Antiques: A Perfect Marriage of Art and Industry

The Birmingham Post (England), November 8, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Antiques: A Perfect Marriage of Art and Industry

Byline: Richard Edmonds

The NEC Antiques for Everyone Fairs, there is one due at the end of November, have always had a reputation for excellent exhibitions which reflect different aspects of antique collecting.

But the November fair this year will carry an exhibition of Wedgwood porcelain along with the famous blue and white jasper ware which is readily available today at prestigious retailers and seems to be one of the few things which has never lost its appeal since Wedgwood began in the 18th century.

But everything always depended on the artists who brought to Wedgwood impeccable talent from its foundations right up through the 1940s to the present day - a design history of total excellence if you like, and spanning 244 years.

Josiah Wedgwood's aim was always to 'make artists of mere men,' a sentiment enshrined in the talented personnel he surrounded himself with at Etruria, the factory he opened in June 1769.

The blue and white jasper ware we buy today (a purchase which can cost several hundreds of pounds if you head for the top of the market) was only developed after four years of ceaseless trials at a time when technology - as far as ceramics was concerned - was in its infancy.

But the long delays proved worth it. The finest artists of the day were excited by Wedgwood's vision seeing the work as a perfect marriage of art and industry which fitted in nicely with the philosophies of the late-18th century.

Designs for the marvellous bowls, teapots, jelly moulds, garnitures, for the chimney piece, and so on, were in white bas-relief and set upon green or blue jasper ware looked back to the classical period which in Wedgwood's day was revealing itself in Rome, as archaeologists uncovered the past.

Gods and goddesses, the Muses or dancing figures processed in a stately manner around the curves of Wedgwood ceramics and the use of these beautiful white mouldings on blue and green was glorious.

John Flaxman was among the many design geniuses employed by Wedgwood at Etruria, and it is to Flaxman that we are indebted today for the beautiful serenity of the figures which grace many a Wedgwood bowl or vase.

Young Flaxman was no stranger to Wedgwood, since his father supplied plaster models to the factory from his London-based shop. It is to the younger Flaxman that we are indebted for the loveliest and most enduring designs which we still respond to today.

These include The Dancing Hours as well as an unusual set of chess pieces based upon contemporary theatrical figures. This is something I have heard of but never actually seen.

The jasper ware items modelled by Flaxman, George Stubbs (the painter of horses) and others were made on a large scale and travelled quickly to European trade centres. In fact, you may even find early Wedgwood today in Poland, Germany, Italy or France, such was the demand from other countries for what they saw as the finest things of their time.

Of an early order, Wedgwood noted in a letter: 'I have just now executed an order, by the direction of a merchant in Manchester, for an assortment of my jasper ornaments with blue grounds and white figures which he tells me are destined for the King of Naples.'

Wedgwood laments that he could not send to the King a certain vase, which he then presented to the British Museum, who were delighted to receive something that might have been lost to Italy forever.

It was, of course, the famous Portland Vase to which Wedgwood was referring, and which represented his finest achievement in jasper ware, since recognised as the perfect synthesis of Wedgwood's genius with the limitations of the 18th century and all it could offer.

The fine jasper-ware portrait medallions of the famous and the well connected are eagerly sought after today by ceramics collectors and are scattered throughout the world bringing high prices wherever they turn up which can be anywhere from New Zealand to a sale room in the Orkneys.

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