So, farewell then wonderful Wedgwood (at least in the form we know it today). You will be sorely missed … Last week, and with virtually the same words, this column mourned the passing of Woolworths. Now another great institution is on the ropes.
Venture capitalists circle over the Barlaston works, enticed by Receivers who will be the only winners in the game, while a talented workforce of Staffordshire potters nervously awaits its fate.
Founded by the great Josiah in 1759, Wedgwood once produced wares that everyone wanted to buy from Catherine the Great to people like my parents who just wanted a smart Sunday best teaset. Not any more it seems.
The youngest of 12 children, Josiah was born at his parents’ pottery in Burslem. He started school at the age of six, but was forced to leave on his father’s death at nine.
He then worked then for five years as apprentice in the family pot bank, but was then
struck down by smallpox. It was a cruel blow which affected his legs – his right one had to be amputated – making him unable to operate a potter’s wheel.
Cast adrift by his family – his eldest brother refused to take him into partnership – he worked for two years for another potter before he met and, in 1754, entered into partnership with one of the most eminent potters of the day, Thomas Whieldon.
Robbed of a career as a potter, Wedgwood concentrated on developing new ceramic bodies and glazes and by the time the Whieldon partnership expired in 1759, Wedgwood had invented several new products. He started his own business back in Burslem and began to prosper.
In 1762, he met Thomas Bentley, a successful Liverpool merchant with a wide and cultivated taste who had the right social contacts and a knowledge of the arts that gave him an eye for design.
Wedgwood was quick to recognise the inspiration that Bentley offered and the two formed a partnership that lasted from 1768 until Bentley’s death in 1780.
It was at this time that collectors became interested in the classical antiquities being discovered in Etruscan tombs and Wedgwood and Bentley produced copies, including their so-called Etruscan vases.
When they opened their new works in 1769, they called it Etruria after the district in central Italy where the ancient Etruscans had lived.
A pioneer of the Industrial Revolution and the canal system – he wanted a cheap and reliable means to transport his wares to Liverpool – a scientist, engineer, entrepreneur businessman, anti-slavery campaigner, aesthete and radical, Josiah is regarded as the father of English potters.
Wedgwood became a public company in 1967 (some say that’s when the decline started) and it was taken over 19 years later by Warterford Glass. What happens next is anyone’s guess but what remains a constant is the raft of highly collectable pottery.
Early pieces of Wedgwood and Bentley black basaltes busts and vases still turn up at auction, while the Fairyland Lustre designed by Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881-1945) is highly sought after.
Interestingly Daisy’s innovative designs helped the company revive its reputation in the harsh years of the first quarter of the 20th century, as did the work of such distinguished artists as Keith Murray (1892-1981), John Skeaping (1901-1980), Eric Ravilious (1903-1942) and Arnold Machin (1911-1999).
Another constant, where all of the company’s rarest treasures can be seen, is the futuristic new £10.5 million Wedgwood Museum which opened last October.
Built after eight years of international fund-raising and supported by a £5.9 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, the museum is a registered charitable trust and thankfully entirely independent from the company.
Situated at the Wedgwood factory site at Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent (the company moved there in 1939) the museum exhibits include everything from Josiah’s experimental trials, designs and products from throughout the 18th century to the present day totalling about 6,000 artefacts, some never seen by the public before.
A collection of 75,000 original manuscripts detailing everything from international trade, social history, the anti-slavery campaign and the building of Britain’s canal system , and 10,000 experimental pieces from the Wedgwood archives are also available for examination, while important original paintings by artists Joshua Reynolds and George Stubbs portray Josiah and his family.
A unique interactive "magic carpet ride" takes visitors on an aerial tour around Wedgwood’s original Etruria factory, now demolished, and specially built bottle ovens house display areas of 18th century wares.
The museum is open from 9am to 5pm (10am at weekends) and admission costs £6 (concession £5) or in groups £5 (concession £4.50). For further information, go to www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk or telephone 01782 371900.
Pictures show, from top: A portrait of Josiah Wedgwood I (1730-95) in enamels on a Wedgwood ceramic plaque made in 1780
The Portland Vase a Black Jasper copy of the famous Roman cameo glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland. It took Josiah over three years of experiments and trials before the first perfect copy was made in October 1789. They are considered amongst the greatest technical achievements of the potter’s art
The Apotheosis of Homer vase in Blue Jasper, the bas relief design by John Flaxman Junior. Josiah Wedgwood declared this to be, ‘The finest and most perfect I have ever made’, c.1786.
Left: Fairyland lustre was the name given by Daisy Makeig-Jones to her range of designs based on exotic fairy stories where vivacious imps and fairies are seen in mystical landscapes. The ware was made by Wedgwood from 1915 until 1931, though after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, demand declined dramatically. This bowl dates from about 1920.
Pictures courtesy of the Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-on-Trent.