The opening of the new Etruria factory was celebrated on 13 June 1769 when Josiah Wedgwood threw six ‘First Day’s Vases’ with the help of his partner Thomas Bentley who turned the potters’ wheel. Shortly after, the six vases were delivered to Bentley’s decorating workshop in Chelsea, where Wedgwood warned ‘The six Etruscan Vases, three handled sent to you a fortnight since were those we threw & turn’d the first at Etruria and sho’d be finish’d as high as you please but not sold, they being the first fruits of Etruria’.1 Fanning the flames of a growing obsession with the classical world, Wedgwood was quick to take advantage of the commercial possibilities of producing wares in the fashionable ‘Antique’ style. The shape of the First Day’s Vase was copied directly from an ancient vase in the collection of Sir William Hamilton and the classical red-figure decoration was taken from a plate in the first Volume of Hamilton’s catalogue, depicting Hercules in the Garden of Hesperides. Only four of the vases survived the firing process and of these two are in the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent and a fourth is in a private collection. Excitingly, the present First Day’s Vase has passed through generations of the Wedgwood family and is now offered for sale from the collection of the granddaughter of Cecil Wedgwood. Each of the four surviving documentary vases proudly proclaim: Artes Etrurae Renascuntur, the Arts of Etruria are Reborn and they celebrate the beginning of one of the most important entrepreneurial and creative partnerships in the history of British art and manufacturing.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) is arguably the most revered of British potters. Coming from a large family of well-established potters in Staffordshire, he was the youngest child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood of the Churchyard pottery in Burslem. Although his upbringing was modest, he was well-connected to important figures in the pottery industry. This included his cousins Thomas and John Wedgwood of the Big House who were successful manufacturers of saltglaze stoneware. Following the death of his father, Josiah Wedgwood was apprenticed to his older brother Thomas where he was contracted ‘to learn…the said Art of Throwing and Handleing’.2 Throwing was acknowledged as one of the most esteemed of a potter’s skills and only those who were to become master potters were allowed apprenticeships to develop these coveted skills. Josiah Wedgwood proved an ambitious and successful young man, moving to take advantage of several new partnerships, the first at Cliff Bank near Stoke and the second with Thomas Whieldon at Fenton Vivian. It was with Whieldon, who was one of the leading potters in the region that Wedgwood began his celebrated ‘Experiment Book’ in which he recorded his scientific developments with glazes, clay slip and firing temperatures. These early experiments were key to his later commercial successes and the development of new types of pottery bodies and innovative decoration.
Josiah Wedgwood established his own manufactory, the Ivy House Works with his cousin Thomas in around 1759. Building on early successes, he moved shortly after this to the Brick House Works. During this time he continually carried out experiments to finesse his creamware body and lead glaze. It was with his creamware body that Wedgwood achieved wide acclaim and commercial success. Josiah was a great publicist of his own wares and during the 1760s he had a growing list of aristocratic patrons, all of whom sought his fashionable creamware. Wedgwood had also keenly courted the patronage of Queen Charlotte who had already commissioned a service from the Chelsea factory in 1762. He gave gifts of creamware (and possibly a ‘caudle service’) to the Queen which culminated in an important royal commission in the form of an elaborate creamware tea-service decorated with raised green flowers on a gilt ground. Following delivery of this service in 1766 Wedgwood became ‘Potter to Her Majesty’ and was permitted to call his creamware ‘Queen’s Ware’. Wedgwood was quick to market his new ‘royal’ creamware and his fame rapidly spread enabling him to develop a flourishing export trade.
The Wedgwood and Bentley Partnership (1768 -1780)
It was on a visit to Liverpool in 1762 (where he was probably going to see the printers Sadler and Green3) that Wedgwood had a chance meeting with Thomas Bentley. Following an attack of smallpox as an apprentice, Wedgwood had reoccurring problems with his right leg. During his trip to Liverpool, Wedgwood further damaged his right knee and was treated by the surgeon Matthew Turner who was a scholarly man of varied interests. Turner bought his friend Thomas Bentley (1730-80), a shipping agent for a Manchester merchant to meet Wedgwood. A deep and long-lasting friendship was to develop between the two men which is well-documented as many of the letters that Wedgwood wrote to Bentley survive. Writing his first letter to Bentley on 13 May 1762, Wedgwood’s warm regard for his new friend is evident ‘My much esteemed friend…there is not a day passes but I reflect with a pleasing gratitude upon the many kind offices I receiv’d in my confinement at your hospitable town. My good doctor and you in particular have my warmest gratitude for the share you both had in promoteing my recovery’.4
Thomas Bentley was a well-travelled and cultivated man who had taken the Grand Tour in 1753. He was a man of refined tastes who had considerable knowledge of classical and renaissance art. As a business partner Bentley offered Wedgwood not only essential commercial experience but also a deep understanding of changing tastes and market trends. In combination with Wedgwood’s inventiveness and deep technical understanding of the art of pottery, Bentley was able to help shape and guide the direction of production. Wedgwood wrote to Bentley ‘In the distribution of our employment between us the manufacturing has fallen to my lot and the sales to yours’. In reality the partnership was much more than a business arrangement and Wedgwood sought Bentley’s opinion on every subject, writing ‘I fancy I can do anything with your help, and have been so much used to it, that when you are not with me upon these occasions I seem to have lost my right arm.’5
Together Wedgwood and Bentley played an important part in the development and expansion of the Trent and Mersey Canal.6 Such public activities brought both partners into contact with an array of important future patrons. The success of the canal scheme allowed Wedgwood to expand his manufactory and he purchased a 350 acre estate through which the canal would pass. This new advantageous position meant that it was much easier and cheaper to transport raw materials into the factory and to transport finished wares out. The new purpose-built factory and the surrounding estate became known as Etruria, named after the ancient central state in Italy whose arts, most notably pottery, were being rediscovered in archaeological digs at the time. The opening of the Etruria factory was momentarily interrupted when Wedgwood’s knee problem worsened, becoming so severe that he required an amputation. He was later supplied with a wooden leg and under the care of his wife, Sarah, and with Bentley’s loyal companionship, his recovery was rapid.7
The production of the ‘First Day’s Vases’ at Etruria marked the beginning of the manufacturing of ‘ornamental’ wares by the Wedgwood and Bentley partnership which was formally agreed in 1769. The Etruria factory was also key to the later successful mass production of ‘Useful’ wares which were produced under the partnership between Josiah and his cousin Thomas. Josiah and his family were to reside on the estate in Etruria Hall and Bentley was given Bank House nearby. Bentley did not choose to reside in Staffordshire however, but preferred to take up residence in London where he could oversee the establishment of a London warehouse and showrooms in St. Martin’s Lane (near the cabinet makers Chippendale, and Vile and Cobb) and later at No. 12 Greek Street in Soho. Bentley also chose to live in the decorating workshop in Chelsea where he could supervise the artists. In London he could keep up to date with changing tastes and styles, manage orders and meet important customers, collect debts and deal with their ever expanding export trade.
Josiah Wedgwood was working in the pottery industry at a time of great change as a result of industrialisation. The purpose-built Etruria factory8 was equipped with the latest technology including a water-wheel (supplying power by water drawn from the canal) and eight ‘hovels’9 which contained ovens or kilns. There were wide gateways which were used for the delivery of clay and coal and the removal of waste. Wedgwood claimed to be the first to introduce an engine-turning lathe into the pottery industry in 1763. Following experiments and improvements to the design of the lathe, Wedgwood was able to exploit its potential for use on a ‘basaltes’ body. Wedgwood’s invention of the pyrometer, a thermometer which gave an accurate estimate of firing temperatures in a kiln further advanced ceramic production but it could also be used for other scientific purposes.10 Through continual experimentation and refinement of manufacturing processes Wedgwood was able to stream-line production to a consistently high standard at a relatively low cost in order to meet the huge demand for his fashionable ornamental wares.
Amongst Wedgwood’s wide circle of gifted friends were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. The society was established in 1765 with 14 members, all of whom met once a month (as close to a full moon as possible, which would enable a safe journey home) to attend discussions or practical demonstrations. Members included Erasmus Darwin, Wedgwood’s family doctor and poet, Matthew Boulton, the metalworker, ‘toymaker’ and silversmith, James Watt the engineer and inventor, Joseph Priestly a preacher and chemist, and John Whitehurst, horologist and maker of scientific instruments. Wedgwood would have benefitted greatly from discussions with such a creative and innovative group of individuals. He was at the forefront of new scientific developments during an age of enlightenment, discovery and enquiry.
Wedgwood and ‘The Antique’
Wedgwood’s fascination with the ‘Antique’ and rediscovery of the classical world was in part fuelled by the discoveries and excavations at Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1763. By the mid-18th century both Rome, and to a lesser extent Naples, had become essential destinations on the Grand Tour. Rome in particular became a place in which artists, collectors and intellectuals could meet and exchange ideas and admire new archaeological discoveries. Piranesi’s publications of views of Rome in the 1740s and Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of Diocletian at Spalato, published in 1764, were widely disseminated, which both popularised classical architecture and lead to a reappraisal of ancient civilisations.11 This obsession with the neo-classical was also a reaction against the extravagances of late Baroque and Rococo designs of the mid-18th century. The neo-classical was deemed elegant, academic and ‘pure’ and Wedgwood was quick to realise the commercial possibilities of this movement. His new stoneware was perfectly suited to the neo-classical ideals of restraint. Always with an eye on the commercial opportunities, many of the shapes of Wedgwood’s vases were based on classical forms, but they were often altered or exaggerated to appeal to his late 18th century cosmopolitan clientele.
It was not long before Wedgwood noticed that great queues of people had gathered outside his showrooms in London and ‘Vases was all the cry’. Wedgwood’s showrooms in Great Newport Street had become a fashionable meeting place where ‘a violent Vase Madness (was) breaking out’.12 Wedgwood creamware and basaltes were not confined to the mantlepieces of fashionable high society; they had become ‘a universal passion’. Wedgwood took advantage of this fashion when formulating plans for his new Etruria factory. In a letter to Bentley in 1766 he claimed that he wanted to make a great ‘Vase work’ which would ‘Surprise the World’.13 Wedgwood consulted Sir William Chambers in an attempt to establish the difference between ‘Urns & Vases’. He concluded that the characteristic of an urn should be ‘simplicity, to have covers but no handles, nor spouts…ornamental…either high or low, but sho’d not seem to be Vessels for culinary, or sacred uses.’ Whereas ‘Vases were such as might be used for libations & other sacrificial, festive & culinary uses, such as Ewers, open vessels &c’.14 This categorisation was important in the publication of future factory catalogues and his Ornamental Shapes Book.15
Sir William Hamilton was Ambassador to the court of Naples (1764-1800) and during his time in Italy he took a close interest in the excavations taking place at Herculaneum and Pompeii. He formed an important collection of ancient Greek and Italian vases which were sold to the British Museum in 1772. Between 1766 and 1769 a four volume publication by d’Hancarville of Sir William Hamilton’s collection of antique vases ‘Antiquitiés, Etrusques, Grecques et Romaines’ appeared at a time when interest in the classical world was at its height. The publication also helped to popularise the use of decorative garnitures of vases to adorn mantlepieces. Wedgwood had formed an important friendship with Hamilton, who advised him on matters of taste and design while also helping to promote Wedgwood’s pottery amongst royal and aristocratic circles. Wedgwood had access to early proofs of illustrations from Hamilton’s publication which were leant to him by Lord Cathcart16 and he was also presented with the first published volume of the catalogue.17 The red figure decoration on the First Day’s Vases were taken from a vase in Hamilton’s collection, the Meidias Hydra of circa 420-400 BC, which was subsequently sold with the majority of Hamilton’s collection of ancient vases to the British Museum.18 The figural decoration also appears on plate 129 in the first volume of Hamilton’s catalogue; the subject is titled Hercules in the garden of Hesperides19 and the three figures which appear on this particular version of the First Day’s Vase are Oineus, Demophon and Chrysis.20 The form of the vase was copied precisely from a vase which appears as part of an engraving in the preface to Volume I of Hamilton’s catalogue. Hamilton offered Wedgwood valuable advice on the design and interpretation of his antique vase collection, ‘Continue to be very attentive to the simplicity and elegance of the form, which is the chief article…You cannot consult the originals in the museum too often’.21
Wedgwood and Bentley also had a vast library of reference books of engravings, from which they copied a number of shapes and bas-reliefs. Amongst these were Jacques Stella’s Livre de Vases and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart’s Antiquities of Athens. Inspiration for vase shapes was drawn from a wide variety of sources including vases seen in London shops, or from the private collections of important patrons. This included Hamilton’s famed Barberini vase, which he sold to the Duchess of Portland, who in turn leant it to Wedgwood who produced celebrated copies of it. Wedgwood owed much to Hamilton for providing an extensive source of design inspiration for vase shapes, decoration and (later) for bas-relief ornament.22
By 1768 Wedgwood had vases of three different types in production: creamware, variegated ware and black ‘basaltes’. Whilst he had achieved great commercial success and market dominance with his production of creamware, interest in this was waning and new products were required to retain his patrons’ custom. Wedgwood was keen to replicate the look of ‘Egyptian black’ ware which was already in production at other Staffordshire potteries. In order to recreate this black stoneware body, Wedgwood carried out countless experiments on local clay impregnated with carr, an oxide derived from iron residue taken from the local coal mines. He found that he could create a ‘superior’ quality basaltes body by using magnesium to obtain a richer black colour together with west-country clay to give a finer texture. Great care was taken in the purification of the cleansing of the local carr. Wedgwood was so excited by this new fashionable basaltes stoneware that he chose to use it for the production of his First Day’s Vases, rather than use his tried and tested creamware body, as basaltes was perfectly suited for vases in the neo-classical taste. The first trials with black basaltes were probably carried out in July 1766 and in 1768 Wedgwood informed Bentley of the dispatch of twelve crates of wares including ‘a basket containing 2 Etruscan bronze Vases’.23 This is the first mention of the basaltes body as ‘Etruscan’ which may perhaps have been a misunderstanding by Wedgwood as the pottery which was being excavated in Italy was predominately not Etruscan but had been imported from Greece. Wedgwood had also seen illustrations of Etruscan bucchero nero from the 8th century BC which is a black pottery which is moulded or incised with ornament, and this may have inspired his use of the term. Either way, Wedgwood marketed all wares of this type as ‘Etruscan’. The black surface could be polished with leather and then finished to look like simulated bronze, or as in the case of the present vase, decorated with encaustic painting.
In 1769 Wedgwood took out a patent for both his new bronzing process and for his red-orange encaustic-style decoration. These processes were perfected to emulate the look of ancient bronze vessels and to recreate the Greek red-figure decoration which was seen on black-ground vases painted in Athens in circa 530-400 BC.24 On receiving the first of his encaustic vases which were returned from his London decorating workshop, Wedgwood proclaimed ‘I have seen the vases Encaustick & like them exceedingly’.25 The encaustic decoration on the present vase is most likely to be by the painter William Hopkins Craft, and not by David Rhodes of Leeds, as previously thought. Craft was one of the most skilled painters employed by Wedgwood in their London decorating workshop, and he worked mainly on encaustic decoration of basaltes vases. However, Craft demanded £200 a year, which Wedgwood considered ‘too extravagant to be lasting’26 and their working relationship ended in 1771 when Craft became an independent enameller.
The death of Thomas Bentley in 178027 was a major loss for Josiah and he proved irreplaceable. A year after Bentley’s death, Wedgwood decided to sell the stock and trade owned under their partnership at Christie’s & Ansell in Pall Mall. The eleven day sale which included 1200 lots caused great excitement and was a huge commercial success. As contemporaries within the art world, James Christie and Josiah Wedgwood would have been part of the same social circles. It seems fitting that we are offering this First Day’s Vase, which encapsulates the creative genius and entrepreneurialism of one of the most celebrated partnerships in British ceramic and industrial history, in 2016, the 250th anniversary of Christie’s. Testament to Wedgwood’s innovation is the epitaph on his monument in Stoke which was modelled by Flaxman: ‘He converted a rude and inconsiderable manufactory into an elegant and an important National Commerce.’
1. Correspondence between Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley is extensively documented in Robin Reilly’s seminal two volume publication, Wedgwood, see Vol. I, p. 437. The comment indicating that the First Day’s Vases were ‘three handled’ is in fact a reference to the finial and two handles. When the Etruria factory was eventually closed on 13 June 1950, 181 years after Wedgwood and Bentley had thrown their six ‘First Day’s Vases’, six ‘Last Day’s Vases’ were made to commemorate the closure.
2. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 26.
3. Wedgwood was at the forefront of new technological developments in transfer-printing on pottery and porcelain. Guy Green and John Sadler ran a transfer printing business in Liverpool where they had an arrangement with Wedgwood whereby he had a monopoly on the use of their transfer prints. Wedgwood sold Sadler and Green his creamware and in turn they decorated the creamware with suitable transfer prints and then sold it back to Wedgwood from their Liverpool warehouse.
4. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 47.
5. See Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 102.
6. Wedgwood, with the help of his friend Erasmus Darwin produced a pamphlet to popularise the proposed canal project.
7. See Alison Kelly, The Story of Wedgwood, London, 1975, p. 27.
8. Wedgwood also considered the welfare of his workers key to a successful manufactory and he provided housing for many of his staff on the grounds of the Etruria estate and even subsidised a ‘sick club’.
9. A ‘hovel’ is the common term for a bottle kiln. Wedgwood’s initial sketch of the ground-plan of the Etruria factory included eight hovels which he drew in elaborate and amusing shapes including: a beehive, a castellated sheep keep and a milk churn. The Etruria hovels were eventually built in the conventional bottle shape.
10. Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Royal Society following his research and development of the pyrometer on 16 January 1783.
11. Wedgwood was a great admirer of Robert Adam and wrote to Bentley on 7th September 1771 ‘Adam is a Man of Genius & invention & an excellent Architect & Mr. Truman assured me that he knew Mr. Adam’s [sic] kept modellers at Rome employed in copying Bas-reliefs and other things for them a connection with them would be of great use to us’. See Diana Edwards, Black Basalt, Wedgwood and Contemporary Manufacturers, Suffolk, 1994, p. 39.
12. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 439.
13. Robin Reilly ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 68.
14. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 69.
15. The First Day’s Vases are shape No. 49 in Wedgwood’s Ornamental Shapes Book.
16. Lord Cathcart was Ambassador to Russia and instrumental in promoting Wedgwood’s pottery to Catherine the Great. This resulted in two important orders for Wedgwood creamware: the Husk Service (1770) and the Frog Service (1773).
17. Wedgwood & Bentley also looked to other sources for inspiration for their red-figure encaustic wares which included Recueil d’antiquités, Egyptiennes, Etrusques, Grecques, Romaines et Gauloises by Anne-Claude-Philippe, comte de Caylus, which was published in seven volumes in Paris between 1752-1767.
18. See the British Museum, accession no. 1772,0320.30.
19. This was a popular subject and appears frequently on ancient Attic red-figured vases. Herakles’s 11th Labour is depicted, in which he is commanded by Eurystheus to steal golden apples belonging to Zeus which had been given to Hera at her wedding and entrusted to the care of the Hesperides (the daughters of Atlas) in the Garden of Hesperides. Herakles persuaded Atlas to fetch the apples for him and in return he shouldered the heavens in place of Atlas.
20. One of the First Day’s Vases which are in the Wedgwood Museum is decorated with the opposing three figures Hippothon, Antichus and Clymenos taken from the left side of plate 129 from the first volume of William Hamilton’s catalogue.
21. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, pp. 82-83
22. In return for Hamilton’s help, Wedgwood reproduced in black basaltes, white terracotta stoneware and jasperware a portrait medallion of Hamilton of circa 1772.
23. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I p. 397.
24. The ancient technique of red-figure decoration involved drawing an outline of a figure (for example) in black on the red body of the vase, the entire body was painted in black slip. Details could then be picked out in black and touched-in with slip which was diluted to a pale brown. The pigment that Wedgwood’s used was his own invention and was part slip and part enamel.
25. Robin Reilly, ibid., London, 1989, Vol. I, p. 71.
26. Robin Reilly, Wedgwood, the New Illustrated Dictionary, London, 1995, p. 121.
27. Epitaphs to the memory of Thomas Bentley were composed by Erasmus Darwin and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart amongst others.