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Josiah Wedgwood - The Artist
[Josiah Wedgwood - The Artist] [Wedgwood's Working Life] [Wedgwood Glossary]
Sir Joshua Reynolds might have been referring to Josiah Wedgwood when he said: "It is indisputably evident that a great part of any man's life must be employed in collecting materials for the exercise of genius. Invention, strictly speaking, is little more than a new combination of those images which have been previously gathered and deposited on the memory. Nothing can come of nothing: he who has laid up no materials can produce no combinations. The more extensive, therefore, your acquaintance is with the works of those who have excelled, the more extensive will be your powers of invention, and what is still more like a paradox, the more original will be your conception."
Wedgwood's power to collect and retain images of man-made and natural beauty was evident throughout his life. As a child, he collected fossil shells and other curiosities which the men who attended the coal-laden pack horses gave him, and fragments of pseudo-Samian ware which had been dug up in a field near Newcastle. He studied nature intensively. Later he had access to engravings in expensive folios and collections of works of art of many cultures and many periods, building up at the same time collections of books, coins, shells, gems, and objects of art for the use of others.
He also had the power to combine the images he had collected in original ways, this originality being noted by his brother and his early partners. In the Ivy-House and Brick-House days, he was his own designer, mold cutter, and modeler, and later, when expansion required the help of many hands and many artists, including Flaxman, he had to train them himself. In 1770 he wrote to his partner that he could not "get a hand through the whole Pottery to make a Table plate without training them up to that purpose." His chief modeler William Hackwood, who about 1767 had come to him as a young lad and stayed until his death in 1836, modeled some of the finest things that ever left Etruria, and was entirely trained by Wedgwood.
Wedgwood sketched out the borders that he wished, the shapes of vessels, details of ornament, the composition of a relief, the enframement, the treatment of draperies and trees. In fact a great part of his time was spent in training artists to execute his designs and wishes, and then in critical appraisal. Again and again he had to take the modeling tool in his own hands and do it himself. "I could not make the modellers please me by all the instructions I could give them," he said, "so I sat down and did it myself." When working on the bust of Virgil, he wrote: "Having gone as far as I could by way of precept, I this morning took the modeling tools in my own hands and made one side of the head pretty near like the gem and I am to take another stroke at him this afternoon. I have opened his mouth & shall send him to you singing some of his own divine songs." He also worked on a figure of Rousseau from a print which showed him botanizing in the garden of a friend in Paris in 1776.
Truthfulness to purpose was a test for every object. The color, the body, the shape, and the decoration were determined with relation to this purpose. Over and above any surface beauty, his works generally have an organic beauty springing from the reasonableness of every part. He demanded "masterliness" even in the design and execution of a soup tureen, and the lack of it sometimes "quite discouraged" him.
That he was familiar with the principles of beauty as set forth by Shaftesbury and Hogarth in the eighteenth century may be a surprise to critics, for it has never been mentioned by any writer to my knowledge. In the Catalogue of 1787, Wedgwood enters the fact that the tablet called the Judgment of Hercules (the choice between a life of pleasure or of fame) was "modelled agreeably to Lord Shaftesbury's idea of representing the subject." Evidently, all writers on Wedgwood have believed this referred to a noble patron. Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), however, was an author whose three-volume work on Characteristics was published at Birmingham in 1773. Back in 1712 he had published a book called A Notion o f the Historical Draught of Hercules. In that book are some of the precepts which must have guided Wedgwood in the composition of his Hercules and many more subjects. One of these precepts read: "The fewer the objects are besides those which are absolutely necessary in a piece, the easier it is for the eye by one simple act, and in one view to comprehend the sum of the whole."
The Analysis of Beauty by the English painter, William Hogarth, (1697-1764), appeared in 1753, the year before Wedgwood joined Whieldon as a partner. It had on the title page a simple geometrical figure showing a "line of grace" within a triangular form above a rectangular one with the word "Variety." This figure illustrated the principle that the serpentine line is the foundation of all that is fair or beautiful in art or nature. Hogarth believed that Michael Angelo knew the same principle when he advised his scholar Marcus de Sciena to make "a figure pyramidical, serpent-like, and multiplied by one, two, and three: in which precept the whole mystery of the art consisteth."
Hogarth had found the law in nature and Wedgwood, who had studied nature, recognized its truth and universality. The undulating line of grace confirmed for Wedgwood his own intuitive knowledge and observation. The Hogarthian phrases "line of grace" and "the art of composing well is the art of varying well" were used by Wedgwood. He called his wife Lady Grace and complained that the engineer in laying out the canal at Etruria would not give him one "line of grace."
The ogee or serpentine curve is found in thousands of Wedgwood's bowls, vases, cornucopias, borders, landscape and figure pieces, and he varied the space of a solid figure enclosed between lines as Hogarth advised. All his acts of turnery, his Chinoiserie, leafage, piercings, his festoon and relief ornament, were guided by his own taste, the taste of his time, and Hogarth's principles. That he was familiar with the Analysis of Beauty early in his career is shown by the fact that in 1766 when designing a dinner plate, he added an extra inch to preserve that "distinctness in eating which Mr. Hogarth lays so much stress upon in other subjects of taste."
In adapting the designs of ancient works and those of his contemporaries to some article for use or ornament, Wedgwood was giving it the intellectual appeal which the period demanded. He also felt that he was spreading a knowledge of great works. He likened himself to a printer and in the Catalogue of 1787 are these words: "multiplying copies of fine work in beautiful and durable materials must obviously have the same effect in respect to the arts as the introduction of printing has upon literature and the sciences." When working on the copy of the Portland Vase, he wrote: "many a young artist who could not purchase any edition of the vase, would be glad to buy impressions of the heads of figures or the whole figures in a durable material for studies." In this way, he added, "they might perhaps serve the arts, and diffuse the seeds of good taste, more extensively than by confining them to the vase only."
Notwithstanding the accusations that Wedgwood's art was wholly retrospective, Wedgwood lived very much in the present. It is true that he drew on the past, but he did so for the needs of that present and in doing so projected himself into the future. How many times we hear the comment about.some old piece of the ware, such as a caddy spoon or a teapot or a vase, "It can't be old, it looks so modern." This is partly due to the fact that form and functionalism, rediscoveries of the moderns, were well known to Wedgwood. He derived many things from the Chinese, from the Greeks, from contemporary artists and men of taste, but the instinct for form, and proportion, right function, good workmanship, and the capacity of his materials was his own.