Friday, 3 October 2014

WEDGWOOD SAVED: 12: Forces acting in Harmony

Stop Press - Wedgwood Collection Saved

"Fire is an awe-inspiring, unaccountable element, and it is good that this wild partner should at times assert his share in the potter's work.  But then the human contribution, the shape and ornament of the pot, must be correspondingly robust.  When the two forces act in harmony, … the resulting wares have a power to stir the imagination…"
Style in Pottery  Arthur Lane (of the Victoria and Albert Museum) 1948

A view inside the kiln - at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, Longton, Staffordshire
© All rights reserved, photographer Graham Davies

For centuries potters had to judge the firing of their kilns by experience, and rule of thumb; results could be badly affected by changing wind direction and quality of fuels. Wedgwood  had no proper instrument for measuring kiln temperature when he was firing his thousands of jasper samples; he would mark each sample according to its place in the kiln - TBO for 'top of biscuit oven', TTBO for 'tip-top', etc.

His friends and colleagues in the Lunar Society were searching for ways to standardize scientific measurements and Wedgwood was experimenting with a thermometer to withstand the high temperatures of the kilns.  From his first attempts which measured kiln heat by colour changes in the fired clay, he developed (helped by chemist Alexander Chisholm) his Pyrometer, which measured kiln heat by shrinkage of clay at particular temperatures.  For this invention he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1783.

Wedgwood's far-reaching associations with other entrepreneurs and scientists are fascinatingly portrayed in The Lunar Society by Jenny Uglow,  who based much of her research on contemporary correspondence in the Wedgwood Collection archives, which public donations have kept in its  UK home for the public, both British and overseas visitors. See

Saving Wedgwood 11: The Dancing Hours

Sir William Hamilton,  British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples, is popularly better known for losing his wife Emma, Lady Hamilton, to Admiral Nelson.  Fewer people know that he was also a pioneering vulcanologist, observing close-up and recording eruptions of Vesuvius, and an avid collector of classical antiquities, particularly vases and cameos, many newly excavated.  It was from his collection and particularly the illustrated engravings in Baron D'Harcanville's catalogue (The Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon'ble Williiam Hamilton)  that Wedgwood drew inspiration for his finest vases. " Good models give birth to ideas by exciting the imagination."

Sir William Hamilton, blue jasper portrait medallion,  c. 1772
© Victoria & Albert Museum

Wedgwood jasper vase, with relief of The Dancing Hours modelled by John Flaxman junior, c.1788
  © Fitzwilliam Museum


The son of a plaster modeller, the sculptor John Flaxman junior began designing for Wedgwood in 1775,  and helped create some of Wedgwood's finest pieces, including the Pegasus Vase; the Dancing Hours relief remains one of his most popular designs.  

He drew Wedgwood's attention to the famous antique  Portland Vase when it first came to England: "I wish you may soon come down to see William Hamilton's Vase, …. it is the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring to bring your bisque and jasper."  

for Sir William Hamilton's career see Fields of Fire, David Constantine
and to stop the Wedgwood Collection dancing away: