Archive for May, 2012

The Thing About Wedgwood

May 27, 2012

The thing is, it’s just a drag to be born into a famous family.  Carving out one’s identity can be daunting when the family franchise is known the world over.  For some the name thing is simply too big.

The Wedgwoods had been potters in the Stoke-on-Trent area of Staffordshire, England, for several generations.   In the late 18th century the family name became synonymous with precision, quality, and the reach for upper class finery.  A dynastic succession of sons and grandsons ruled the town and the world market.  Credit for success was liberally spread to wives and daughters, whose finger on the pulse of contemporary fashion trends truly was the ‘power behind the throne.’

Other family members were encouraged to join the band wagon.  Several did.  Some would be castigated for using their name to sell “infamous stuff, scandalously packed for shipment to America.”  Hijinx invariably ensued.

Ralph Wedgwood was a nephew of, well, you know who.  Ralph’s famous uncle would endearingly call him “Wedgwoodykins,” offering friendly advice like “everything gives way to experiment.” In 1788  Ralph took this advise to heart, much to the detriment of his own fortunes and to family relations.  He was caught stealing prototypes from Etruria, the Wedgwood factory, to supply his own mold business.  But, being family, he was still offered piece-meal work when orders were backed up.  And he could (almost) always count on financial support when money got scarce.

Incessant and fruitless experiments destroyed Ralph’s enterprise.  The pottery firm of Tomlinson and Foster happily offered him (and the use of his name) a 10 year contract.  Ralph’s penchant for experimenting rather than producing quickly soured the deal.  They paid him a large sum to negate the contract and leave.

Ralph Wedgwood spent the rest of his life hounded by poverty and the impossibility of his increasingly convoluted schemes.  Letters begging Etruria for help were answered with just enough cash to keep him from debtors prison.

He did manage to come up with a practical use for borax, which has since become an important low temperature flux.  But for all that, he had, in the words of his exasperated children, “quite left reason behind.”  Ralph Wedgwood died a pauper.

The mighty oak casts a dense shadow.
-Anonymous proverb

Readings

Pratt Ware, 1780 – 1840.  John and Griselda Lewis.  Antiques Collectors Club/Suffolk, England.  1984.

Staffordshire Pottery and Its History.  Josiah Wedgwood.  McBride Nast & Co./New York & London.  1913.

 

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I Should Have Been A Potter

May 13, 2012

As stoneware potters go, Absalom Stedman wasn’t the most colorful  (practically nothing is written about him), nor the most prolific (his pots never seem to have made it into pottery history books).  Absalom made salt-glazed, incised, cobalt decorated stoneware in New Haven, CT during the 1820s -30’s.  But he was capable enough to do some fine work, at Stedman Jugleast now and then.

The three gallon jug to the right is proof of that last comment.  Absalom threw this jug sometime between 1825-30.  Its steady and purposeful form speaks to a lifetime of confidently pursuing the potter’s craft.  The jug is a beautifully proportioned masterpiece of early American stoneware.

The jug is adorned with an incised eagle with shield and Masonic symbol, clutching an American flag and arrows in its talons.  The shielded eagle was a popular motif of the time.  But potters – and many others – hadn’t yet worked out the details of their young country’s icon.  Many eagle depictions were awkward and clumsy (then again, some potters just weren’t that good of draftsmen).  But this sprawling bird gracefully wraps itself around the jug’s shoulder, occupying the space in a most successful manner.

Such a jug would probably have sold for around 16 cents in the mid 1820’s.  Of course, the “dollar” was a different beast then.  It would be difficult to give a relative value of that price today.  Still, 16 cents was pretty cheap even by 1825 standards…

On May 5th, 2012, Absalom’s jug came up for auction by the antiques dealers Pook and Pook.  The winning bid: $402,900.00.  This was a world record for 19th century American stoneware.

Absalom Stedman, where are you now?

Readings:

Anglo-American Ceramics, Part 1.  Transfer Printed Creamware and Pearlware for the American Market, 1760-1860.  David and Linda Arman.  Oakland Press/Portsmouth, RI.  1998.

American Patriotic and Political China.  Marian Klamkin.  Scribner’s and Sons/New York.  1973.