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Wedgwood Pottery And The Eighteenth-Century World
[Josiah Wedgwood - The Artist] [Wedgwood's Working Life] [Wedgwood Glossary]
"If there is any new fashion or invention of Mr. Wedgwood ... that is approv'd, Shod prefer it." So wrote Anne Hulton of Brookline, Massachusetts, to a merchant's wife in Liverpool, England, in 1772 with her order for a crate of Wedgwood's wares. Pieces like those she ordered are pictured in this book. They were all made of clay in Staffordshire, England, a century or more ago. They represent types, or extensions of types, made by one potter for a way of life which included the needs not only of the Brookline housekeeper but of the fox-hunting English squire, the colonial governor and West Indian planter, the statesman, the doctor, the scholar and the man of fashion, the Duchess and the Blue Stocking, and even the Queen herself.
These people moved over treasured rugs from the Orient in rooms designed or inspired by Wren, the Adam brothers, Sir William Chambers, Charles Cameron, and Wyatt, filled with furniture by Chippendale and Sheraton, McIntyre or Goddard, and lit with candles in silver sockets or in chandeliers sparkling with drop festoons and spear shafts. Portraits painted by Reynolds, Lawrence, Hoppner, Copley, and West looked down from their walls. Many of the men carried muffs and wore watches suspended on elaborate chatelaines and many of the women carried "pick-tooth" cases and took snuff.
It was an age which loved novelty-gold paper from Pekin and Chinoiserie in all its forms, veined marbles from Italy, feather hangings and "painted bowers full of Cupidons," yet it had a passion for the past, for ruins and ancient works of art. It loved color-pea green and celadon, deep mazarine blue and pale blue, saffron and rose-yet was devoted to black: black tea sets on black lacquer tables and black vases and busts on black marble mantelpieces in rooms with floors set off in squares of black and white marble. It laughed heartily in the theatre over James Quinn's Falstaff. It also wept readily with "Charlotte at the Tomb of Werther" in Goethe's poem The Sorrows of Werther and "Poor Maria" in Sterne's Sentimental Journey. It delighted in the rococo, broken arcs and shellwork, yet responded to the restraint and balance of the neoclassic. Above all it was an age which derived great aesthetic enjoyment from fine workmanship and fine materials, especially fine pottery and porcelain.
The novelty of porcelain and the unbounded wonder it excited in the western world is hard to comprehend today. Not only did it influence the development of ceramics in general in the eighteenth century, but it affected the manners and customs to such an extent that its influence has persisted into our own time.
Vessels of Chinese porcelain met the needs of the new exotic beverages, such as tea, coffee, and chocolate, the fashionable milk and cream, and the newly imported wines, much better than the sturdy old bellarmines, posset pots, and earthen tankards which had seemed so wonderful to the Elizabethans, and the pewter, Delft, and Italian majolica which appeared so satisfactory in the reign of Queen Anne. Yet when the century dawned, no one in the western world knew the exact composition of this delicate material.
The discovery in 1709 of the ingredients of true porcelain, china clay and china stone, equivalents of the kaolin and petuntse of the Chinese, was the thrilling achievement of a young alchemist named Bottger while he was searching for the Philosopher's Stone under the protection of the Elector of Saxony. The making of porcelain was surrounded thereafter with as much secrecy as the making of the atomic bomb today and it stimulated a race between countries and individual factories which continued throughout most of the century.
On the Continent some factories learned the secret and made the true or hard-paste variety. Others made only the imitative or soft-paste porcelains. Long before English potters discovered the true nature of the haste, continental porcelains, both true and imitative, were used on English tables with pieces of Chinese porcelain. They were much admired and imitated by English potters some of whom confined their efforts to making the translucent white varieties with. blue and colored decoration; others, largely for economic reasons, concentrated on the improvement and invention of opaque earthenwares and stonewares. They produced their own imitations of many Chinese types including marbled effects, mirror black, and the creamy Sung ware decorated with iron red, green, and yellow enamel. So successful were some of these new productions that by 1763 the work of at least one Staffordshire potter was crowding vessels of Chinese and continental porcelains and even silver from English tea tables.
When Lord Gower's table was set in 1765 with a complete dinner service of the new Queen's ware, as Wedgwood called his cream color, it was the subject of conversation among his guests for a long time and a landmark in social and industrial history. In a surprisingly short time it was exported to many parts of the world; over a hundred English and Scottish potteries were making it; and in America it became the standard of excellence for potters. In 1792 the Pennsylvania Society for the Encouragement of Manufactures and the Useful Arts offered a prize valued at fifty dollars or "an equivalent in money" to the person exhibiting the "best specimens of Earthenware, or Pottery, approaching nearest to queen's ware."
The potter who performed this miracle of the substitution of dishes of opaque cream-colored baked clay for those of materials generally regarded as more precious was Josiah Wedgwood, who surpassed all potters in modern times in the variety and sustained artistic quality of his productions and in the number of improvements and inventions. Wedgwood was a potter, yet he was also a man of science. He was the first to apply the scientific method to baked-clay products making countless trials and experiments as he went along. For his invention of the pyrometer for measuring heat in the ovens, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. In view of his love of science and nature, it is interesting that his son Thomas is credited with the discovery of photography, another son John was a founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, and his daughter Susannah and granddaughter Emma were mother and wife respectively of Charles Darwin, the great naturalist.
Wedgwood was a good business man and executive, yet he was also an able artist, a dreamer, and a man of vision. He wrote that he had ten thousand beautiful forms in his mind which nobody had ever dreamed of and that he could see immeasurably farther than he would ever be able to travel. Then he added with the despair of genius: "But whither am I carried? I must return to my memorandums again!" Over and over again in his correspondence we find this cry of despair: "The greatest difficulty I ever found is to check and keep my inventions under proper subordination." So quickly did they crowd on one another, so immediately were they adopted by other potters, that origins have been forgotten in many cases and he has not been credited with those which were his own.
He met the demands of his time so successfully, however, that his showrooms in London were continually thronged with visitors. They went in the early days to Newport Street to see his new green glaze and yellow glaze. They exclaimed over teapots and dessertware in the forms of stylized cauliflowers, pineapples, cabbages, and Chinese melon-shaped winepots. There they also admired the tortoise-shell and agate-handled knives and forks, the shining black and basketwork red pieces, and the thin saltglazed dishes.
After he perfected the coarse cream color and presented it as the fine Queen's ware, they crowded his rooms in Bath, in Dublin, in Liverpool, and in London to see whole dinner sets of it. Besides plates, platters, and tureens, there were show dishes such as epergnes, monteiths, glaciers, cruets, and other elaborate forms. Some were plain, others turned and fluted, some pierced, and some embossed. In 1774 when he exhibited the great dinner service ordered by the Empress Catherine of Russia, even Queen Charlotte went to his showrooms in Greek Street, London. The 952 pieces were each ornamented, at the command of the Empress, with different hand-painted views of English scenery. This work stimulated interest in English gardens and landscape and the vogue for copperplate views of picturesque places, a vogue which lasted until the mid-nineteenth century.
There were other exhibitions of new bodies and techniques, but the one which probably produced the most excitement was that of jasper, not invented until 1775 when Wedgwood's fame was well established far beyond England. Even in 1790 when he exhibited his first good copy of the Portland Vase, interest was still keen and again his London rooms were thronged with the fashionable, literary, and artistic figures of the period.
Etruria, his factory in Staffordshire, was in fact, the clearinghouse for news of scientific and artistic discoveries from an Argand lamp to a bas-relief recently excavated on an Italian hillside. In 1784 the celebrated painter, Wright of Derby, accepted an invitation to spend a few weeks there, saying he was coming "to catch any help from its fires." In 1791 the American artist Benjamin West named his allegorical painting depicting the rebirth of the arts in England, Etruria, in honor of Wedgwood. In the same year Dr. Erasmus Darwin eulogized the man and the place where
Beneath thy magic hands Glides the quick wheel, The plastic clay expands.