Wedgwood in the nineteenth century

It 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.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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