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.2
During 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.6