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It is pleasant to find that English connoisseurs are again beginning to collect Wedgwood ware. Josiah Wedgwood, the potter, was one of the very few original geniuses which England has produced, and it is fitting that the beautiful ware for which he was responsible should again occupy the position for which it is so suitable. The jasper ware that Wedgwood used was a genuine discovery, his use of sulphate of barium and a small proportion of the carbonate resulting in a ware which is unique and of extraordinary merit, and when on this coloured ware he spread his reliefs in white in exquisite form, he produced one of the most beautiful things that English potters have ever conceived.
A connoisseur recognises old Wedgwood ware by his fingers even more than by his eyes. There is what is known as the "baby-skin" feel about the work made in Josiah's own time, which has never been counterfeited, and, although the present firm have the old models, and turn out very beautiful things, there is yet that marked divergence in texture between their products and those of the great founder of their firm.
Few things are more lovely than the little cameos, tablets and medals Wedgwood produced: the scent-bottles, etuis, chatelaine mounts, bell-handles, opera-glasses, vases, boxes, and above all, the portrait medallions ranging from tiny things, not much larger than one's thumb-nail, up to large ovals. Whether they be in green, lavender or blue, they are equally beautiful, and if framed and mounted, as they were in the old days, with cut steel work, they acquire an increased beauty.
Moreover the Wedgwood collector will not confine his attention solely to objects made in the jasperware; he will have fine examples of black basalt, which also has a miraculous texture, and vases, columns and busts of this material will adorn his cabinets, and he will add to them examples of the cream ware which Wedgwood introduced in 1763, the granite, the agate, the tortoiseshell, the deep red of the terra-cotta wares, all of which add charm and variety to a cabinet.
There are, it is said, to be found somewhere in England a few odd pieces of that wonderful service which Wedgwood made for Catherine II in 1774. There are one or two plates, belonging to the Wedgwoods themselves, to be seen in their museum; there is a bit in the Mayer collection in Liverpool, but some of the discarded plates have yet to be found; they bear the emblem of the green frog, and the service itself has represented upon it all the important buildings of England from north to south. I was responsible for its re-discovery in Russia, went there to see it and wrote a big book about it. I wonder what happened to it when the recent disturbances in Russia took place?
Fortunately, Wedgwood was not only a practical potter (he began throwing his own vases in 1759), but also an able chemist, and he gathered about him wonderful helpers, such as Tassie, Hackwood, Gossett and Flaxman, and was assisted by an almost perfect partner in Bentley. There are missing, by the way, a great many of Bentley's letters which Wedgwood cherished very dearly, and which he had bound up, but which seem to have disappeared altogether.
The partnership was an ideal one. Wedgwood was so successful, because he was so enthusiastic, and devoted himself heart and soul to producing the very best that he possibly could, sparing no pains and no trouble in carrying out the details of his pottery.
How well I remember, some years ago, coming upon a little collection of cameos and medallions that had been preserved by the descendants of a man who worked at the factory, and who had put aside, with loving enthusiasm, exquisite examples I of the jasperware. They had a grace of their own which has never since been equaled.
Wedgwood was particularly fortunate in enlisting the sympathy of Flaxman, whose perfect draughtsmanship and marvelous classical knowledge resulted in such beautiful scenes as the "Bacchanalian Boys," the "Marriage of Cupid and Psyche," "Blind Man's Buff," "Apollo with the Muses," and many similar scenes, and whose skill was responsible for the borders of festoons, leaves and swags which adorn the vases, and for the shell shapes and beautiful handles that appear on many of the pieces of his dinner ware.
The present firm has the great advantage of having taken particular care of its old designs, plates and patterns, so as to be able to revive them, and when, some years ago, I examined the Russian dinner service, which had been lost sight of for nearly a hundred years, it was possible for the present firm to replace broken handles, knobs and ornaments from the original designs, and so make some of the damaged pieces once more perfect.
Gradually, Wedgwood ware is creeping up again in value. For a while, it was under a cloud. Now, its charm is being recognised, and as the supply of choice pieces is very limited, collectors can be strongly recommended (especially those with patriotic sympathies) to start collecting Wedgwood ware, with a sure sense of joy and a certainty of recompense.
Needless to say, Wedgwood ware was often copied, especially by the potters of his own period and shortly after his decease. Such men as Turner and Adams obtained some of Wedgwood's best productions, and set themselves to copy them, resulting very often in quite excellent pieces of ware, presenting very close resemblances, at first glance, to Wedgwood, but differing altogether in feel and sharp cut from the original. Sometimes these pieces bore the names of the plagiarists, and may be collected for their own sake, but other forgers were much more unscrupulous, and a man named Palmer, for example, was thoroughly unscrupulous, because he not only tried to copy Wedgwood's ware, but forged the name at the bottom of it, and there were two other workers, Neale and Mayer, who were almost as bad. Moreover, some of the medallions were copied at Sevres, but collectors will soon know how to identify them, as the ware is really quite different.
It will be necessary for the collector to acquaint himself with the way in which the Wedgwood ware is marked, in order that he may distinguish old Wedgwood from that which has lately been made. The present firm is very careful in rendering it quite clear that their work is their own manufacture, and never attempts to pretend that what they have produced is old work. If the collector gets hold of any of the medallions, especially of the smaller ones, he may be recommended not to exhibit them in too large a quantity, but to put them singly, where they obtain their best effect. If inlaid on etuis or bonbonnieres, tea-caddies, patch-boxes or chatelaines, they look far better than they do if merely exhibited in a glass case, and these and pieces of jewellery and ornament mounted with Wedgwood cameos are in the greatest demand amongst skilled collectors.
The cream ware made at Leeds is often confused with Wedgwood cream ware, but Wedgwood is marked, and Leeds very seldom bears the mark. Above all, Wedgwood ware is extraordinarily light, and the mere action of lifting a piece from the cabinet will often tell a connoisseur whether he is handling a genuine piece or not.
One of the wonderful collections was that formed by the late Lord Tweedmouth. It was offered for sale in 1905, and a catalogue was got up by Mr. Rathbone, when suddenly it was all withdrawn, to the disappointment of the Wedgwood collectors of the day. It included some splendid medallions and cameos, but amongst its greatest treasures were some of the wax models from which Wedgwood made his ware. It had also two of the wonderful Portland vases, perhaps the greatest things that Wedgwood ever made, the most perfect reproduction of the famous glass Barberini vase, which is generally known from having belonged to the Duchess of Portland as the Portland Vase. This is the vase that was broken by a lunatic, and has now been carefully pieced together, and is one of the great treasures in the Gold Room of the British Museum.
The Wedgwood is now in the Leverhulme museum at Port Sunlight.