled the original design of this wine pitcher, began work for Wedgwood in 1775 when only twenty years old. This particular pitcher was made both in jasperware and in black basalt. Flaxman models were used interchangeably in both wares but jasperware remained the favorite.
As with all ceramic innovations, other potters tried their hands at jasperware but with indifferent results. Two exceptions were friendly rivals of Wedgwood. John Turner was fairly successful but the body color of his ware was inferior and his white raised decoration over-ornate. William Adams, who had served his apprenticeship under Wedgwood, produced jasperware so well done that the pottery marks are the chief means of telling an Adams piece from a Wedgwood. His mark is "W. Adams," either impressed or printed. Wedgwood pieces have the impressed circular mark of "WEDGWOOD AND BENTLEY" or simply, "WEDGWOOD" if done after 1781, the year Bentley, the London partner, died.
Today, small articles in jasperware, cameo-like medallions for brooches, rings, small boxes, seals, and other kinds of jewelry, are popular with collectors who often have them set in gold mountings.