Posts Tagged ‘Wedgwood’

The Hit Parade #9: The Portland Vase

March 1, 2015

428px-Portland_Vase_V&A I don’t particularly like this vase. I find the style tight and constricted.  But it belongs on any ceramic greatest hits list.

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…

Reading:

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.

Advertisements

Nothing Too Good For America

February 2, 2013

Those who say punctuation is everything really mean context is everything.  For example, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”  Or is it “Woman: Without her, man is nothing.”  Hmmm.

This game has been played for centuries.  Josiah Wedgwood once wrote in a letter to his partner Thomas Bentley “we can sell nothing too good to America.”

The American market had grown exponentially since independence.  English pottery firms amassed huge fortunes from the insatiable American cash cow.  And Wedgwood, with his “almost American love for the extension of business” was one of the first to the trough.

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so demanding, that his firm had to aspire to the heights of quality to stand out from the crowd.  Wedgwood learned how to create a buzz through years of marketing experience at home.  He pandered to American nouveau riche with high-end goods which the middle classes could only drool at.  Furthermore, there was enough money in America to sustain even these inflated price points.  How else could he survive in such a competitive market…

Of course when he made that comment he meant the American market was so huge, so profitable, that his firm could get away with selling anything scraped off the shop floor.  Wedgwood pioneered the concept of unloading merchandise whose sole virtue was a rock bottom price tag (“seconds”) to America.  Even these showed a tidy profit.  So why bother with sending anything better…

Of course.

Readings:
If These Pots Could Talk.  Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries.  John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

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

Flow Blue

August 19, 2012

History never repeats itself.  It just rhymes.  Example, the trajectory of blue and white pottery.  Arab attempts to duplicate Chinese porcelain resulted in tin glazed enamel earthenware.  When Arabs added cobalt blue decoration, Chinese porcelain was forever changed – all this thanks to Kublai Khan’s globalization zeal.  Enter the Europeans, hooked from the first anchor dropped in Macao harbor.  Their quest for easily reproducible porcelain (or white clay, anyway) eventually led to Wedgwood’s “Creamware.”  Then to whiter “Pearlware.”  Then to even whiter “Ironstone.”  (An abridged history, but there it is.)

Blue was the spice that fed this circular feeding frenzy.  What emerged was the ultimate in English blue and white transfer printed ironstone.  At it’s best the cobalt saturated transfer print ink made the designs barely distinguishable.  Intensity incarnate.  “Flow Blue.”

Was this just a happy accident?  Cobalt easily “bleeds” in the glaze melt if you’re not careful.  But the subject of blue and white’s addictive appeal fills entire libraries.  That appeal was in full swing long before Flow Blue appeared.  Additional ammonia and calcium in the ink made the blue really flow.  There was nothing accidental about it.  But Stoke-on-Trent potters who began this madness were happy that Flow Blue hid faults in decoration, glazing and firing.

Some Flow Blue was indistinguishable from regular transfer print ware, blue but hardly ‘flown’ at all.  Such variations merely exemplified how the period’s myriad decorative styles were driven by economics; mass production begat mass marketing which begat mass consumerism.  The result?  A fundamental change in how we approached the dinner table, how we took our tea.

Flow Blue has been called a “poor man’s china.”  But price lists of the time belie this notion.  Flow Blue was the most expensive transfer print pottery up to the 1850’s.  Flow Blue stood out from the crowd.  It spanned the arc of Queen Victoria’s rule, if not (entirely) epitomizing Victorian decorative values.  (Flow Blue: 1825 – 1910, Queen Victoria 1837 – 1901.)

Post script:

The other day I added to my meager “poor man’s” collection of early pottery with a set of cracked, chipped Flow Blue plates (Joseph Heath, “Tonquin” pattern, 1840-1850).  Super cheap because of the cracks.  But they are addictive.  I feel their presence without even looking at them.  They sit on my shelf, a throbbing reminder of a time when pottery defined an era.

Flow Blue Plate

Readings:
Flow Blue.  A Collector’s Guide to Patterns, History, and Values.  Jeffery Snyder.  Schiffer/Atglen PA.  2004.

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

 

A Nice Little Piece of Propaganda

November 7, 2010

The problem, as Josiah Wedgwood described it to his business partner Thomas Bentley in 1765, was this:

“This trade to our colonies we are apprehensive of losing in a few years, as they have set foot on some pottworks there already, and have at this time an agent amongst us hiring a number of our hands for establishing new a pottworks in South Carolina; having got one of our insolvent Master Potters there to conduct them.  They have every material there, equal if not superior to our own, for carrying on that manufacture; and as the necessaries of life, and consequently the price of labor amongst us are daily advancing, it is highly probable that more will follow them…”

Emigration was a thorn in the side of Wedgwood and the other English pottery moguls.  It was hard enough to keep local competitors at bay.  John Bartlem was lured away in 1765.  On October 4, 1770, Bartlem advertised in the South Carolina Gazette that he was about to open a “China manufactory and Pottery” near Charleston.  He urged other Staffordshire potters to join him.  Evidently some did.  The trickle to America eventually became a flood – due in large part to Wedgwood’s labor practices.  Something had to be done.  People had to know what they were really getting into.

So the response, as Wedgwood put it in his 1783 pamphlet entitled “To the Workmen in the Pottery on the subject of entering the service of Foreign Manufacturers,” was this:

“…This adventure being encouraged by the government of that province, the men, being puffed up with expectations of becoming gentlemen soon, wrote to their friends here what a fine way they were in and this encouraged others to follow them.  But change of climate and manner of living accompanied perhaps with a certain disorder of mind…carried them off so fast, that recruits could not be raised from England sufficient to supply the place of the dead men.”

In short, they “…fell sick as they came and all died quickly.”

Readings:
The Rise of the Staffordshire Potteries. John Thomas.  Augustus Kelly Publishers/New York.  1971.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States. Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

The Art of the Potter. Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977.

 

Potter to the King

March 14, 2010

No.  This isn’t about Josiah Wedgwood.  Although, if he were around today, he’d probably say it should be.  He was potter to a queen.  Still, Wedgwood might assert that his 1763 marketing coup of labeling himself potter to royalty was a first.  It made him rich.  And famous.  But the assertion would be wrong.  He wasn’t the first.

150 years earlier, German immigrant Christian Wilhelm called himself “Gallipotter to the King.”  A “gallipotter” made delftware.  Or faience.  Or maiolica.  Whatever you want to call it.  He called it, for reasons lost to time, “gallipots.”  The king to whom he was potter would a few years later also lose something.  His head.  He was Charles I.

At the time, the colorfully painted earthenware coming out of Holland was all the rage.  Charles, as any self-loving king would, liked to surround himself with finery.  And as far as European pottery went, Delftware was right up there.

The English were enthralled.  They sought out delftware potters and their knowledge.  In 1567, Antwerp potters Jaspar Andries and Jacob Janson were two of the first to be enticed  (as refugees with no choice?) to England.  They set up shop in Norfolk.  In 1571 they moved to London, near the future lodgings of William Shakespeare in Aldgate.  They probably chose Norfolk first because of it’s clay, the primary source for potters back in Delft throughout the 17th century.  It also didn’t hurt that practically all the tin used in Holland and Italy for this kind of work came from Cornwall.  The locals eagerly learned the trade.  Delftware potteries in London, Bristol and Lambeth would flourish – until Wedgwood came along.

There was an awkward spell during the Commonwealth era.  With ornamentation out of official favor, most delftware decoration was either subdued or non existent.  G.F. Garner, author of English Delftware, felt this to be a particularly delightful period in that the charming forms were allowed to exist on their own merits.  But some highly decorated items were still made.  Even chargers with images of Charles I.

Christian Wilhelm died in 1630, about 20 years before Charles lost his head.  Had Wilhelm lived maybe he, like so many others, would have knuckled under and produced plain Commonwealth delftware for a time.  Maybe he would have made some of those Charles I chargers that still found their way out the shop door.  And just maybe, had he come up with a more pleasant sounding name than “Gallipotter” to the King, he might have been as well known today as Josiah Wedgwood.

Readings:
English Delftware. GF Garner.  Van Nostrand Co., Inc./New York.  1948.

Dutch Pottery and Porcelain. W. Pitcairn Knowles.  Scribner’s/New York.  1940?

If These Pots Could Talk. Ivor Noël Hume.  University Press of New England/Hanover, NH.  2001.

Catawba Clay

February 1, 2010

As usual, the Cherokee got all the credit.  Since 1540, when swine flu carried by pigs of Hernan DeSoto’s expedition erased the entire Mississippian Mound Building culture in the blink of an eye, the Cherokee had dominated the Little Tennessee River Valley.  They were Britain’s top trading partner in the area (until after the French Indian War, when they became the colonists’ main target for expansion).  And when pottery history came knocking at the door in 1768, who got the glory?  The Cherokee.

Josiah Wedgwood had heard of a fabled pure white clay deep in the interior of North Carolina.  He contracted Thomas Griffiths to collect samples.  Griffiths traveled from Charleston, SC to Fort Prince George, NC, the furthest colonial outpost.  There, he was asked to escort home a Cherokee woman recently rescued from the clutches of a rival tribe.  Lucky for Griffiths, as the Cherokee soon captured him.  What were they to make of this lone white boy in the middle of a free fire zone claiming to be ‘just out looking for clay?’

The squaw saved Griffiths.  But those “Strainge Copper Collour’d Gentry” drove a hard bargain.  It took plenty of eating, drinking, smoking, and “Strong Talk” (and 500 pounds sterling) to get at the “unaker” clay pits.  Griffiths shipped out enough material for Wedgwood to create the exact clay body needed for his masterpiece, the Portland Vase, and to kick off his fabulously successful Queen’s WareBow Pottery also used this clay, still called “unaker” in Mitchell County, NC, to make England’s first true porcelain.

In the shadow of the Cherokee, the Catawba, a small neighboring tribe, existed for generations.  But the Catawba had one main distinction; their pottery.  Other tribes made pots.  The Catawba, specifically their women, were veritable ‘Pottery Indians.’  Pottery was their primary occupation.  Pottery held the tribe together.  And continues to do so.  Cherokee families with Catawba wives became pottery families as well.

Was it possible the Catawba had a hand (even a minor one) in Griffiths’ saga?  It’s clear Griffiths dealt with the proud, powerful Cherokee.  But Fort Prince George, the Little Tennessee River and Mitchell County roughly formed the border between Cherokee and Catawba lands.  Who would best know the value of the unaker clay pits?  A family married into the Catawba tradition might.  The historical record falls silent.

Any recognition the Catawba have garnered in recent years has been well deserved.  But if they did play a part in the creation of the Portland Vase, Queen’s Ware, and England’s first porcelain, I for one would like to see that acknowledged.

Readings:
Catawba Indian Pottery.  Thomas John Blumer.  University of Alabama Press/Tuscaloosa AL.  2004.

The Pottery and Porcelain of the United States.  Edwin Atlee Barber.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons/New York.  1909.

The Art of the Potter.  Diana and J. Garrison Stradling.  Main Street-Universe Books/New York.  1977).

Early New England Potters and Their Wares.  Lura Woodside Watkins.  Harvard Univ Press/Cambridge MA.  1968.

A New Face on the Countryside.  Indians, Colonists, and Slaves in South Atlantic Forests, 500-1800. Timothy Silver.  Cambridge University Press.  1990.