250 years of history
1 chance to keep it together
250 years of history • 80,000 objects • 1 chance to keep it together
Portland Vase, c. AD 5–25
© Art Fund, photo: Phil Sayer
At the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, a collection without parallel is displayed. As you enter you will see why, for you pass the portrait of the first Josiah with his family at Etruria Hall, painted by George Stubbs. Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) was not only the first great British industrial potter, he was the embodiment of the British Enlightenment.
Whereas for the continental and American intellectuals, the Enlightenment was so often a theoretical phenomenon, in Britain it was a combination of excellences that brought rapid and prodigious change, not only to Britain but to the world.
Wedgwood pioneered a miraculous variety of ceramic techniques and styles, and in Barlaston you see the evidence of his labours: cabinets full of thousands of sample-glazes together with notebooks and experiment-books, filled in his daily search for beauty, style and novelty.
My father, Norman Wilson (whose work is also on display at Barlaston, and who was the joint managing director of the firm in the late 1950s and early 1960s) used to say that to be a good potter you have to be a chemist and an artist in equal doses.
Josiah I was, supremely, a scientist. His earthenware was not something that appeared overnight by chance. It was worked at. His techniques of firing came about as a result of ceaseless experiment. The temperature of the kiln was crucial, and it was his understanding of this, and his development of the first industrial thermometer, which he called the pyrometer, that enabled him to produce not merely stunning domestic tableware, but also the vases, urns and statues which reflected the newly discovered taste for the antique (inspired by William Hamilton and the excavations at Pompeii) and, moreover, contemporary art.
'You can see in the museum some of the rare survivals of Stubbs’s work – these objects are almost priceless.'
Back to Stubbs: the reason he painted the Wedgwood family portrait was that Josiah had made him ceramic palettes. Also, Stubbs, who wanted to paint on ever-smoother surfaces, asked Wedgwood to make tablets of smoothly glazed earthenware. You can see in the museum some of the rare survivals of Stubbs’s work: his horses being devoured by lions, based on the statues he had seen in the Vatican, as well as his portraits of Wedgwood and his wife.
These objects are almost priceless: there exist only two or three outside Barlaston. They are among only some of the treasures to be found here.
The Portland Vase, so called because the Duchess of Portland purchased this remarkable piece of Roman glass from the Barberini family, became an obsession with Wedgwood, and in Barlaston you can see his attempts to copy it in his trademark Jasperware.
Wedgwood, Rabbit by Sheldon, c.1911
© Art Fund, photo: Phil Sayer
This was in part a technological and aesthetic challenge, but it was also by way of being an Enlightenment manifesto. Wedgwood and his contemporaries believed that their generation of British men – and women (for as a Unitarian Wedgwood believed in the equality of the sexes and educated his daughters to as high a level as his sons) – could recreate the halcyon days of republican Rome, the Rome of Cicero and Pliny.
But they would be more enlightened even than the Romans, for they were guided by technological skills that outstripped Roman engineers), and they were kindlier. On display at Barlaston are also many examples of Wedgwood's help in the campaign against slavery and his famous medallion, depicting an African in chains, with the motto Am I Not a Man and a Brother?
Wedgwoods Republican allies in Europe, as well as figures such as the scientist Samuel Thomas von Soemmerring, had regarded this as a scientific, not a sentimental, question. Do black people belong to the same species as white people? Soemmerring did autopsies on the cadavers of both and concluded that irrespective of race people of all skin colour were indeed of the same species. This made the scandal of slavery all the more heinous.
Wedgwood was not just a decent, honest and good-hearted man, he was a clever scientist who realised that doctrines of racial superiority were simply nonsense. It was this that motivated him to campaign so tirelessly with the abolitionists. The Wedgwood family has always been a champion of liberty. During the 1930s the local MP, Josiah Wedgwood IV (Colonel Wedgwood), was one of the few members of the Labour Party to group himself with Winston Churchill in the House of Commons as a furious opponent of the appeasement policy. They put their money where their mouths were and helped Jewish refugees to escape from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.
'Whenever I go to Barlaston, I see a living tradition of excellence'
Whenever I go to Barlaston, to where Josiah V moved the factory from the old Etruria Works for its healthier atmosphere, I see therefore not only a collection of some of the most beautiful objects ever made in Britain, I see a living tradition of excellence, in which so much more than cups and saucers are displayed.
This, after all, is a collection that houses not only examples of the great 18th-century works, but of all the masterpieces since, especially the glory days of the 20th century when designs by Keith Murray, Norman Wilson, Eric Ravilious, Laura Knight, Richard Guyatt and so many others brought to pass a Wedgwood renaissance.
Our children and grandchildren deserve to see this superb, irreplaceable collection intact.
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2014 issue of Art Quarterly.