|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
Wedgwood's First Fruits
[Josiah Wedgwood - The Artist] [Wedgwood's Working Life] [Wedgwood Glossary]
Wedgwood regarded all his productions as fruits of long experiment and labor and called the first good examples of each body, technique, or decorative treatment "first fruits." Most of them he felt were "too dear to sell." Instead, he gave them away to friends such as Dr. Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Bentley, James Watt, or to patrons including Sir William Eden, Sir William Hamilton, Lord Cathcart, and after 1769, to the King and Queen. One of the crowning events of his life was the acceptance by the British Museum of the Apotheosis or Pegasus Vase which he had completed in 1786.
In 1772, however, we find him expressing regret that he had not saved a single article of each new body and pattern as a record for "Friends of a Future Generation." By 1809 Rudolph Ackermann in his Repository of the Arts pointed out that the earlier inventions of the potter, his variegated wares, and his tea equipages, modeled and colored to resemble pineapples, melons, apples, cauliflowers, and other fruits and vegetables, which in their day abounded in shops and were exported in great quantities, were then no longer known. The fact that their connection with Wedgwood was once common knowledge is interesting, for the origin of many types was lost sight of entirely in the succeeding years and credit given for their invention to other men. As we review his life, we see how they fitted into its pattern and how the boy given to "flights of fancy" grew into the man who in 1767 wrote to his future partner: "New improvements crowd upon me and almost overwhelm my patience.... Leave off trimming your old skiff, come & assist in putting a new one upon the Stocks. Her name shall be the Speedwell. We will make a New River for her and Command Success."
Josiah Wedgwood came of a line of potters. He was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, in 1730, the youngest of thirteen. His childhood was passed there with visits to numerous relatives, rides on the packhorse ponies, play in the fields, and schooling first at the dame school and then in Mr. Blunt's half-timbered house in Newcastle.
The death of his father in 1739 caused the boy, then nine years old, to leave school to help his brother Thomas, who had inherited the potteries known as the Churchyard Works. In 1744 formal apprenticeship began. The encampment of Bonnie Prince Charlie's followers in the neighborhood in 1745 was a stirring event. Two years after the retreat of the Highlanders an epidemic of smallpox swept,through the village leaving Josiah with a sore leg which was a constant source of pain and trouble until its amputation in 1768. Lame and given to "flights of fancy," which, according to tradition, had found expression in improving his brother's methods and wares, he was refused partnership by his brother when the apprenticeship ended in 1749
These flights, however, must have resulted in improvements noted by other potters, for he was sought as partner in 1752 by Harrison and Alders at the Cliffe Bank works. Buttons and knife-handles were their especialty, but in 1752 Wedgwood entered in his notebook that he was busy making "image toys." In 1754, already expert as a thrower, modeler, and cutter of molds, he became the partner of Thomas Whieldon of Fenton Low, who for fifteen years had conducted a potworks in "a small row of low thatched buildings." Whieldon made knife-handles and snuffboxes, which he himself carried to the tradesmen in a basket.
Whieldon permitted his young partner to keep his experiments to himself or reveal them as he wished. Records show that at first Wedgwood concentrated on improving the articles made by Whieldon and spent six months designing and making new block molds for the white salt-glazed stoneware, in imitation of white Chinese porcelain, and for the mottled ware, in imitation of tortoise shell. He also produced an imitation of agate at this time, which he said "was esteemed beautiful and a considerable improvement." But as the people were "surfeited with wares of these variegated colors," he decided to work intensively to improve bodies, glazes, and forms.
Fragments and objects dug up on the site of Whieldon's factory in 1924 show that the following types were made there: tortoise shell; agate; unglazed redware, plain or with stamped ornaments applied in relief; glazed redware with white designs in slip; a variety of salt glaze including "scratched blue"; shining black glaze or mirror black, called "japann'd ware," with rosettes and applied stylized vines, sometimes oil-gilded, erroneously attributed to Jackfield; and buff-colored ware which was an early form of cream color. All these types were continued by Wedgwood when he left Whieldon and established his own works at the Ivy House in 1759. Because it is impossible, at this point of time, to separate Wedgwood's improvements and inventions from Whieldon's, it is correct to call any of these types "Whieldon-Wedgwood."
It was his development in 1759 of the green glaze, afterwards called "Mr. Wedgwood's green," which probably impelled him to leave Whieldon. The significance of this discovery was far-reaching. It permitted a piece of ware to be an even self-color instead of spotted or dabbed with color applied with a cloth; a piece with this glaze could be fired in the same oven with the tortoise shell and agate wares; and either alone or in combination with the yellow glaze, it permitted an entirely new range of designs which would enhance and display it.
Most important among these were the pieces in the forms of stylized pineapples, cauliflowers, melons and other natural vegetables and fruits. These were types other potters could follow and which were eagerly bought. The finding of the crate with the original block molds and trials in the storeroom at Wedgwood's works in 1905 and the subsequent excavations which disclosed fragments of these wares at Burslem on the site of the Ivy House works, but no pieces on the site of Whieldon's factory, proved quite conclusively that instead of being the work of some unknown block cutter, they were among Wedgwood's inventions. In 1771, when the Boston News Letter announced shipments of the "new Cream colour printed, printed & guilt, & plain enameled, double & single Rose," they were still offering "Agate, Tortoise, Mellon, Colly flower, and Pine-apple wares," although many other new types had already claimed Wedgwood's attention.
Among these were the engine-turned pieces, often erroneously attributed to the Elers, with basketwork, dicing, and chevrons in redware in imitation of wares from China. As Wedgwood was the first to apply this technique to clay in 1763, pieces with such decoration could not be dated earlier. The perfecting of the cream color was another revolutionary achievement of the same year. The first complete dinner services as well as vases with marbled and agate surfaces were made in this body which was called Queen's ware in honor of Queen Charlotte. The demand for this smooth body led to the opening of the Brick House works in Burslem in 1764, the year of Josiah's marriage to his cousin, Sarah Wedgwood.
The year 1768 was memorable for the amputation of his leg, and for the production of his crystalline vases and the improved black body which he named basaltes from its resemblance to the Egyptian marble of that name. His first vases in "bronzed" basaltes were sent to a Miss Tarleton, daughter of a member of Parliament from Liverpool, he "begging her acceptance of them as an offering of first fruits."
This new body would strike fire with steel, resist acid, and withstand heat. It would take a fine polish on the lapidary wheel and the potter regarded it as "sterling," saying it would last forever. Again, an invention brought expansion and seven years after he had started his own works, he opened a new pottery on the old Ridge House estate of 36o acres, laying out the canal and a garden village with workmen's houses. As originally planned, the works consisted of a series of shops surrounding two squares, one for useful, the other for ornamental productions. The latter was built first and called the Black Works referring to the black basaltes vases to be made there. The useful square was called the White Bank from the cream-colored wares. In the Black Bank square, all the masterpieces of vases, plaques, medallions, cameos, and cabinet pieces were made between 1770 and 1795.
At a window overlooking the courtyard, Wedgwood stood on June 13, 1769 when he threw the first six basaltes vases, while his partner Thomas Bentley turned the wheel. In November he sent the six vases to Bentley in London to be encaustic-painted and inscribed with the words, Artes Etruriae Renascuntur, stipulating that they were not to be sold, "They being the first-fruits at Etruria." The name Etruria had been suggested by Dr. Darwin, his family friend and physician, in honor of the vases found on Etruscan sites in Italy which inspired the first examples in the basaltes with encaustic painting.
From Etruria, ornamental pieces followed each other in quick succession-medallions, plaques, cameos, intaglios, figures in basaltes, cream ware and biscuit, vases in variegated pebble, flower pots, and lamps in variety-while useful wares flowed from the Brick House works still operating under the management of Josiah's cousin, Thomas Wedgwood. In 1773, the Brick House was given up and the useful productions started at Etruria in their own Square, the pineapple and cauliflower pieces being discontinued.
The black vases fall into types in ordered procession as new techniques were mastered. Besides the encaustic-painted ones, there were the plain black without ornament on the body, and the fluted and reeded examples; then the black with a single festoon or cameo or both; then the specimens with designs in relief.
The jasper, for which the potter is most famous, as far as is known, was made by no other potter before Wedgwood's time. Over 10,000 trials led up to the making of this body and much money was expended in its production. In 1774, Wedgwood mentioned the new white body for the first time and in December of that year he wrote that it would take any shade of blue. In January 1775, he mentioned having secured a beautiful sea green and several other shades and that he intended making cameos of this material with the figures and heads in white. The term "jasper" seems first to have been applied to the material in April 1775 when small candlesticks and inkstands were exhibited in London. It was named for its density which was that of the natural stone. When color was mixed with the mass it was called "solid" jasper. When the surface alone was colored, it was designated as "dipped" jasper. Blues ranged from deep blue through at least five shades to pale blue. In addition there were black, greens, lilac, buff, pink, and yellow. Sometimes three or more colors were used in one object.
Again, the material and its property of taking color made possible certain forms and decorations-chiefly white relief on colored grounds -- and again both material and types were copied by contemporaries and successors, the various pseudo-jaspers and the parian wares of the nineteenth century and the modern bas-relief ware being outgrowths of the vogue for jasper. Jasper vases were the product of the period following Bentley's death in 1780, some of the finest belonging to the period 1786--1790 when the threecolored effects were also started.
New forms, new designs, and new treatments were still crowding for production. In 1776, a perfected form of the redware, which was still being made in quantity in the useful works, was needed for ornamental purposes to resemble the Egyptian marble known as rosso antico. This name was given to the new red body and many fine pieces exist in it, although long association of the red material with teapots and other useful articles was hard to eradicate from the public mind. As far back as 1750 when Bishop Pococke visited the potteries he mentioned that redware did "not take among the common people and there was little demand for it."
The year 1779 was noteworthy for at least three new materials-the Pearl body which simulated Chinese porcelain more closely than Queen's ware; an acidproof porcelain for mortars and chemical vessels; and the caneware. The "Pearl" ware was made in answer to the demand for a whiter ware. It resembled porcelain without its translucence, Wedgwood being prohibited from using the ingredients, china clay and china stone, in any ware that was translucent by the terms of the Cookworthy Patent and the extension granted to Richard Champion of Bristol. At a certain temperature in the firing, Wedgwood's "Pearl" ware became translucent although he did all in his power to prevent it. There are specimens, therefore, which are translucent and others which are nontranslucent. "Pearl" ware took cobalt well and the decorations were mainly oriental in character.
The caneware was the color of bamboo, reed, and piecrust, and had a mat surface. Much of it was engine-turned or painted with enamel colors or ornamented with relief designs. Because of its resemblance to reed, many finely reticulated basketlike dishes for bread and cake were made. Figures were also fashioned in it. Artificial pies and deep game-pie dishes were made for use on tables during times of famine. They were a development of Wedgwood's last years at the suggestion of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the eminent Irish inventor.
Printing on Queen's ware, which had been done over a long period by Sadler and Green at Liverpool, was introduced at Etruria in 1789. The recent findings of E. Stanley Price, an English collector, prove that the great bulk of socalled Liverpool ware, printed by Sadler and found in America, mostly unmarked, was actually made by Wedgwood, Sadler being pledged to print only the creamware furnished to him by Wedgwood.
In 1790 came the basaltes with borders of silver encaustic and black with relief designs in red.
Even so small a detail as the polishing of the inside of a jasper cup was only mastered after intensive experimentation. In 1786 examples were presented as a first fruit to Lord Auckland's wife in Paris.
Most of the introductions of the period following Wedgwood's death in 1795 were simply extensions and new treatments of old bodies and shapes. In this group come the metallic lusters (1805), the allover blue-printed patterns (1805), the Egyptian hieroglyphic designs (1805), the white stonewares (1810), the soft-paste porcelain (1812-1816), the drab glazed ware, plain or with enamel colors (1820), and the white decorations in relief on redware (1820).
Even the "majolica" with colored glazes, introduced in 1860, was a throwback to the green and colored pieces of the first Josiah Wedgwood's early days. Many of his old molds of stylized fruits and vegetables and the shell-shaped and basketwork dishes were used at this time with the new majolica glazes just as his figures and honeypots were reissued in white "Carrara Statuary" in 1867, and his broth bowls with wishbone handles, from the first pattern book, were repeated in drabware in 1820.
This rethinking of Wedgwood's art in terms of ceramic development parallels somewhat the new study of English porcelains which has been taking place in the last few years in England. For example, out of ninety-six pieces originally catalogued as Bow in the Schreiber collection in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, forty are now given new classifications, and a few are even assigned to China and Meissen.