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Antiques: A perfect marriage of art and industry.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

The NEC Antiques for Everyone Fairs, there is one due at the end of November, have always had a reputation for excellent exhibitions which reflect different aspects of antique collecting.

But the November fair this year will carry an exhibition of Wedgwood porcelain along with the famous blue and white jasper ware which is readily available today at prestigious retailers and seems to be one of the few things which has never lost its appeal since Wedgwood began in the 18th century.

But everything always depended on the artists who brought to Wedgwood impeccable talent from its foundations right up through the 1940s to the present day - a design history of total excellence if you like, and spanning 244 years.

Josiah Wedgwood's aim was always to 'make artists of mere men,' a sentiment enshrined in the talented personnel he surrounded himself with at Etruria, the factory he opened in June 1769.

The blue and white jasper ware we buy today (a purchase which can cost several hundreds of pounds if you head for the top of the market) was only developed after four years of ceaseless trials at a time when technology - as far as ceramics was concerned - was in its infancy.

But the long delays proved worth it. The finest artists of the day were excited by Wedgwood's vision seeing the work as a perfect marriage of art and industry which fitted in nicely with the philosophies of the late-18th century.

Designs for the marvellous bowls, teapots, jelly moulds, garnitures, for the chimney piece, and so on, were in white bas-relief and set upon green or blue jasper ware looked back to the classical period which in Wedgwood's day was revealing itself in Rome, as archaeologists uncovered the past.

Gods and goddesses, the Muses or dancing figures processed in a stately manner around the curves of Wedgwood ceramics and the use of these beautiful white mouldings on blue and green was glorious.

John Flaxman was among the many design geniuses employed by Wedgwood at Etruria, and it is to Flaxman that we are indebted today for the beautiful serenity of the figures which grace many a Wedgwood bowl or vase.

Young Flaxman was no stranger to Wedgwood, since his father supplied plaster models to the factory from his London-based shop. It is to the younger Flaxman that we are indebted for the loveliest and most enduring designs which we still respond to today.

These include The Dancing Hours as well as an unusual set of chess pieces based upon contemporary theatrical figures. This is something I have heard of but never actually seen.

The jasper ware items modelled by Flaxman, George Stubbs (the painter of horses) and others were made on a large scale and travelled quickly to European trade centres. In fact, you may even find early Wedgwood today in Poland, Germany, Italy or France, such was the demand from other countries for what they saw as the finest things of their time.

Of an early order, Wedgwood noted in a letter: 'I have just now executed an order, by the direction of a merchant in Manchester, for an assortment of my jasper ornaments with blue grounds and white figures which he tells me are destined for the King of Naples.'

Wedgwood laments that he could not send to the King a certain vase, which he then presented to the British Museum, who were delighted to receive something that might have been lost to Italy forever.

It was, of course, the famous Portland Vase to which Wedgwood was referring, and which represented his finest achievement in jasper ware, since recognised as the perfect synthesis of Wedgwood's genius with the limitations of the 18th century and all it could offer.

The fine jasper-ware portrait medallions of the famous and the well connected are eagerly sought after today by ceramics collectors and are scattered throughout the world bringing high prices wherever they turn up which can be anywhere from New Zealand to a sale room in the Orkneys.

But decorated creamware has also held its value over the years - even more so today, as rare Wedgwood pieces seem to have faded from the market. The greatest of Wedgwood's achievements in this field was the celebrated Imperial Russian Service he made and decorated for Catherine the Great - the Empress of Russia.

Undecorated, the dinner service with its endless plates, tureens, sauce boats and so on would have cost a purchaser (at the time) pounds 51.8s.4d. When it was finally decorated with magnificent scenes of English country houses the service finally cost the Empress pounds 3,500 - a colossal sum for the time of which the cost to Wedgwood was pounds 3000.

Wedgwood's letters which surround and extend our knowledge of the plans for this amazing service and its final completion, reveal a man who was required to be a diplomat as well as the factory owner at Etruria.

But the service in all its magnificence established Wedgwood creamware at the highest social level.

Initially he writes to his business associate in Birmingham, Matthew Boulton, of his hopes that the English Ambassador at the Russian Court will be able to introduce a Wedgwood Ceramics to Russian notables. A plate 'with gold burnished in,' was shown to the Ambassadors wife and was an example of Wedgwood's quality work. Then, Josiah speaks to Boulton of other concerns, notably of the possibility of displaying Wedgwood samples at special presentations to be given at other royal courts in 'Germany or Europe.'

Finally, the British Consul in St. Petersburg, was commissioned to instruct Wedgwood to proceed with the service for Catherine the Great. Each piece carried an English view or landmark of interest and a green frog was used as the crest for each piece since the service would eventually be used by the empress in her palace of 'La Grenouillere (or 'the froggery').

Completed in 1775 the service consisted finally of 952 separate items and it is today almost impossible to get your head around the fact that these fragile things would have travelled by carriage, cart or boat to Russia wrapped in straw.

The finest items were three ice pails designed by Wedgwood himself. He called them 'glaciers' and, surmounted by a trio of Graces they eventually contained creams and jellies. Interestingly enough, a few years ago Wedgwood brought out a series of reproductions of the Frog Service. Whether these things are still available today is something I cannot answer but the example I borrowed to examine for this column shows a 'View of a Pavilion in Lord Hardwick's Park, Wimple'. The little green frog still sits on the crest of the plate just as Catherine the Great originally ordered and happily it cost my friend pounds 10 only from a junk shop. She is still looking for the other five.

The 19th century brought changes in art and artists. Walter Crane (1845-1915) was among them as was the great Emile Lessore, whose work will be displayed at the NEC fair in November.

Later came Daisy Makeig Jones and 'Fairyland lustre,' still a favourite today in the sale rooms where with its goblins, fairies and magic scenes of spiders webs in fairy woods continues, with its jewel-like colours to command high prices.

The Art of Wedgwood Celebrated will be at the NEC autumn Antiques For Everyone Fair from Thursday November 27 - 30.

CAPTION(S):

Josiah Wedgwood; A Wedgwood domestic employment teapot; A 5ft Lessore vase
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 8, 2003
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