My mother loved the colour blue, and was something of an expert on its various permutations. Royal blue, Prussian blue, baby blue and a mysterious shade called periwinkle — she could identify them all. But a unique tone of reverence was reserved for Wedgwood blue, the signature hue of the little milk jug on our mantelpiece.
For millions across the world, even those in such outer colonial reaches as Toronto, a Wedgwood porcelain box or figurine, displayed alongside a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, signalled good taste and middle-class respectability.
Josiah Wedgwood, “the father of English potters”, founded his company in 1759 in the Potteries heartland. He was a craftsman, a visionary and a master marketer. His endless experiments with clay and colour — recorded in secret code — and his mission to deliver artistic perfection on an industrial scale created what the historian AN Wilson has called a “Georgian superbrand”.
He was helped by the swelling ranks of the tea-drinking classes. After Queen Charlotte ordered a creamware tea service in 1765, aristocrats clamoured for one, followed by the new consumers of the “middling orders”, who caused traffic jams outside Wedgwood’s London shops.
Clients through the years included Catherine the Great, who commissioned a 952-piece “frog service” — each hand-painted with a British landscape and a green enamel frog — and heads of state from the Vatican to the White House.
Neoclassical fever, fuelled by the excavations at Pompeii in 1748, also played into Wedgwood’s hands. Its line of ornamental vases — such as the 50 copies made of the British Museum’s Portland vase — were just the sort of faux antiquity sought by those in its grip.
The company thrived for 260 years, adapting to changing times and collaborating with artists from William Blake to George Stubbs to Eric Ravilious. The earthenware vase pictured, designed by Keith Murray, was a response to the rise of Modernism in the 1930s.
As mass production took hold after the second world war, the pottery industry went into decline. The greatest name in porcelain lost some of its cachet and gained some twee commemorative mugs. The company went into administration in 2009, and in 2014 the Wedgwood Museum Trust’s collection of 80,000 pieces was donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Unlike other glories of British heritage, Wedgwood’s legacy is unsullied by the ties with slavery that have recently come to light. Josiah Wedgwood abhorred the sight of slaves at the port of Liverpool and became an abolitionist activist.
He created a ceramic medallion for the campaign depicting a kneeling black figure, manacled hands outstretched, with the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” It became a fashionable image, seen on the crockery and snuffboxes of the well-to-do — leading some to argue that it encouraged association with morally righteous abolitionists rather than solidarity with the enslaved.
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