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The Wedgewood legacy is more than just ceramics

Posted on April 9, 2020 at 4:00 PM by Adrienne Gennett

In the exhibition Creating Global Understanding there are many examples of diverse objects from University Museums’ permanent collection, but also objects that are exhibited specifically to discuss cross-cultural influences. This pair of historic Wedgwood ceramics are included with the Egyptian and Ancient objects in the Classical Studies section of the exhibition as they represent the powerful influence the ancient world had on art and design into the modern era. 

Josiah Wedgwood lived and worked in the 18th century in Staffordshire, England, the pottery making center of the country. He grew up immersed in pottery as his family worked in the industry and survived smallpox, which left him with a weak leg (later it had to be amputated) and led him to focus more on experimentation in his pottery. Along with his skills as a potter and designer, he was a scientist - performing thousands of experiments to develop new ceramic bodies, an astute business man, and a humanitarian. He is best known for jasperware, a stoneware body that he created and that was one of the most important technical developments in modern ceramics. Many people would easily recognize jasperware, even if they don’t know what it is called, as the blue and white decorated ceramics that has become the hallmark of Wedgwood since its creation in the 1770s. 

The Plaque included in the exhibition is jasperware, but using black with white decoration. Depicted are Apollo and the Nine Muses, a decidedly classical subject. In the second half of the 18th century, neo-classicism was the height of taste and style in England and Europe. Neo-classicism included various motifs and imagery either taken directly from or inspired by antiquity. In this plaque not only do you find the image of Apollo and the Nine Muses, taken from classical mythology, but floral swags and hanging trophies of helmets, jugs, baskets, and more – modeled on antiquity, but adapted for contemporary tastes. Wedgwood recognized early on the power of following the tastes of the wealthy to achieve financial success. His use of neo-classical design was employed to create objects that would perfectly fit into the homes of the wealthy at this time and suit their tastes, most especially the interiors being designed by Robert Adam. Wedgwood developed a lengthy list of objects using neo-classical design such as urns, vases of all sizes, tea sets, and plaques like the one in University Museums’ collection, which could be inset into fireplace surrounds and furniture.

The decorative motif on the Jug is an example of the first wave of “Egyptomania” that spread throughout England and Europe in the early 19th century. When Napoleon entered Egypt in 1798 with the intent to conquer the land, he brought with him scientists and artists. While Napoleon failed in his mission, those artists and scientists succeeded in documenting this exotic land, through descriptions and detailed drawings of the many ancient monuments they encountered. The publication and dispersal of prints made from the drawings excited many designers and architects, who began to incorporate the exotic new motifs into their designs. This small jug made of redware, or antico rosso as Wedgwood named it (even that name invokes ideas of antiquity), includes a band of black decoration based on Egyptian design elements. Included in University Museums’ Wedgwood collection of over 300 objects are more fantastical Egyptian inspired designs such as a covered sugar bowl with sphinxes and similar designs as the jug, but topped with a crocodile as the finial. Again, Wedgwood used popular taste and trends as a marketing tool to sell more wares. Josiah Wedgwood passed away in 1795, but he left a successful business model that continued for the firm as it moved into the 19th century. 

Although both of these objects aren’t necessarily “ancient”, they do open up a discussion of why there was a continued interest in all things exotic and antique and what that meant for culture and society at the time that these objects were made.

~ Adrienne Gennett, Associate Curator


TOP CORNER: Jug, c.1810. Wedgwood (English, founded 1759). Rosso antico with black basalt. Gift of M. Burton Drexler. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. UM2013.593

ABOVE: Plaque of Apollo and the Nine Musespossibly early 19thcentury. Wedgwood (Staffordshire, England, founded 1759–present). Jasperware. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 2.8.134

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