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The Falcke "Old Wedgwood"
( Originally Published 1913 )
I have been studying the recent additions to the collection of Old Wedgwood jasper at the British Museum. These came as a rich legacy from Mr.Falcke, a successful and learned dealer. They occupythree large glass cases and two screens in the Ceramic Gallery,and they more than double the Museum'swealth of the kind ;in round figures thevalue is, I should say, five-and-twenty thousand pounds.
Nobody who wishes to understand the supreme achievement in art pottery can do so without spending a half-hour or two upon this collection. And not until one has pored for a good many half-hours over Old Wedgwood jasper will the secrets of expertise in this particular branch of collecting be revealed.The dealers and even the amateurs who understand " Old Wedgwood " are few. No book exists which tells the secrets; no dealer who knows them will consent to reveal them ; and the fact that Wedgwood jasper has continued to be made, and is made to-day, both adds to the difficulty and increases the necessity of finding out the secrets and penetrating the mystery. " Old Wedgwood " is " undercut," the books say; but no other book than this tells you what is precisely meant by "undercut " in relation to Wedgwood jasper. This chapter is not long enough to explain the other mysteries, but it will contain one " tip " which is invaluable a n d h a s never been published before. No pottery is SO delightfully difficult to "know" as Wedgwood jasper; there is no royal road to connoisseurship in it. Perhaps that is why a " Wedgwood " collector is the most enthusiastic of all.
"Patina." Let us understand that there can be no such thing as " patina " on Wedgwood jasper. Mr. Falcke would never have his Wedgwood washed-he liked to preserve the " patina," he said. I think he was mistaken in that. So do the Museum authorities, for the Falcke Wedgwood is now resplendently clean. " Patina "-except upon the corroded glaze of some varieties of antique earthenware-is an oxydisation which only occurs on metal. What gathers upon unwashed Wedgwood (except the basalt) is merely dirt.
Revival of Interest. Old Wedgwood jasper is on the up-grade again, I am told ; large prices will be paid for small pieces of it some day, if that be the case ; for old Wedgwood jasper is now excessively rare. So much of it is locked up in permanent public collections, and in private collections which only change owners en bloc, that purchasable pieces of it are few. So that to a beginning collector " Old Wedgwood " is a most elusive quarry, and, therefore, most delightful to hunt.
But there was never an excessive amount of the best old Wedgwood jasper collectable at any time the last eighty years. In his catalogue of the Wedgwood Museum at Etruria, Staffordshire, Mr. Frederick Rathbone writes that " plaques of the old period, of good quality, are, and have always been, scarce-they were not produced by the gross like machine-made tiles. Some of the finest have been removed from mantelpieces and furniture, and framed for due preservation." Now the Falcke collection at Bloomsbury contains the finest plaques I have ever seen.
Rarity Indeed. Mr. Rathbone adds: " How few of these pieces are intact in our day may be judged from the estimate that all the known examples of the subjectplaques in jasper of the best period-i.e., made between 1773 and 1793-might be easily contained on the walls of an ordinary art gallery, if hung not more than three deep, allowing space between each."
You cannot pick up " Old Wedgwood " abroad nowadays. I went into shop after shop in the Calverstraat at Amsterdam two years ago, asking " Any old Wedgwood portrait medallions ? " in vain. The principal dealer of all said, " Go back to London, sir. All the best of every kind is sent to London. London's the place." Then he told me that thirty years ago he could have procured me a basketful of the things I was hunting for-" Old Wedgwood " was all over Holland, "
But now it is all in museums and great private collections," he went on. " I haven't seen a real old portrait medallion on sale for years." The principal English collector of these portrait medallions states that " no single collection contains as many as a hundred of them " ; and all this is even more true of the splendid urns and vases. Rarity, that great element in pecuniary value, applies to " Old Wedgwood " of any kind; " Old Wedgwood " means works of art in jasper, remember-not table things in creamware. Josiah Wedgwood said that his jasper was " not ware."
Tests of the Old. A connoisseur knows the poorer Wedgwood jasper made since 1795 or so from that made prior to then by touch, colour, shape, undercutting, and finish. Take colour, for instance ; nobody since Josiah Wedgwood ceased to supervise the works at Etruria got quite the right dark blue in jasper, and none of his imitators got it while he was alive. Only by study can you know this true blue ; no amount of precise descriptive writing can give an idea of it ; and similarly with the green. About undeycutting I have written already.
But let me give one absolutely invaluable " tip " about shape, never before published in any book or article, so far as I know, and I think I know all that has been printed on the subject. Collectors and dealers who already know it will not thank me for making the reader a present of this test ; but no matter. The " tip " is as follows :
In the medallions, portraits, cameos (and, of course, the plaques) made during 1773-1795, the " blanks " (or bases upon which the white bas-relief was set), were always flat; since then many of them have been convex. Even in those excessively rare cameos which curve like a shirt-cuff when worn, the actual surface is flat, not convex.
But, as this flatness was continued in some pieces made between 1795 and 1825, it is not in itself alone an absolute test of " old " Wedgwood : which technically means Wedgwood dating prior to 1796. Notice this flatness in the Falcke Wedgwood.