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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Beautiful Pottery Of Wedgwood
(Part 1 Of 2)

I THINK I have never met a man or a woman with soul so dead as not to feel something of the charm and beauty of old Wedgwood. The modern product by that name is beautiful, but the old ware-the work of the original Josiah Wedgwood surpasses it, and there is apparent an increasing interest in it among amateur American antiquarians. Those of our American forefathers and foremothers who owned some of it were indeed fortunate. They possessed the best that was to be had. And those of us who have inherited a piece or two are even more fortunate.



The story of this greatest of English potters is inspiring, and his product was unquestionably the finest that England has ever produced, in workmanship, design, material, and color. When Josiah Wedgwood started in the potter's trade, most of the tables of the middle classes in England bore only crude clay dishes, pewter, and woodenware. Saltglaze ware was too costly, and it remained for Wedgwood to provide those tables with good ware, perfect in form and material, at a low cost. But he did far more than this. In his finer ware he created works of art that are still the envy of sincere craftsmen. The collection of old Wedgwood, therefore, is a collection not only of antiques, but of true works of art, that no changes in fads or fashions can ever render less valuable to the connoisseur.

I shall consider only the so called old Wedgwood the work of Josiah Wedgwood the elder, made in the last half of the eighteenth century. Wedgwood pottery is still being made in England by the original Wedgwood's successors, and much of the early nineteenth-century pottery from that house is not only excellent, but, in the common acceptation of the term, antique. To keep the chapter within reasonable bounds, however, I shall consider only the old Wedgwood.

To start with a fairly clear conception of what Wedgwood pottery is, I will divide it roughly into four classes: first, cream-colored or queen's-ware; second, black basalt; third, variegated and terra cotta ware; fourth, jasper-ware. Of these the basalt and the jasper are best known and most sought after by collectors. In fact, I find that the term Wedwood is often used synonymously with jasper by the uninitiated. There were a few other products of the Wedgwood factories, but these were the most important.

Another general statement may help to classify Wedgwood ware. With one unimportant exception, he made no porcelain.

Before describing these various types of pottery, a brief sketch of the potter's life is almost essential to the proper understanding of his work and the dating of his products. It was the life of a man of genius in art, an earnest man of interesting personality and sterling character, a man of intellect, patience, perseverance, courage, and high ideals. No brief sketch can do him justice; I must leave that to his biographers, Eliza Meteyard, Arthur H. Church, Frederick Rathbone, and others, whose works are generally available.

Josiah Wedgwood came from a family of potters. He was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, England, in 1730. When nine years old he left school and went to work in his brother's pottery. In 1744 he became apprenticed to his brother Thomas. In 1752 he formed a partnership with Thomas Alders and John Harrison, and in 1754 with Thomas Wheildon, a famous potter at Fenton. They made pottery of good quality and form, now very rare.

In 1758 he started business alone in a small way at Stoke, and in 1759 returned to Burslem. He leased the Ivy House Works, and enlarged them. Here he improved the cheap cream-colored ware of that day, aiming at both artistic and mechanical perfection. All through his life he gave personal attention to details and was an incessant worker in spite of ill health and many setbacks.

In 1761 he started the Black Works at Burslem for the manufacture of black basalt, and in 1763 leased the Brick House or Bell House Works in Burslem. These three factories he managed continuously until his final removal to Etruria in 1773. In 1764 he married.

In 1768 Wedgwood took as a partner Thomas Bentley, a literary man with artistic tastes, who helped him materially in advancing the ornamental end of the business. Bentley remained a large part of the time in London, pushing the sale of the ware.

In 1769 Wedgwood & Bentley built the large works at Etruria, a mile north of Stoke-on-Trent. It was here that the finest of the Wedgwood pottery was made, many special orders being executed for European royal families and other notable persons. It was the largest and best pottery works ever established in England up to that time. Here Wedgwood built a mansion for himself and a model village for his workmen.

In 1773 he invented the jasper ware, perfecting it before 1787. During this period Wedgwood also attached to his works several famous designers, including John Flaxman, an artist of rare Classic taste, whose work is now highly prized by connoisseurs.

Bentley died in 1780, and Wedgwood ran the factories alone until 1790, when he took into partnership his three sons, Josiah, John, and Thomas. In 1793 his nephew, Thomas Byerley, was also taken, in, and the firm became Wedgwood, Sons & Byerley.

Josiah Wedgwood, the elder, died January 3, 1795, and, though the works went on after his death, his personal supervision and inspiration could never be replaced. With his death the production of old Wedgwood, as the connoisseur knows it, ceased.

Now as to the Wedgwood wares. In 1754 Wedgwood invented a green glaze that enjoyed some popularity, but the improved cream-colored ware was the earliest that is still extant in any considerable quantity. This ware was light and durable, similar to Leeds ware in appearance, but superior to it in biscuit, glaze, color, and form. Several tones and hues were employed, ranging from pale cream to deep straw, saffron, and sulphur yellow. It is always clear and even in tone, forming a good background for decoration. At first it was plain; later it was decorated in various ways-colored lines, marbled in gold, or decorated with flower, fruit, vine, shell, or Etruscan borders in blue, red, green, black, and brown. Gilt appeared occasionally on pieces made from 1763 to 1765. The color was painted on by hand, at first merely on the surface and later burned in. At first the decorated pieces were rather too expensive, so that later the outlines were printed and the color filled in by hand, but the work was always careful and accurate.

In 1761 Wedgwood presented a breakfast set of this cream-colored ware to Oueen Charlotte, and was made Potter to her Majesty in consequence. This increased the popularity of the ware materially, and it became known as queen's-ware, the name commonly given to it by collectors today.

As early as 1761 Wedgwood was making excellent tea and dinner sets in queen's-ware that sold as cheaply as 4 for 146 pieces at wholesale. Many of his decorated services were much more costly, however. Sasketwork dishes were common, and vases of good form with Etruscan borders. The pierced and embossed work was always done with minute perfection, which distinguishes it from Leeds and other wares.

Wedgwood invented many new dishes for his table services, and made also flower-pots, bulb-pots, and "bough pots." Serpent, goat's head, satyr, and dolphin handles and festoons are noteworthy features. While the queen's-ware cannot compare with basalt and jasper for artistic beauty, there is a charm about the look and the "feel" of it that endears it to the hearts of Wedgwood enthusiasts.,

In 1767 Wedgwood turned his attention to the manufacture of black basalt or Egyptian black ware. This had already been made in a crude form in Staffordshire, but Wedgwood brought it to a high degree of perfection. It is so hard that it will strike fire with steel, and yet is smooth and velvety in appearance and to the touch. Bits of it are still used as touchstones by jewelers. In texture it is perfect, fine in grain and rich in its soft blackness probably the most solid pottery ever produced. The real Wedgwood basalt never shows waviness or crazing. It proved to be a splendid ware, not only in plain black, as in most of the tea-sets, but for seals, intaglios, busts, statuettes, plaques, medallions, and as a background for bas-reliefs and encaustic painting.

Some of the basalt tea and coffee sets were painted in colors, but these are not generally as fine as the plain black ones. The latter were usually decorated with raised work in flutings, basket effects, and relief figures, generally Classic in form. This relief work is perfect in its minutest details, even under a magnifying glass. The edges of the raised figures were often slightly undercut to give an absolutely sharp relief.

The finest basalt, however, is found in the vases. The first basalt vases were made in 1768. Up to 1780 they were rather simply decorated. At first they were plain, smooth black. In 1769 festoons in white were applied occasionally. From 1769 to 1786 the ornamentation consisted chiefly in black relief flutings, strap work, borders, festoons, Classic figures, etc., with handles in the form of masks, dolphins, goats' heads, satyrs, etc.

It is interesting to note the Classic forms and motifs used in pottery of this period, in that this was the age of Classic decorations in architecture and furniture, generally known as the Adam period, which ran from 1760 to 1790. Rams' heads and feet, and satyrs, were frequently, almost generally, used as ornaments on furniture at this period.

This class of vases formed a considerable proportion of the output of Wedgwood & Bentley. About 1776 more elaborate and beautiful figures in basrelief were applied, many of them of rare Classic charm, like Flaxman's "Dancing Hours." The surface was less highly polished during this later period, and these vases are considered superior even to the more striking jasper-ware by many connoisseurs. From 1780 to 1795 painted basalt vases were made in imitation of antique Greek and Etruscan painted vases and other vessels.

In basalt were also made ewers for water and wine, mugs, inkstands, salt-cellars, flower pots, and other practical articles, as well as medallions, plaques, and portrait cameos. These last will be considered more at length later.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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