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The first is because the lovely pieces were imported to America and are now highly valued by the discriminating collector who admires all beauty in art; the second reason is that the story of Josiah Wedgwood of Etruria, the greatest of English potters, is that of a man who, by the force of his personality and his vivid interest in his chosen craft, overcame weakness and physical handicaps, and produced the pottery that in material, color, and design, as well as craftsmanship is the pride of his native country. His story is well worth being told over and over again.
No one can collect Wedgwood, or even admire it, without being tremendously interested in the genius who created it. Josiah Wedgwood came from a race of men who loved the potter's wheel. He was born in Burslem in 1730 and was the youngest of the thirteen children of Thomas Wedgwood, a potter and the descendent of potters.
As a child, Josiah Wedgwood underwent a number of misfortunes. He left school at the age of nine years, for one thing, and, when he was eleven years old, he had a severe attack of small-pox which so undermined his health that later it was necessary to amputate one of his legs!
He was just a lad when he was apprenticed to his brother Thomas, and, after five years of learning his trade, he worked for this elder brother who had inherited his father's business.
It was in 1752 that Josiah Wedgwood started in the craft of pottery-making for himself. He established a humble place to carry on his work at Stoke, where he manufactured knife-handles, earthenware, and agate and tortoise-shell novelties. He formed a partnership with John Harrison, but the most important thing that happened to him during this period was his alliance with Thomas Whieldon, the greatest potter of his day. The firm added "cauliflower" and "melon" wares to the products which Wedgwood was promoting. It was at this time, also, that he invented his rich glaze for dishes designed in fruit and leaf patterns.
It was in the "Churchyard Works" in Burslem where he had learned his trade that he first began to lay his claim to fame. Here he took into partnership a man of great artistic tastes, Thomas Bentley, and added to the rich store of experience brought by his colleague, Wedgwood was fitting himself for his future artistic triumphs by study and experimentation. For the potter had a great aim-that of producing the useful and the beautiful in pottery as it had never been known before.
His own words to Bentley bring his aspirations vividly before us. "Let us make all the good, fine, and new things we can, and so far from being afraid of other people getting our patterns, we should glory in it, and throw out all the hints we can, and, if possible, have all the artists in Europe working after our models."
There was nothing paltry in his outlook on life. He was willing that other craftsmen should benefit by his appreciation of the beautiful. Yet he was a shrewd business man, as well as an artist. It was the combination of the two qualities that allowed no imperfect object to leave his factory.
"This won't do for Josiah Wedgwood," he often said, as he lifted his walking-stick to demolish some bit of pottery which did not please him.
In 1769 he opened his large works at Etruria and there began his first real prosperity. We learn that the first pottery produced was a set of half-dozen vases made with Wedgwood working at the potter's bench and Bentley at the wheel. The decoration was "Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides," and it was the beginning of the use of the classic forms which later interested him as he studied Sir William Hamilton's "Antiquities." While at Etruria Wedgwood engaged the services of John Flaxman, the most famous of all his designers.
In 1790 the great potter took his three sons and his nephew into the partnership, and the firm was called, "Josiah Wedgwood, Sons, and Byerley." Five years later, at the age of sixty-five, the master died, leaving, it is said, "a well-earned fortune of more than one half million." But the Wedgwood firm continued its work, and it is a matter of interest to Americans that during the administration of President Roosevelt it made the thousand-piece service of china for use on state occasions at the White House.
Wedgwood's wares are so much a part of his life that in talking of them we are really telling his most intimate biography. The plates and dishes of tortoiseshell made during his first venture in business were simply attempts to excel other potters who were working in the surrounding towns. This pottery resembled marble more than tortoise-shell, and was colored with brown and yellow glaze in which other colors were seen. However, these wares do not even bear Wedgwood's name and are known to collectors simply as "Whieldon Tortoise-Shell Ware."
To improve upon the products manufactured by his contemporaries seems to have been one of Josiah Wedgwood's hobbies. Long before his time cream-colored ware was made in England, but he improved the glaze, color, and form, and developed the tones from pale cream to deep straw, saffron, and sulphur yellow. The first articles were undecorated, but after a time colored lines, flowers, fruits, vines, and shells were painted on them by hand. But the great beauty lay in the exquisite borders in monochrome, and in the perfection of form that made even the undecorated pieces so charming.
In 1762 Wedgwood presented a breakfast service of cream-ware to Queen Charlotte. She was so delighted with it that she ordered a complete table service. This was the beginning of the potter's financial success. The name of "Queen's Ware", as it was then called, was given to the type upon which the great lady set her stamp of approval, and orders for breakfast and dinner services came in from wealthy people all over the country.
I must not forget to speak about "Pebble Ware." The names given by their creator to this type are delightful. In a letter to Mr. Bentley he said, "Suppose we call those barely sprinkled with blue, and ornaments gilt, Granite; when veined with black, Veined Granite; with gold, Lapis Lazuli; with colors and veined, Variegated Pebble; those with colors and veined without any blue sprinkling, Egyptian Pebble."
From this ware, which has been classified as "terracotta" by some collectors, were made vases, candlesticks, flower-pots, plates, and other objects.
In a crude form, black ware had been produced in Staffordshire, but Wedgwood experimented with it and developed from it the so-called "Black Basalt," or "Egyptian Black Ware." It was. seen in vases, busts, table services, seals, medallions, bas-reliefs, and plaques. It was characterized by its velvety black color, its extreme hardness, its fine grain, and its perfect texture.
Improving, expanding-the keynote of Josiah Wedgwood's life work! Perhaps one of the greatest tributes ever given him is from the pen of Harry Barnard, who says, "He was a discoverer; he made good as he went along, leaving a clear road for others to follow; his aim was always to leave things better than he found them and to make better pottery than had been made before; to raise the standard of living, of education; to place the district in which he lived and worked in communication with the rest of the world, so that the improved product could bring wealth and prosperity to the community."
"But the greatest of Wedgwood's improvements was the invention of the pastes commonly called "Jasperware," says Dr. Prime. "This was the subject of much study and labor with him, and the composition varied from time to time."
It was made in seven colors-blue, lilac, pink, sagegreen, olive-green, black, and a very rare yellow. This is the way Wedgwood himself describes it. "Jasper, a white-porcelain bisque of exquisite beauty and delicacy, possessing the general qualities of the basaltes, together with that of receiving colors through its whole sub* "Chats on stance in a manner which no other body, ancient or modern, has been known to do. This renders it particularly fit for cameos, portraits, and all subjects in basreliefs, as the ground may be made of any color throughout and the raised flowers in pure white."
The period between 1780 and 1790 has often been called the golden age of Wedgwood's work. Many new patterns were designed and the attention to workmanship was of the highest order. All the craftsmen of this period were turning to the classics for their inspiration, and Wedgwood's designers, including Flaxman, followed their example. The blue, white, and sea-green jasper "body" was perfected in the years between 1769 and 1780, and Flaxman modelled his "Muses" in 1777. All this was preparatory to the greatest epoch in the artistic life of Wedgwood.
Jasper cameos were especially liked and were sold on steel and gold mountings, or unset, for buttons, seals, lockets, or inlaid furniture. Plaques of famous personages, including two hundred and fifty-three heads of the popes, and a series of the kings of England and of France were popular. They ranged in size from less than an inch to twenty-seven inches in diameter. Cabinets were filled with the wares of Wedgwood. His vases were sought for their beauty of line and decoration as well as the fineness of the ware.
I must not omit the history of the "Portland Vase" from this story, for it is both romantic and interesting. The original was discovered in a tomb three miles from Rome and was thought to be the burial urn of the Emperor Alexander Severus. For over a century it was kept in the library of the Bai°berin.i Palace in Rome. At first it was believed to be made of stone and ranked as a gem of high value. Years afterwards it was found to be glass with a dark blue (almost black) ground and designs cut from a layer of opaque white glass like a cameo.
The process has been so ably described by N. Hudson Moore that I must include it with the description of the vase. "This was made by putting successive layers of glass over the original gathering, and then cutting away the outer coat from the portion which was to form the background, leaving the decoration white or whatever color was selected."
After a time the Barberini collection was sold and the vase, having passed hands twice, became the property of the Duchess of Portland. When she died, the contents of her museum were sold, and, after much bidding at the auction, the beautiful object was purchased by the son of the late Duchess for one thousand and twenty-nine guineas. The Duke of Portland lent it to Josiah Wedgwood, and for three years the master tried in vain to reproduce a copy pleasing to him.
In 1789 he sent his first perfect copy to Dr. Erasmus Darwin, and in 1791 produced a fac-simile which he deemed worthy to exhibit. Some authorities say that the potter made twenty copies of the vase; others maintain that there were a few more. Naturally, the original duplicates of the treasure are almost priceless. Other copies were brought out by the firm in i 80o and modern reproductions have been put on the market by the Wedgwoods and other potters. It is said that Josiah Wedgwood's vases almost surpassed the original in beauty.
But now I must tell you more concerning the Portland Vase. It was exhibited in the British Museum, but still remained the property of the Duke of Portland. On the seventh of February, 1845, a young man who was visiting the gallery where it was displayed took up a piece of ancient sculpture and hurled it into a case containing the valuable object. Both the case and the vase were broken into bits! It was the work of a madman! He was arrested, but there seemed to be no British law to hold him for the destruction of the Duke of Portland's treasure, so he was convicted for damaging the case and fined three pounds-a travesty indeed for the havoc he had wrought! The vase was restored in such a fashion that the mending is almost imperceptible.
After the death of its founder the firm of Wedgwood still continued to make beautiful wares, but it is genuine old Wedgwood that is sought by collectors. The authentic pieces are hard to find. Some authorities tell us that other potters bearing the master's name were working in the same century, and numerous pieces stamped with the name were not made by Josiah Wedgwood. Just how to tell a genuine piece might, therefore, be somewhat difficult, unless one is an experienced and discriminating collector. An amateur may well envy the antiquarian who can tell true Wedgwood, and his manner of doing it is a difficult process for the casual observer to understand. Like the glass collector, the Wedgwood connoisseur will speak of the "feel" when he holds in his hand a genuine piece.
The pocket-books of some of us who love beautiful objects of art may not allow us to buy genuine old Wedgwood, but we can collect reproductions of the forms and designs perfected by the great potter, just for the joy we will find in it. A study of his wares will teach us beauty of color, of form, of design, and will indicate to what perfection a craft may be raised when the craftsman is inspired by sincerity, honesty, and the true knowledge of art. Then can we say with Louis Untermeyer,
"Open my eyes to visions girt With beauty, and with wonder set."