Aileen Dawson, curator, British Museum
News about the Art Fund’s successful public appeal to save the collections of the Wedgwood Museum is very welcome here at the British Museum. The extensive and fascinating ceramic collection and comprehensive factory archives cared for at Barlaston are undoubtedly of national importance. The British Museum’s connection to Wedgwood stretches right back to the 18th century and, like other museums with collections of these distinctively British wares, we rely on the well-kept factory records to interpret our material.
When I joined the British Museum, my first project concerned our extensive collection of Wedgwood jasper portrait medallions and plaques, including the large-format portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, one of my heroes, who in his youth accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage. Studying the rest of the Museum’s Wedgwood collection led to a book, Masterpieces of Wedgwood (1984, reprinted 1995). This would have been impossible without the Wedgwood Museum and the superb archive of documents. These alone are a vast treasure house of information on the firm, and deserve to be used by all kinds of historians.
I enjoyed discovering how Josiah Wedgwood established his business from 1759, and how Thomas Bentley inspired his interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome. In the centre of our Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) you can see many of the Greek and Roman vases sent back to England from Naples by Sir William Hamilton. It is well known that Josiah Wedgwood used the beautifully illustrated publications of these pieces as a source of patterns for the highly fashionable decorative and table wares so typical of the Regency period. The Wedgwood Museum archives reveal that Josiah and his partner Thomas Bentley also went to great lengths to achieve authentic reproductions of the originals. In November 1769 permission was sought take drawings and impressions of the shapes and decoration of the ‘Roman and Etruscan Earthen Ware’ in the British Museum. The Trustees agreed that ‘such Vases or other Monuments as they may want’ should be brought to the reading room for them. This is the earliest recorded moment when Wedgwood was in contact with the British Museum, then only sixteen years old. It was the beginning of a long relationship.
While researching the British Museum’s Wedgwood copy of the famous Portland Vase at Barlaston, I was able to piece together the strange story of how, in the years leading up to 1790, Josiah copied the famous Roman cameo glass vase in the completely different material. The Wedgwood Museum has many trial versions of the vase showing the endless problems that challenged the production of the superb jasper ware reproduction.
We also have a blue version the vase presented by Josiah’s son John in 1802. It is on display in the gallery Europe 1800–1900 (Room 47), where it looks perfect, but closer scrutiny shows that it has a ‘dint’ or slight indentation, which might have meant it could not be sold, after many hours of work and several firings. Because so few blue jasper versions were made, it is particularly rare and precious.
Wedgwood’s endless invention and his use of artists such as John Flaxman Jr has been a source of fascination to me. In 1786, Josiah generously gave a copy of his Pegasus Vase to the British Museum. It is a stunning conception. This famous vase has only left Bloomsbury once, in 1979, when it was in an exhibition devoted to Flaxman at the Royal Academy, which also travelled to Copenhagen. Accompanying this fragile and precious vase in a lorry overnight from Harwich to Esjberg was an unforgettable journey.
When I was invited in 2011 to speak in Sydney at a celebratory Wedgwood Society of New South Wales conference, I travelled to Barlaston to see the new Wedgwood Museum to take news of it to the other side of the world. I thought it one of the best new museums I had ever visited, and have recommended it ever since. I am so delighted that its marvellous collection, which reveals so much about the Industrial Revolution, as well as 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century British tastes and material culture, has found the support it needs to be enjoyed by future generations.
The Wedgwood Museum is in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent.
Other museums with significant Wedgwood collections: