Science into Art, Art into Science

Marina Vaizey

Magazine issue: 
#4 2014 (45)


Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) was a man of the Enlightenment. The long 18th century, fractured by wars and political turmoil, was also a period when hopes for a better world coincided with mechanical inventions and new manufacturing techniques that were to lead to factories replacing home-based craft skills, and of scientific advances and social reform. He was the right man at the right time.

Wedgwood was himself a fourth-generation potter, and combined outstanding entrepreneurial skill and creative energy, scientific curiosity and insight. He built an internationally successful business based on scientific understanding, experimentation, and discoveries which, combined with an aesthetic imagination, created an enterprise that employed artists as well as artisans. Moreover the business was based on innovative methods in manufacturing - an early version of the assembly line where each worker honed and contributed a particular skill, rather than making a completed object from start to finish. His alluring ceramics were also widely distributed, taking advantage of improvements in the transport system.

After substantial family opposition to his "marrying up" and a long courtship, Josiah Wedgwood married his cousin, Sarah Wedgwood, who was the daughter of an affluent cheese merchant, Richard Wedgwood. The marriage provided capital, which helped to finance the development of the business. Wedgwood's Liverpudlian partner Thomas Bentley, with whom he worked for 18 years, was based in London. Bentley was not only an educated member of the middle classes, but also a businessman. The vogue for classical motifs was dominating architecture and interior design, exemplified by such versatile practitioners as William Kent, Sir William Chambers, James Wyatt, James "Athenian" Stuart, and the Scottish architect William Adam and his sons John and Robert. The "Grand Tour" of the scions of the upper classes, particularly to Italy, brought back art for connoisseurs, as well as the imagery of classicism. It has been suggested that Bentley, moving among the cognoscenti in the capital, might have indicated to Wedgwood that classical decorations would lift his wares far above the rustic, the ordinary and the utilitarian into the realm of art. The antique style was the height of fashion.

Wedgwood was shown - and marketed - in London. By the middle of the 18th century London, the cultural and commercial capital of Britain, the hub of the growing Empire, was home to more than one tenth of the country's population; it is estimated that in the course of the 18th century one in every six adults worked in London at one time or another. Wedgwood had London showrooms. He also introduced printed catalogues of his goods, made arrangements to deliver his wares to his customers, and offered a returns policy if goods were substandard (although his phrase was, if the products were not "agreeable to the customer's wishes"). This kind of guarantee was effectively the first of its kind anywhere, although social history often suggests it was a practice that only came into use with the growth of the metropolitan department store in the 19th century.

Through the astute business sense of Bentley as well as his own acute perception of selling, Wedgwood also built up an enormous export business. Bentley had a shipping business in Liverpool, then Britain's leading port; Wedgwood was to have agents in Italy, Holland, Belgium, Germany, and, of course, Russia.

Wedgwood understood the importance of materials, and his own inventions, or those that took place under his direction, so improved the quality of the pottery he manufactured that, combined with his commercial skills, they made him the market leader. His glazes and ceramic bodies that were crucial to the identity of Wedgwood were Jasper, Black Basalt and Queen's Ware. Queen's Ware was the earliest, earthenware with cream coloured by applying a lead glaze. It was originally invented about the 1750s in the Potteries, but refined by Wedgwood in partnership with the master potter Thomas Whieldon. With its shiny pale bluish glaze, it was very versatile in terms of print transfer decoration.

By 1762 his creamware had received royal patronage: his ceramics had impressed Queen Charlotte, wife to George III, so the result became known as "Queen's Ware". Russian imperial patronage followed, too: Wedgwood's first commission from the Empress in 1770 was the so-called "Husk service", a charming set of table settings for a service for 24 - tureens, bowls, varied dishes, ladles and the like - decorated with floral motifs. It was a simple portent for what was to come, for an extraordinarily ambitious project was to follow, adapted to Catherine the Great's Anglophilia.

Britain was in fashion with Russia's intelligentsia, the "glitterati", and the powerful alike. In the eyes of many in Europe and further afield Britain embodied progress and enlightened ideals. Catherine the Great had an informed passion for the English landscape garden, about which she wrote to Voltaire that she loved English gardens to the point of folly. Wedgwood referred to the Empress as his "Great Patroness". For his major imperial commission, the "Green Frog service", Wedgwood employed well over 30 artists, who produced nearly 1,000 pieces of specially designed dinner and dessert ware, a dazzling tour-de-force. Images depicted the cultivated landscape gardens, stately homes, ruins, follies, ancient buildings, priories, abbeys, churches, cities, villages, rural landscapes and vistas, and even early industrial scenes, all quintessential^ connected with British history and its current cultivated environment, either commissioned or inspired by prints in existing publications.

The Green Frog service was a complete setting for 50 people, now held in the Hermitage. Although it was both intellectually resplendent, and a rich visual treasure trove, it was telling that the material was pottery, not porcelain (the grand material for the French and German services bought by Catherine). This hugely ambitious project is perhaps the prime example of Wedgwood's ability to improve on existing materials and techniques. The lead-glazed earthenware service was produced in 1773-74 on a commission for a stop-over palace under construction just outside St. Petersburg, on the road to the estate of Tsarskoe Selo. The local Finnish name for the spot where the palace was being built was "Kekerekeksinen", or La Grenouillere, meaning "frog marsh", and each item of the service bears a green frog in a frame shaped like a heraldic shield. The plates of all sizes and serving receptacles are the most remarkable contemporary record of English great houses and gardens so admired in Europe - and Russia. Wedgwood, ever an astute judge of publicity, exhibited the Green Frog Service in London before its journey to Russia.

Wedgwood's forte was in original improvements on existing pottery. Basaltware was another variation, characterised by its black colour, and was in particular used by Wedgwood in fulfilment of his announced ambition to be "Vase Maker General to the Universe" with his vases based on antique models.

Jasperware was a stoneware, considered by some to be possibly a porcelain (fired at high temperatures) most characterised by a powerfully memorable pale blue, known as"Wedgwood blue". Jasperware enabled layers of colours, with low relief decoration - scenes from classical mythology and other embellishments, often in white. Greens, blues, lilacs, yellows and even blacks were the main colours for the ceramic bodies. The classical scenes were often designed by the artist John Flaxman, and cast and applied to the ceramic bodies. Inspiration came in large part from the antiquities collected by Sir William Hamilton, the English consul in Naples who was a leading figure in the neo-classical revival which dominated English high culture in the late-18th century. Moreover, Wedgwood used Jasperware in his astonishing determination to replicate the Roman layered glass vase known as the "Portland Vase" (now in the British Museum, it was then owned by the Duke of Portland). Wedgwood devoted four years to this project of reproduction in layered Jasperware, and made an edition of his replica, which was duly sold to major collectors.

He built outstanding accommodation for his workers, supplied rudimentary health care, and for the promulgation of his goods, used travelling salesmen, special offers and discounts, and his London showrooms went beyond the standards of the time. He also became something of a public figure and, through his friendships with prominent reformers, a leading light in the movement to abolish slavery. The Wedgwood emblem, a drawing of a kneeling black man in chains, with the motto "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" became a kind of logo, proclaiming those who wore the emblem - men and women alike - as abolitionists, and it was the most famous depiction of a black man in art. In histories of visual innovation, it has been claimed as the first secular logo, something unlike a flag or a religious emblem, which was beyond a unifying authority. Wedgwood's badge was a recognisable visual symbol which carried a message which could be quite complex, and was worn by reformist members of the upper classes to show their allegiance to the cause.

Born in Burselm, Lancashire, the region of England that became known as the Potteries, Josiah was the 13th child of a potter; the family, which has been traced back to the 14th century, had been engaged in pottery for a substantial period. Josiah was apprenticed, at the age of 14, to his eldest brother Thomas who had inherited the small pottery called "The Churchyard Pottery" after their father died when Josiah was only nine years old. The young boy learnt to "throw", which required athletic skill and dexterity, with strong legs needed to work the foot pedal that turned the table. However an attack of smallpox meant that Josiah's legs were weakened, and he was unable to undertake throwing to the standard required.

It is thought that Thomas refused his much younger brother a partnership, so he worked at several other potteries. In 1754 Josiah joined one of the leading potters of the area, Thomas Whieldon. The business was called "Fenton Vivian", and it was here that Josiah's curiosity, energy and imagination informed his investigations of ceramic shapes, and the colours and glazes used to enhance and decorate.

He was to open two small potteries of his own, one at Ivy House and one at Brick House. Finally, at the age of 39, he opened the business that was to make him famous and successful worldwide, in partnership with Thomas Bentley, at Etruria, near Stoke-on-Trent - a substantial large-scale pottery of his own. Etruria was a name supposed to recall the Etruscan region of Italy (Tuscany and Umbria) with its ancient history of artistic and aesthetic achievement, a civilised society that pre-dated the Romans. Wedgwood created on the site the most modern factory possible, even harnessing steam power. It was sited near transport hubs, canals and roads. From Etruria, Wedgwood was to supply the aristocracy, but also the growing "middling classes", with wares for both use and ornament.

The time was right. In the ongoing Industrial Revolution, supply networks were rapidly improving, due to the building of canals, which could transport heavy loads by water, and the improvement of roads, including turnpike roads which required payment from travellers. With particular reference to North Staffordshire, the Potteries, the raw material itself, clay, was being supplied to a better standard. In the early 18th century the local clay was abundant but coarse. Seeking improvements, clay began to be imported from the south west of England, which could be made into much thinner domestic ware, less coarse than before, and fired at increasingly high temperatures. In Wedgwood's apprentice years this clay, mixed with flint, and glazed with salt through into the kiln, is now known as salt-glazed stoneware, and indeed is a material much appreciated by studio potters today. Salt-glazed stoneware was the basis for what became Queen's Ware, and the other variations mentioned above. One of Wedgwood's own inventions was a much more reliable method for measuring the temperature of the kiln, the pyrometer - for which he was elected to the Royal Society, the premier organisation for scientists in England; membership was then and remains now the highest accolade from his peers for a scientist.

An irresistible momentum developed as other refinements followed one after the other. Pictorial decoration could be stamped and in the 1750s prints could be transferred; shapes could be moulded (though slip casting and press moulding). The improvements meant that beautiful ceramic objects made in earthenware could rival very expensive porcelain. And there was a market: the vogue for drinking tea and other hot drinks meant that teapots and cups were much in demand. Wedgwood especially, through his partner Thomas Bentley, cultivated the "great people" (the elite) with ornamental wares; as he astutely realised, such goods, especially those on display like his great vases, would be seen by the infinitely more populous "middling classes", for whom he developed less expensive products. We also know that gardens and gardening became a passion among both such groups, and ways of displaying plants and flowers indoors were developed.

When Wedgwood set up his very first business, the Ivy House pottery, he was to write in his notebook that he felt there were ample possibilities, in terms of potential improvements in stoneware, perhaps even to rival porcelain, that "white gold" of ceramics invented by the Chinese, and pursued so diligently by the aristocratic backing of continental factories, from Royal Meissen in Saxony to Sevres in France. Josiah Wedgwood presciently declared that generous rewards awaited those who worked hard in his chosen field.

The Etruria workshops for the manufacture of ceramics which were either useful or ornamental, or both, was achieved with the capital provided by Wedgwood's successful marriage to Sarah, who was not only the mother of seven children but also an active advisor to her husband's factory. The buildings of the factory, each specialising in different aspects to aid the smooth flow of production, the village for the workers, the Wedgwoods' own house, were brilliantly situated as well: Wedgwood himself had invested in canals and roads, and Etruria bordered the Trent and Mersey Canal which linked Liverpool to the west and to Hull to the East. In 1768, his right leg, weakened by his childhood bout of smallpox, and worsened, it was said, by Wedgwoods' "over-walking and over-working", was amputated, without anaesthetic. Such operations carried enormous risks of infection, but Wedgwood's strength and discipline carried the day. Until his stump healed he visited the factory by carriage, and for the rest of his life he wore a wooden leg.

Wedgwood and Bentley's innovative commercial practices included printed catalogues detailing their offerings of ornamental wares as well as London showrooms; the cultivation of influential patrons, and even contributions of imagery from talented aristocratic amateur lady artists, including Lady Templetown and Lady Beauclerk.

Other such "great people" played important roles in Wedgwood's accelerating success. Among them was Lord Cathcart, the 9th baron of that title who was British ambassador to St. Petersburg from 1768 to 1771; Cathcart's wife Jane was the sister of the same Sir William Hamilton, the British consul in Naples who was an outstanding collector and connoisseur of classical art and antiquities. Hamilton's own seminal publication, "Antiquities", was known to Wedgwood, as well as to other aristocratic cognoscenti, many members of the "Society of Dilettanti" (which still exists today), who profoundly informed through their scholarship and collections the upper-class taste for classical antiquities. Wedgwood was lent authentic antique cameos to copy for his ornamental wares.

The Cathcarts, through their influential sojourn in Russia, promoted the achievements of Wedgwood at the court of Catherine the Great (Lord Cathcart was said to be a favourite, and was granted an unusual number of audiences with the Empress). The first order, in 1770, came from Catherine, for the Husk Service in Queen's Ware, decorated with enamelled flowers; some is still in the collections at Peterhof. Three years later the more famous Green Frog Service followed.

The invention to come was Jasperware. Wedgwood's years of tenacious experiment, which eventually led in the late 1770s to the ability to produce shades of lilac, yellow, brown, green, grey and above all pale blue, is universally recognised. His long history of experiments eventually allowed him to produce beautifully and subtly coloured ceramic bodies. On these graceful shapes his craftsmen were able to layer delicately raised bas-relief decoration of neo-classical scenes. Numbered in the thousands, they were a tribute not only to Wedgwood's genius, but also his working talent, so much self-taught by the practical consequences of endless experimentation. He was to confess that his obsessive determination almost drove him crazy! For much of his business he adopted, adapted, improved and made significant advances on the work of others, both in terms of his stoneware, and the ceramic forms and decorations he deployed. But Jasperware was a true and original innovation.

The great shadow was the early death of Thomas Bentley, in 1780, before he turned 50. Wedgwood was never to find such an inspirational partner again, a figure who was both imaginative and pragmatically businesslike at the same time. Even their accounting methods were advanced, as they pioneered early cost-accounting, with an understanding of what would be the manufacturing cost, and how it should be priced; they even had "loss-leaders". Wedgwood had felt that Bentley was his other half, critical, analytical, entrepreneurial. Jasperware was not quite perfected at the time of Bentley's death. Nevertheless, Wedgwood and the business carried on.

In the 1780s the much-publicised project was the copying in ceramic of that layered glass masterpiece of antiquity, considered the greatest example of Roman art, the Portland vase. And for the last half of his career Wedgwood also worked with significant contemporary artists, from the already-mentioned classicizing John Flaxman (including in remarkable fireplace designs) to George Stubbs, best known for his portraits, agricultural scenes, and superb paintings of animals.

Flaxman (1755-1826) was a draughtsman and later a sculptor working with classical imagery; although leading critics and artists accused his work of being bloodless, he was ideally suited to working on designs for Wedgwood, as the subtle severity of his line translated well into modelling scenes for Wedgwood's ceramics. By the age of 20 he was working for the pottery, not only on classical myths as friezes for Wedgwood's Jasperware and Basalt ware, but on portraits of notable personalities for ceramic medallions. Wedgwood indeed sent Flaxman to Rome, where he stayed for seven years (1787-1794), continuing to supply his designs for translation into ceramic. He was very well known in his time, and an example of the quality of artists who worked with Wedgwood.

Another Enlightenment figure, Stubbs (1724-1806) had undertaken extensive studies of animal anatomy; Stubbs in fact had hoped that Wedgwood's ceramic tablets might make a more useful surface for painting than canvas, and of course a material less likely to deteriorate. The Lady Lever has several such paintings in enamel on ceramic plaques. Stubbs spent several months in Etruria in 1780, and modeled a tablet which bore the imagery of the classical tale of "The Fall of Phaeton", and also painted a family portrait of the Wedgwoods. In the 1790s he painted a self-portrait, and several scenes of hay-making, based on earlier oil paintings, in enamel on Wedgwood's earthenware plaques; he hoped to persuade fellow artists of this method, more durable he thought than oil on canvas, but the innovation was never adopted, and Stubbs' enamels on earthenware remain a singular experiment. However, Stubbs' scenes of rural labour, where all is calm, dignified, poised and posed, likened by commentators to compositions which recall classical friezes, are also part of the neo-classicizing spirit of the times.

Wedgwood's talent was matched by his character, which exhibited extraordinary tenacity and discipline. He also had the ability, perhaps rare in self-made men, to understand and accept advice and collaboration. He was able to sustain productive relationships with business partners, to move onto a wider world stage, to understand the achievements of scholars and inventors, and to appropriate as necessary for the greater glory of the business. Wedgwood is said to have suggested to Thomas Bentley that he wished to pursue "Fortune, Fame and the Public Good". One leading scholar of Wedgwood has simply claimed that Wedgwood's pottery - not porcelain, the province of the continental royal factories - was nevertheless in terms of its high physical quality and superb design the natural successor to Sevres and Meissen. We are told that no less a figure than the 19th-century Prime Minister, William Gladstone, declared Wedgwood "the greatest man who ever, in any age of the country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry". He was both an innovator and a collaborator; he was a leader who nevertheless worked with others and understood their contributions, never too proud to accept and build on the talents of others. He had an affectionate and long lasting family life. So much was achieved: original, innovative and lasting. This 18th-century success has lessons from which we can even learn in the 21st century.

It is particularly appropriate that the English part of the Wedgwood collection that will be shown in Moscow, decorative art produced by a proprietor who was known for his liberal views, his campaign against the international scourge of slavery, and his pioneering of the best conditions possible for his workers, in the context of the times, should come from the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool. The first Lord Leverhulme (18511925) was the son of a wholesale grocer, and entered the family firm. The expansion of the Lever fortune, and the creation of the firm Lever Brothers was founded not on technical innovation but on marketing, selling wrapped cakes of soap, which was branded, including a brand called "Sunlight". As the business expanded he built much larger factories on the shore of the River Mersey, and also pioneered better conditions for his workers, building his model village of Port Sunlight, outside Liverpool, to house them. Thus, the workers had good living conditions within easy reach of the factories.

Of course it was enlightened self-interest, making for more effective production: workers who were well cared-for worked well. Like Wedgwood he understood too the value of publicity, and acquired paintings from the Royal Academy in London to advertise the company's soap. He also became a very serious art collector in his own right, and in 1905 purchased from another collector the largest group of Wedgwood then in private hands. Lord Leverhulme was often to buy established collections in this way, a fascinating echo of Catherine the Great's purchase of major collections as a totality for the Hermitage. Eventually, in his late wife's honour, he was to build the Lady Lever Art Gallery (incidentally, one of the earliest buildings to be built in reinforced concrete). The Lady Lever Art Gallery is the cultural centrepiece of the workers' village of Port Sunlight, and evidence of his belief in the power of art to lead to better lives.

A superb examination of the 18th-century firm of Wedgwood is "The Genius of Wedgwood" (Victoria and Albert Museum, edited by Hilary Young, 1995), with many essays. Robin Reilly's succinct biographical study in that publication is an invaluable compendium of facts and direct quotations from the unique archive of the business which has survived, as well as josiah Wedgwood's letters to Thomas Bentley, and a host of other documents.

Also outstanding is Michael Raeburn's huge and lavishly illustrated 1998 album "The Green Frog Service".

The company itself has had varied fortunes in the 20th and 21st centuries. In 1986, Waterford Glass purchased Wedgwood and the group was later renamed Waterford Wedgwood. In 2009, it was placed into administration on a "going concern" basis, with 1,800 employees remaining, and later that year was acquired by a New York-based private equity company. As part of its restucturing, many jobs have been moved away from the UK. The Wedgwood Museum opened in 1906 at the Etruria works, moving to the new Barlaston factory in 1952. A new visitor centre and museum was built in 1975 and remodelled in 1985 with pieces displayed near items from the old factory works in cabinets of similar period. Reopened again in 2008 after further development, the museum was in 2011 inscribed in UNESCO's UK "Memory of the World" register. The survival of its collection remains at risk, given obligations to the pension fund of the original Wedgwood company. Lever Brothers has become the international corporation Unilever, headquartered in London, with huge holdings in household and food companies.





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