250 years of history
1 chance to keep it together
250 years of history • 80,000 objects • 1 chance to keep it together
The Art Fund's head of programmes, Sarah Philp, traces the story of the Wedgwood Collection – a unique trove of wonders.
George Stubbs, Wedgwood Family Portrait, 1780
© Wedgwood Museum Trust
‘One of the most complete ceramic manufacturing archives in existence – unparalleled in its diversity and breadth, embracing every imaginable subject from pots to people, transport to trade, society and social conditions.’
The origins of the Wedgwood Collection can be traced back to the company's founder, Josiah Wedgwood I, who proposed creating a collection for posterity in a letter to his business partner, Thomas Bentley, in 1774. 'I have often wish'd,' he wrote, 'I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this because I did not begin it 10 years sooner. I am now, from thinking and talking a little more upon this subject … resolv'd to make a beginning.'
And so the Collection began to be formed, though it was not until 1906 that Josiah Wedgwood & Sons established a permanent museum following the discovery of a cache of early trials and experimental pieces in a storeroom. Just over a century on, the Collection embraces more than 80,000 historical pieces, ranging from early experiments for new bodies and glazes through to modern production as well as rare manuscripts and letters, pattern books, works of art and photographs, covering the 250-year history not only of the pottery produced, but of contemporary politics, society, science and art.
It also tells the story of an extraordinary family of industrialists and their staff, through employment and photographic records of every factory worker in 1898, as well as letters detailing Josiah I's ideas regarding worker housing and factory discipline. His scientific papers have been preserved too, along with objects such as the pyrometer (a type of thermometer) and the rose engine-turning lathe, which was introduced into the Staffordshire pottery industry by Wedgwood in 1763 and is still used in modern manufacturing.
Peter Blake, bone china plate, commissioned by the Art Fund, 1989
© Art Fund, photo: Phil Sayer
Developments in taste and fashion can be traced over three centuries; not only through the ceramics in the Collection and in the documentation of the manufacturing processes for the iconic black basalt, cream-coloured Queen's Ware and blue-and-white Jasperware of the 18th century – but also through the company's engagement of high-calibre artists, from George Stubbs and John Flaxman to Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter Blake and Patrick Heron. Among the most valuable items are the family portraits painted by Stubbs. Josiah I and his wife, Sarah, were also painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds during his tenure as president of the Royal Academy, and subsequent generations of the family sat for George Romney and John Singer Sargent.
Documentation of Josiah I's involvement in campaigning for turnpike (or toll) roads and the development of the Grand Trunk (the Trent and Mersey canal) sheds light on the history of the industry and commerce in the West Midlands, as do his extensive writings on the revolutions in America and France. Wedgwood is one of Britain's best-known manufacturing names, and this exceptional archive represents not just priceless evidence of its contribution and response to a world of commercial innovation, scientific discovery, intellectual enlightenment, turbulent social history and global politics, but forms one of the world's most significant 'factory collections'. Indeed, Unesco has called it 'one of the most complete ceramic manufacturing archives in existence. Unparalleled in its diversity and breadth, [embracing] every imaginable subject from pots to people, transport to trade, society and social conditions.'
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