‘hope & anchor’ trial medallion from the wedgwood museum
This week I thought we’d take a took at Wedgwood. This year is actually the 250th anniversary of the brand created by Josiah Wedgwood (the Wedgwood). Even if you’re not into fancy china, the story is pretty fascinating (and how can you not love that medallion above?!) Josiah Wedgwood was the 12th child in a family of struggling potters at a time when being a potter was little better than being a farmer. At the time of his death, he was worth £600,000 (equivalent to around $100 million today!) Not only was he a designer and inventor, but he instinctively understood the importance of branding and marketing.
Born in 1730, the 12th child and the 5th living son, Josiah wouldn’t have expected to receive much in the way of inheritance or support. Despite these odds, Josiah was determined and he did have some advantages. His family was able to send him to school until he was 14 (which was a 7 mile round-trip walk!). Once he turned 14, he was apprenticed to his older brother, Thomas. Poor families would have had to send their sons to work at age 9, and waiting until later was a sign of prosperity. Shortly after he began his apprenticeship, Josiah contracted smallpox. Although he recovered, the smallpox weakened his knee and made it difficult for him to work the potter’s wheel. The disability seems to have made Josiah be all the more inventive and he spent more of his time designing pottery rather than making it.
Josiah worked for his brother for 3 years following his apprenticeship, spending much of his time ruminating on ways to improve the art of pottery. Thomas was reluctant to change much about the business or give Josiah a stake in the family company, so at age 22 Josiah moved on. It took him 7 years and a couple of different partnerships before he was able to establish his own firm.
CLICK HERE for the rest of the post -including facts to know and a reading list-(and a fun modern Wedgwood DIY stencil project!) after the jump!
cauliflower coffee pot, 1759 – showcases wedgwood’s green glaze, his first significant development (from the wedgwood museum)
Josiah got his start by renting a pottery from a more successful branch of the family and set to work. He produced the typical “greengrocery” wares – pottery shaped like cabbages, melons and vegetables. The vessels were decorated with Wedgwood’s own development, his “grass green” glaze, which was the first of many unique glazes. It was these unique glazes that first distinguished Wedgwood from the other potters.
the wedgwood clan in 1790: that’s josiah and sally on the bench surrounded by their brood. the painting is by George Stubbs and is held by the wedgwood museum
Wedgwood spent a significant amount of his time working to improve his pottery, but he also had another aim. He was in love with his cousin Sarah (known as Sally) and wanted to marry her. There was a slight hitch. Sally was rich – she stood to inherit £20,000 (about $2 million today). After some negotiating with Sally’s father (who was not initially pleased that his daughter wanted to marry a common potter), the couple married in 1764. (He was 34 and she was 30 – waiting to marry until you’re established in your career is not just a modern day convention!) Not only did Sally bring with her a sizable dowry (and we can’t under-estimate that dowry $$, it definitely gave Josiah a leg up!), but she also proved to be an adept partner. She would offer suggestions on design and take notes while Josiah conducted his experiments.
queen’s ware from 1765 (you can see traces of gilding) from the collection at the v&a museum
The Turning Point
Wedgwood’s big break came shortly after his marriage in 1765, when he was invited to submit designs to Queen Charlotte. He developed a cream-colored earthenware to meet her specifications. She was so pleased with the result that she allowed the cream ware to be renamed “Queen’s Ware.”
pieces of the service made for catherine the great from top left: place with view of somerset house, tureen with views of hapstead and spoon with a view of stainfield hall, monteith with views of the melrose abbey on the border between england and scotland, dish with view of etruria hall, staffordshire (part of the complete collection at the state hermitage museum, st. petersburg, russia)
The Most Famous Dinnerware Order
Once Wedgwood was deemed potter to the Queen, orders began to pour in for the Queen’s Ware. The most elaborate order came from St. Petersburg. Catherine the Great wanted a set of the Queen’s Ware for her own use. The set consisted of 952 pieces hand-painted with different English scenes. Large pieces would be painted with more than one scene so the set required 1,244 different views. Wedgwood hired illustrators to create many views specifically for the set. The service was intended for Chesme Palace which rested on a site that had orginally been known as Frog Marsh. Nearly every piece is decorated with a frog, the symbol of the palace. The set is known as the “Frog Service.” As a money maker, it was a failure (Wedgwood was paid a little more than £2,700 for a set which cost £2,612 to create). But as an advertisement, it was priceless. Wedgwood displayed the set in London, where it was visited by the nobility and even Queen Charlotte, before it was packed off to Russia. It caused quite a sensation and the orders for similar sets (some even ordered exact copies!) poured in.
contents of a tomb opened by sir william hamilton in 1766 (british museum)
The Fashion for the Neo-Classical
Neo-classical style took Britain (and France) by storm around the 1750s. The continuing excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii as well as other ancient site provided continuing inspiration to architecture and decoration. Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was the British Envoy stationed in southern Italy from 1764 to 1798. He was an avid collector of antiquities and brought (literally) boatloads of ancient relics back to the British Museum. He published Antiquités étrusques, grecques et romaines (1766–67), a catalog of his discoveries so that they might serve as inspiration to British craftsman. Wedgwood eagerly mined Hamilton’s catalog as he worked to create the latest fashionable object.
left: the inspiration – greek, calyx-krater (wine bowl) from about 440bc
right: the interpretation – wedgwood, homeric vase, 1786 (both from the british museum)
Britian went crazy for the vase! It was vase mania, and Wedgwood immediately began working on ways to reproduce these ancient vases and was so fascinated by antiquity that he named his new factory, Etruria.
tray of jasper trials from the wedgwood museum
My favorite and the most famous of all the Wedgwood inventions – Jasper – appeared first in 1774. The process required thousands of trials. The most well-known of all Jasperware was Wedgwood’s copy of the Portland Vase. It would take Wedgwood years to develop the technology to reproduce the A.D. 40 glass vase created in Alexandria. When he finally succeeded, Wedgwood put the vase on display in London and it was another sensation. Jasperware has been in continuous production since 1774.
left: the inspiration – the portland vase, a.d. 40
right: the wedgwood version – 1789 japerware version of the portland vase
modern wedgwood, clockwise from top left: martha stewart’s conservatory collection, vera wang’s naturals fig dinnerware, edme casual dinnerware (100 year old pattern), anthemion blue prestige fine bone china
Wedgwood died in 1795. The Wedgwood family continued to run the company for five generations and remained involved until Wedgwood was acquired by Waterford Crystal in 1987. Today the designers of Wedgwood include Martha Stewart, Vera Wang and artist Robert Dawson. However, it’s the designs of Josiah Wedgwood that are still the inspiration for everything from wedding cakes to heels!
more than just plates, clockwise from top left: wedgwood inspired wedding cake from martha stewart, wedgwood earrings, vintage wedwood black basalt cupid necklace $175, wedgwood shoe by rayne co., 1958
Facts to Know
- Josiah Wedgwood’s eldest daughter, Susannah (nicknamed Sukey) was the mother of Charles Darwin. (Some say that it was the Wedgwood family money that would give Darwin the time necessary to formulate his theories.)
- Josiah Wedgwood built one of the first factories in the world and was one of the first to put Adam Smith’s theories of division of labor into practice.
- When Josiah Wedgwood died he was worth £600,000 (that’s around $100 million today!) He was the 24th richest man in Britain! Pretty impressive for a kid who started with very little!
- The Wedgwood family managed the firm for 136 years and remained extremely involved in the company until Wedgwood was acquired by Waterford Glass Group for $360 million dollars in 1986.
- The Story of Wedgwood by Alison Kelly (this is out of print, but there are used copies on Amazon. it’s a good resource for an overview of the brand)
- Wedgwood: The First Tycoon by Brian Dolan (this was my favorite! a well-written biography about Josiah Wedgwood)
- It’s not book, but the virtual tour of Etruria, Wedgwood’s factory, put together by the Wedgwood Museum is pretty fun!
translate a wedgwood motiff into a wall stencil!
When I was shopping the Chelsea fleamarket a few weekends ago (I was looking for forks!), I came across a Wedgwood blue Jasperware diamond-shaped pin dish priced at about $6. I snatched it up. The piece is from their card suit set (which originally included a club, a heart and a spade!) and is circa 1950s with laurel edging. I knew that the laurel edging would make a great stencil! (Full disclosure: I have never stenciled before! If you are a stencil expert, this would be a piece of cake for you. It took me a bit of time and a few phone calls to my stencil-expert mom, to figure out the best way to make it happen!)
-blown-up photocopy of image
-stencil adhesive (holds stencil up on the wall and will make your life easier!)
inspiration! Wedgwood Blue Jasperware Diamond Shape Pin Dish, circa 1950
- After trying a number of different methods, the easiest way to make my template was to print out the photograph of the object in black and white.
- Then I blew up that image on a photocopy machine. I only went as large as a 11×17″ piece of paper could handle!
- I outlined the pattern in black sharpie and simplified the design a bit.
- After attempting to cut the design out in plastic first, I realized that the paper was so much easier to cut. Since this was a one-time stencil, I decided just to use the paper!
- I stuck the stencil to the door with stencil adhesive and painted away!
It’s not perfect! But I dig it! Wedgwood on my door!