AUSTRALIA, FIRST FLEET, 1788
Josiah WEDGWOOD (1730-1795). The Sydney Cove medallion.
Clay medallion, brownish-black, 5.7cm. diameter, the obverse: modelled by Henry Webber, depicting Hope attended by Peace, Art and Labour, inscribed 'Etruria 1789'. and on the reverse: 'Made by Josiah Wedgwood of clay from Sydney Cove' (two cracks carefully restored, small chip at extreme edge of the reverse restored.) In a fitted felt case, within a crimson morocco box.
VERY RARE: only one other copy has appeared on the market in recent years (purchased by the British Museum). Ten copies are at present recorded: three in the Mitchell Library, Sydney; three in British institutional collections; one in an American institution; and three (including the present example) in private hands. The medallion represents what is probably the first work of art relating to the colony and certainly the first export of raw materials.
The first fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, dropped anchor at Sydney Cove on January 26th, 1788. Captain Philip had been instructed to set up a penal colony, and was to be its first governor. The early living quarters were constructed using the local clay. One of the naturalists ('Abbé Mongez') on La Pérouse's expedition bought the clay to Governor Phillip's attention and pointed out that it appeared to be china- or pipe-clay, and as such useful for pottery. Phillip, with a covering letter (November 16, 1788) sent a small quantity of "the white clay with which the natives mark themselves" back to Sir Joseph Banks, aboard the Fishburn. Sir Joseph received the shipment in May 1789. Josiah Wedgwood was a friend of his and he forwarded the clay to him, for testing.
Wedgwood decided on the issue of a commorative medallion, and later reported to Sir Joseph Banks that he found the clay to be "an excellent material for pottery, and may certainly be made the basis of a valuable manufacture for our infant colony" (12th March 1790). The medallions appear to have been produced in two distinct colours: pale biscuit and brown/black (as the present example). Wedgwood presented a number to friends, and a batch were sent back to Australia on the second fleet in January 1790 aboard the third fleet vessel HMS Gorgon, under the command of Captain John Parker. Henry Webber coincidentally was the younger brother of John Webber, who accompanied Cook on his fateful third voyage (1776-9).
The original number manufactured is not known, L.Richard Smith (The Sydney Cove Medallion... third edition. Sydney: 1987, p.12) speculates that the total 'may have been somewhere around two dozen'. The relative fragility of the medallions, and an apparent contemporary propensity to mount them as jewelry, will have ensured that only a fraction of these have survived.
L.Richard Smith. The Sydney Cove Medallion.. third edition. Sydney: The Wedgwood Press, 1987.