Wedgwood in the nineteenth century

Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff

March 2009 | The Wedgwood ceramics manufactory, which celebrates its 250th anniversary this year and is one of the oldest potteries functioning today, has been the subject of numerous monographs, exhibition catalogues, journal articles, and even a novel.1 Yet most of these publications have dealt with the life of, or period of production dating to the lifetime of, company founder Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795). Indeed the eighteenth century is considered by most scholars and collectors to have been the heydey of factory production. Perhaps as a result, less attention has been given to the firm in the nineteenth century—its complicated history during this period and the range and variety of wares it produced. However, the years following the death of Josiah Wedgwood and continuing through the early twentieth century were surprisingly innovative for the companyas it sought to maintain or regain its status as the premiere English pottery manufacturer.2During this later period there was a renewed interest in the design and decoration of decorative arts objects in response to the declining quality of mass-produced wares. In ceramics, this was manifested in an enthusiasm for art pottery, those wares made in the spirit of one or more of the prevailing art movements of the time: arts and crafts, aesthetic movement, and art nouveau.3 Such wares were usually hand made and decorated to appeal to the artistic taste of the day. As a large industrial concern, Wedgwood is not generally considered a producer of true art pottery. Yet the period following the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1867 was extremely innovative for Wedgwood because the factory responded to new market forces interested in the craft pottery tradition by expanding its range of majolica, first produced during the early 1860s, and introducing a variety of art wares. In the spirit of Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), who had himself engaged in a variety of experiments in the late eighteenth century as he developed his own range of ornamental wares, during the late nineteenth century the factory solidified both its commitment to handcraft and its ability to carry on the Wedgwood tradition of innovation.

When Wedgwood died in 1795, the company was hard pressed to find a successor among his three surviving sons. The Napoleonic Wars had damaged trade with continental Europe and Britain’s relationship with the United States was in decline, reaching a disastrous conclusion with the War of 1812. In the face of such poor prospects, Wedgwood’s second son, Josiah II (1769–1843), who had inherited the factory from his father, wished he could withdraw from the family business. However, a sense of duty prevailed and he did his best to manage the company, keeping it marginally profitable until his retirement in 1841.

Despite his efforts, standards of production and design declined greatly during the first half of the nineteenth century, especially in the area of ornamental wares such as jasper and black basalt—Wedgwood staples since the Etruria factory opened in 1769 but whose popularity was waning. The neoclassical style, which had defined the Wedgwood and Bentley productiona of 1769 to 1780, had fallen out of favor as the new consumer class sought more ornate and colorful decorations.

The years following 1841 were characterized by a succession of partners and several changes in leadership at Wedgwood.4 In 1844 Etruria Hall, the family residence Josiah I built between 1768 and 1771 on the grounds of the factory, was sold.5 The Etruria factory was to be sold at the same time, but did not find a buyer. Instead it was retained by the family and continued to produce pottery based more or less on eighteenth-century prototypes. In 1859 Francis Wedgwood (1800–1888), the third son of Josiah II and now managing partner, took his eldest son Godfrey (1833–1905) into the partnership. Godfrey, who after 1876 ran the factory with his brothers Clement Francis (1840–1889) and Laurence (1844–1913), showed great interest in the family business and was especially concerned with the design of Wedgwood productions.6It had become painfully clear in the years following London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 that Wedgwood had failed to keep up with other potteries both in design and quality. To make matters right Godfrey, then acting as the factory’s art director, decided in 1860 to employ the French artist Émile Aubert Lessore to decorate pottery. Trained as an academic painter in Paris under Louis Hersent (1777–1860) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), Lessore had turned to the decoration of ceramics at the Laurin manufactory in Bourg-la-Reine during the late 1840s, eventually joining the Sèvres porcelain manufactory in 1852. In 1858 he moved to England, where he worked briefly at Minton before joining Wedgwood (see Fig. 1).

Factory management gave Lessore complete artistic freedom, allowing him to experiment with glazes, ceramic bodies, and a variety of techniques. A prolific artist, his reputation was firmly established at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, where Wedgwood had a large display of his wares. Lessore’s style was painterly—characterized by loose, visible brush-work—and not like anything ever before associated with ceramics decoration. Unlike traditional pottery painters forced to follow strict factory guidelines, Lessore was able to use the object’s body as a kind of canvas. He was also allowed by Wedg-wood to sign his pieces, unprecedented in the history of the factory. The catalogue of the London exhibition praised his work as “highly effective and veritable examples of pure Art—Pictures, painted by a true Artist on the material of the Potter.”7

Nonetheless, it was evident at the 1867 Exposition Universelle that Wedgwood still lagged behind its competitors Minton, Royal Worcester, and Doulton. And despite the positive reception Lessore’s works received during his tenure at Wedgwood, by the time of his death in 1876, demand for his pieces had also declined. In response, Wedgwood expanded its range of majolica and began creating an assortment of innovative hand-decorated art wares.

The factory had always had a line of brightly colored, lead-glazed earthenware and continued its production of monochrome glazes, such as the green developed by Josiah Wedgwood during his partnership with the potter Thomas Whieldon (1719–1795) from 1754 to 1759 and first used for the so-called cauliflower and pineapple creamwares. During the 1860s Wedgwood expanded its range of majolica to include multicolored ornamental wares in a variety of shapes and colors (see Fig. 7). The high quality of the ceramic body and the popularity of Wedgwood’s designs made majolica production at the factory extremely successful throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. In keeping with the factory’s tradition of skilled modeling, instructors and students from local design schools were hired to create large objects that were covered with bright majolica glazes. After 1878 the firm introduced a new line of majolica wares marketed under the name Argenta. These pieces featured a light ground color, often white, with modeled, naturalistic decoration—designed in response to the fashion for Japanese motifs and styles—highlighted with bright majolica glazes (see Fig. 4).

Wedgwood’s interest in meeting the popular demand for art pottery continued into the 1870s. Minton had responded to this call by establishing a separate art pottery studio in London’s South Kensington in 1871. Influenced by the success of its competitor, Wedgwood established a special studio at the factory to be staffed by professionally trained pottery painters working on the decoration of both useful and decorative wares. In late 1875 or early 1876 the artist Thomas Allen joined Wedgwood from Minton, originally as a supervisor, then as chief designer, and later as art director, a post he held until he retired in 1904. Allen was trained at the Stoke-on-Trent School of Design, and by the time he was hired by Wedgwood had already developed a reputation as an excellent painter. His designs were taken mostly from themes of popular literature or mythology, and his images of modestly draped nude figures appealed to Wedgwood’s Victorian clientele (see Fig. 6). His work was very well received by both critics and the public alike at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, his first major display for Wedgwood.

Under Allen’s influence, the range and quality of Wedgwood’s art wares grew considerably. He attracted a number of young artists to the factory and introduced a variety of new designs and decorative techniques, which contributed greatly to the overall improvement of Wedgwood wares. Most of Allen’s innovations were based on the tradition of fine hand-painting on pottery and were created with the needs and limitations of a large industrial concern in mind. For example, one technique originally introduced by Allen’s artists to Wedgwood was pâte sur pâte, a French term meaning “paste on paste,” which involves the successive application of layers of liquid clay, or slip, that could be carved and modeled to create a design in relief. About 1877 two of Minton’s pâte sur pâte decorators, Charles Toft (1831–1909) and Frederick Alfred Rhead (1856–1933), followed Allen to Wedgwood. But the pâte sur pâte technique is complex and labor intensive, so only small quantities were produced at the factory. However, Wedgwood developed a new type of ware called Victoria ware, which gave the impression of pâte sur pâte, but was actually produced using more traditional and less costly methods: a combination of enameling and applied molded ornament (see Fig. 2).

Other commercial art wares developed at the factory after about 1880 utilized both painted and printed decoration, as well as gilding and slip techniques. One of these, called Auro Basalt, involved the use of heavy tooled gilding on a black basalt body (see Fig. 3). Another similar line was Golconda, a type of elaborate raised gold and bronze paste decoration on bone china, introduced about 1885 by George Anthony Marsden (active 1860–1900). In 1880 Marsden had sold Wedgwood his patent for the “Improvement in the Manufacture of Coloured or Ornamental Tiles, Bricks and Other Like Articles,” which, through the creation of textured patterns in low relief using clay slip and stencils, gave industrially produced tiles the appearance of having been hand made.8

During the last decade of the nineteenth century the factory became increasingly influenced by French art nouveau, and a number of freelance designers were engaged to create designs in the new style. One of these was Courtney Lindsay, a young artist about whom little is known. Lindsay ware, which was introduced about 1901 and is rare today, is characterized by the distinctive shapes designed by the artist and is decorated with colorful printed floral and naturalistic patterns (see Fig. 8).

By the early twentieth century Wedgwood moved the design of its art wares from the Etruria factory to the London studio of Alfred H. Powell and his wife Louise, a granddaughter of Lessore, who together began to create designs for Wedgwood around 1903. Influenced by the arts and crafts movement, the couple introduced a number of naturalistic styles that were easily adapted to industrial production at the factory (see Fig. 5). The Powells held exhibitions of their work at their studio together with other arts and crafts artists, thereby promoting not only the ideals of the movement, but also their own Wedgwood wares. They visited the Wedgwood factory often to purchase blanks and to teach pottery painters working there how to paint their designs, as well as those adapted from Wedgwood’s eighteenth-century pattern books, freehand.

The relationship between the Powells and the Wedgwood company lasted until well after World War I (see Fig. 9). Their influence was far reaching and, like Lessore and Allen, they helped to revive the tradition of hand-painted pottery at the factory, which in turn contributed to the restoration of Wedgwood’s reputation in the twentieth century. The tradition of hand-decorated pottery was later continued at the factory by Susannah “Daisy” Makeig-Jones (1881–1945), who was responsible for Wedgwood’s Fairyland lusterware, introduced in November 1915; and Millicent Taplin (1902–1980), who was trained by Alfred Powell and went on to manage the hand-painting department at the factory into the 1950s.

Throughout its history, Wedgwood has built its success on its innovative spirit and commitment to handcraft, manifested during the nineteenth century in the creation of new designs and a revival of hand-painted wares. Despite a period of decline during the early part of the century, by the early twentieth century the factory was once again a leading producer of modern pottery.

1 Wolf Mankowitz, Make Me an Offer (E. P. Dutton, New York, 1953).
2 The Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama is home to one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Wedgwood pottery in the world, comprised of the Dwight and Lucille Beeson Wedgwood Collection and the Buten Wedgwood Collection, which together number some ten thousand pieces. 
3 See Victoria Bergesen, Encyclopaedia of British Art Pottery, 1870–1920, ed. Geoffrey A. Godden (Barrie and Jenkins, London, 1991), pp. 9–18. 
4 After Josiah II retired, his son Josiah III (1795–1880) assumed control, but he himself retired only a year later in 1842. Thereafter Francis Wedgwood was left in sole charge of the factory. In 1843 Francis entered into partnership with John Boyle (d. 1845).  From 1846 to 1859 he was in partnership with Robert Brown.
5 The Wedgwood family occupied Etruria Hall from 1771 to 1819, at which time it was leased to George Magnus, an employee at the factory. In 1828 Francis Wedgwood and his family moved back into the house, remaining there until it was sold. 
6 For a comprehensive discussion of the history of the Wedgwood company in the nineteenth century, see Robin Reilly, Wedgwood (Stockton Press, New York, 1989), vol. 2.  
7
Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the International Exhibition, 1862 (London, 1863), p. 6, quoted in Reilly, Wedgwood, vol. 2, p. 129. 
8 See Maureen Batkin, Wedgwood Ceramics 1846–1959: A New Appraisal (Richard Dennis, London, 1982), chap. 7.

ANNE FORSCHLER-TARRASCH is the Marguerite Jones Harbert and John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative Arts at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama.