Volumes have been written about Josiah Wedgwood’s Portland Vase, c. 1790. Essentially, it’s 9½” tall with white sprigging on a black “basalt” body (one of Wedgwood’s many nomenclature shenanigans). It’s a replica, in ceramic, of a Roman cameo glass vase made around 1AD. Many have hailed it as a defining Masterpiece for both Wedgwood and England’s Industrial Revolution.
Josiah Wedgwood made his name with the Portland Vase. But he made his fortunes with his ensuing “Queen’s Ware” line. That was only possible because of the technical know-how he amassed previous to making the Vase.
Wedgwood made the Portland Vase knowing nothing about ceramic chemistry beyond personal observations. (Geology wasn’t even a recognized science for another 20 years.) And some of his materials came from across an ocean, and in areas owned by people at war with Europeans. And there were practically no maps or roads in those regions. And the Vase’s imagery (as on the original cameo glass) was one long continuous sprig. And that one long continuous sprig didn’t smudged upon application (look at it close up). And the sprig didn’t deform or crack. And it stayed on during drying and firing. And the entire process was made to be repeated. And these processes coalesced a nascent ceramics supply business into being (where would we be without that?). And his efforts helped coin an entirely new meaning for the word “industry.”
Many potters see Wedgwood’s industrializing efforts, with their logical conclusion being today’s cheap imported stuff available at any WalMart or shopping mall, as the bane of hand made pottery.
Perhaps. But there’s a flip side. Almost overnight, a wide swath of the working class could now afford refined ceramics. It was purely a marketing ploy, for sure. But before this moment, anything terribly fancy was out of reach for most people. Now the masses could aspire to have fine art in their own homes.
Very few objects carry the wallop that this vase does.
If you doubt that last statement, try doing something like the Portland Vase yourself some time – preferably before you make your own list of ceramic greatest hits…
Staffordshire Pottery and Its History. Josiah Wedgwood. McBride Nast & Co./New York & London. 1913.
The Map That Changed The World. Simon Winchester. Harper Perennial/London. 2009.