WEDGWOOD’S CREAMWARE

Wedgwood creamware 1773
Wedgwood creamware, “Frog Service”, 1773 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Much of the history of European ceramics is the attempt to imitate Chinese porcelain. The Ottoman Turks covered buff clay with white slip and a clear glaze. The Moors brought opaque white tin glaze into Spain, from where it spread to Italy, the Netherlands, central Europe and England. Meanwhile, there were experiments in porcelain, adding products like crushed glass to clay. In 1693 a soft paste porcelain was invented at Rouen, and in 1708 a hard paste, closer to the Chinese original, at Meissen.

Wedgwood went in a different direction, aiming for a white earthenware, his experiments finally yielding a satisfactory cream-coloured body in the late 1760s.

I had known that creamware spelled the end of tin-glazed earthenware – Alan Caiger-Smith mentions it in Tin-glazed Earthenware – but I had not known exactly how Wedgwood displaced delftware until I read Robin Reilley’s Wedgwood biography.

Wedgwood could not export to France because the quality potteries were protected by the crown, but trade with the Netherlands was easier and creamware made rapid inroads there. His Dutch agent, Lamertus van Veldhuysen, introduced it to the upper class but had difficulty selling it to “the middle sort of people” because it was too expensive. The Delft potters recognised its superiority and tried to imitate it, some of them bankrupting themselves in the process. Wedgwood was unconcerned. When van Veldhuysen sent him a sample of creamware made by a potter called Zwenck, he said, “With regard to the quality of the body & glaze, they are so bad that we could not sell such pieces at 1 shilling a dozen.” Reilley comments that no Dutch manufacturer succeeded in copying creamware until the nineteenth century and that the Dutch have always been among Wedgwood’s best customers.

WEDGWOOD’S VASES

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Wedgwood Black Jasper Vase

In my post on the Vase Mania that swept the country after the discovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, I mentioned that, as the craze faded away, Wedgwood decided to go down market and to sell his vases more cheaply to the middle classes.

“The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired to the Middling People,” he said, “which Class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior, in numbers to the great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make these vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces, that reason no longer exists, and the middling people would probably buy quantities of them at a reduced price.”

Robin Reilly in his excellent biography explains that Wedgwood’s motives were more complex. Although he had become a hugely successful potter, he never seemed to have any money. Although the business made a profit, he was in debt, and a rumour was going around that he could not pay. He observed that if you lost money you could get it back, but if you lost reputation you would never recover. Up to that point he thought the remedy was better debt collection, but Reilley uncovered the fact that Wedgwood and his partner Tomas Bentley did not understand their business accounts. He was, in fact, under-capitalised, a common shortcoming in rapidly expanding enterprises. Reilley is an ideal biographer because, as well as being a historian, he was a senior manager at Wedgwood for twelve years.

With characteristic energy and resolve, Wedgwood set to analysing his costs, which he had never bothered about too much before. He virtually invented cost accounting and the production of cheaper vases was inspired as much by cost control and the need to improve cash flow as it was by changing fashion.

GIFFIN GRIP

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The picture shows a vase I’ve turned in my new Giffin Grip. What a great piece of kit! How did I manage without one for so long?

Other potters I consulted before buying one were divided between those who advocated traditional methods for holding the pot (three blobs of clay or a clay chuck) and those who said the Giffin Grip was useful. It’s an expensive bit of kit, but I don’t regret buying it and it will soon pay for itself.

The Giffin Grip is beautifully engineered and makes turning pots of differing sizes an easy task. The instructions are clear and operation is simple. Setting up took about an hour and getting ready for a turning session takes three minutes.

For turning the odd bowl, three blobs of clay will do, but for repetition work, where time is important, this device is a huge leap forward. It is quick and easy to place and remove the pot and, unlike wet clay, does not leave a mark on the outside. Placing pots over chucks can also leave marks inside, and in the past I have spent a long time forming the chuck and then drying it with a heat gun.

I have to confess I dislike turning but I have decided to turn foot rings on hollow ware (mugs and vases) for a more elegant finish. The Giffin Grip makes it a more agreeable job.

Such a beautifully designed tool is useful for both the amateur and professional potter. For the amateur it makes centering easier and for the professional it increases productivity. I suspect that some of the opposition to it comes from potters who think their craft should be difficult, but my motto is “Work smart, don’t work hard”.

WEDGWOOD’S ETRURIA

Josiah Wedgwood acquired the Ridgehouse estate in 1766 for his Etruria factory during a period of commercial expansion, when he had launched his cream-ware and was beginning to get commissions from the upper class. The company traded there until 1940, when they moved to the new factory at Barlaston, and production at Etruria finally stopped in 1950. The estate was demolished in 1960.

In 1966, when I lived at Keele, the site hadn’t been completely cleared and I took a few photos  – technically poor, but they give an idea of how it looked then. This (below) is the Round House by the Trent and Mersey Canal with the Shelton Bar steel works in the background. At night, the flames from Shelton Bar lit up the sky like Vesuvius in the other Etruria.

Wedgwood Etruria 1966 M Colman

There is a picture (below) taken from a similar angle when the factory was in use:

Wedgwood Etruria roundhouse

The purpose of the Round Houses – there were two, one at each end of the factory – is unknown, but it’s thought they may have been merely decorative, punctuation marks at each end of the building, “in keeping with the 18th century preference for symmetry in architecture” as the Wedgwood archive put it. “It is possible that the Round Houses were Josiah’s own idea possibly having viewed the elevation of Shugborough Hall (below) the home of his patron Lord Anson which is similarly terminated with circular structures.”

Shugborough Hall

WEDGWOOD’S HOUSE (III)

Wedgwood-works Ewart Morris
Wedgwood’s works at Etruria by the Trent and Mersey Canal. (Photo: Ewart Morris)

I’ve been reading Robin Reilly’s biography of Wedgwood, which tells us that he must have heard the name Etruria before he read it because, in his correspondence about his new factory and house, he calls it “Hetruria”.

His promotion of James Brindley‘s Trent and Mersey Canal involved negotiations over its route, ensuring that it ran through Etruria, which other landowners opposed. The Wedgwood Museum summarises his involvement:

“In view of the uncertain and poor road communications it is not surprising therefore, to find Wedgwood, an ardent supporter of James Brindley and his latest plans for the development of a system of canals. Brindley known as ‘The Schemer’ was well known in the Potteries as a millwright and a builder of windmills.

“The earlier navigation schemes of the 17th and early 18th centuries had consisted merely of improvements to natural rivers, which were always subject to the risk of droughts and floods, but Brindley’s new scheme in which he succeeded so admirably, was to make canals independent of the rivers by building them so that they could be carried across the countryside at one level, where necessary on aqueducts or through cuttings and tunnels. … 

“A greater scheme by far was a canal linking the rivers Trent and Mersey or ‘Grand Trunk’ canal, as Brindley called it, which was warmly supported by Wedgwood, who acted as its Treasurer as he states: ‘at £000 Per ann. out of which he bears his own Expences’. … The proposed line of the canal passed the front of the Etruria Works and afforded an easy means of transport connecting with both the ports of Liverpool on the west coast and Hull on the east coast.”

Mervyn Edwards says of Wedgwood’s Etruria works, “had the rambling complex not been demolished, it would by now have been a world heritage site.”

 

 

A VISIT TO ST. QUENTIN LA POTERIE

Reindert Overduin in his studio with a student from CFA.

Saint Quentin la Poterie, a village near Nîmes with twenty-four pottery studios, has a long history as a pottery centre (tiles in the Pope’s Palace in Avignon were made there), but by 1970 all the traditional workshops had closed. Its revival is due largely to the energy and vision of Nicole Bouyala, its formidable mayor. Mme Bouyala, who held office from 1983 to 2001, encouraged potters to set up there, created the gallery Terra Viva, the European ceramics festival Terralha, a museum of ceramics and a Centre for Arts and Crafts Training (CFA), the only training centre for ceramics in the Gard or Hérault. The studios and shops along the pretty streets have turned St Quentin la Poterie into a village with a cosmopolitan population and the resources of a city, with national accreditation as a Ville et Métiers d’Art (arts and crafts town).

I visited the studios of four potters – Reindert Overduin, Denis Grazon, Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet – and asked them how they came to set up in Saint Quentin la Poterie.

Like all the potters in the village, Reindert Overduin is not local. He was born in Holland, where he went to art school, came to France for a holiday and liked it so much that he stayed. He visited St Quentin la Poterie, worked in Lilou Milcent Gallot’s studio for a day and decided to study ceramics seriously. He trained at CNIFOP, the National Centre for Training in the Ceramic Arts in Burgundy, from which many French ceramists have graduated. CNIFOP offers one-year modules that can be taken alone or combined into a longer course, plus numerous specialist short courses. After CNIFOP, Reindert returned to San Quentin la Poterie to work with Patrick Galtié, who has the largest workshop and the only one with permanent employees.

Denis Grazon made an even more sudden decision to become a ceramist. In 2002, when he was working in a Paris advertising agency, he took a holiday in the Périgord, saw some potters at work and the next day decided, “This is what I want to do!” Ten days later, he started work in his flat; three weeks later, he had built a wood-fired kiln and fired his first pots. “I didn’t have a clue what I was doing,” he said, “only a photo of a kiln, which I tried to copy.”

Denis Grazon with visitors to his studio, L’Age de Faire

He is still fascinated by kilns and firing. He has five gas and wood-fired kilns, including raku kilns, a fast-fire wood kiln and an open fire, low temperature kiln for the courses he runs in primitive firing – “Original pottery from the original kilns”. His studio is called L’Age de Faire, a pun on “making” and “iron age”.

Agnès Alex and Marine Maudet share a studio making work that differs from everything else made in St Quentin la Poterie, simple, white and austere.

In 2003, Agnès came from Paris to study at the CFA, then took an apprenticeship with Lilou Milcent Gallot, who has trained several of the potters here. Two years ago, before setting up, she had a show in Paris to see if her work would sell and was encouraged by the response. She and Marine were helped by the council to find premises for their studio. They like to progress slowly, ensuring that each step they take is well established before they move on to the next one – first their studio, then their shop, then their blog. They sell only from their shop now and will consider later whether to sell in Paris as well.

Les Souris Blanches: Agnès Alex and Marine Maude with some of their work in Limoges porcelain

At a Saturday night dance in the village, I spoke to Lilou Milcent Gallot, one of the first studio potters in St Quentin la Poterie. She told me that the future of ceramics is uncertain there. The potters are getting older and the success they have made of the village has pushed up property prices. The council is now promoting other activities. That evening in the market square, there was a pop-up bar, a raku demonstration and a Latin American accordion band. There was a mix of established locals and people who have chosen the relaxed pace of this Occitan village in preference to the pressures of the metropolis. The community spirit among the potters is well known and many more want to set up here, so hopefully it will survive and grow.

MANET’S CERAMIC CONNECTION


I was familiar with reproductions of Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (above) long before I saw it in the Musée d’Orsay but however blasé I was the impact of its size (more than two metres by three) and the juxtaposition of the naked woman with the clothed men was great.

In the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has one of the best collections of tin glazed pottery in Europe, I saw a fine maiolica dish (left) from the workshop of Guido Durantino (16th century) showing The Judgement of Paris. There, on the bottom right, was Déjeuner sur l’herbe though not so shocking as Manet because everyone is naked.



What’s the connection between Manet and a maiolica dish?  Durantino copied a famous engraving by by Marcantonio Raimondi (below) from a design by Raphael. Manet studied the old masters and copied the three principal figures in Déjeuner from Raphael’s design.