There aren’t many businesses which transcend commerce to become major cultural institutions, but Josiah Wedgwood & Sons is surely one of them.
The world-renowned pottery firm, based since the Second World War in the rural splendour of its estate at Barlaston, just south of Stoke-on-Trent, has been associated with innovation in the applied arts for nearly 250 years.
Initially famous for its role in the neo-classical revival of the mid-to-late 18th century, the company adapted its wares to survive through the Regency and Victorian ages, going on to collaborate with some of the leading artists and designers of the 20th century.
Now you can see the whole breadth of the company’s achievements in a superb new Wedgwood Museum, built at a cost of £10.5 million and officially opened last Friday by television ceramics expert Hilary Kay.
The new building has been supported by a long list of benefactors headed by the National Heritage Lottery Fund – which contributed around half the cost – Advantage West Midlands and the Wedgwood company itself (though obviously closely related, the museum is an independent charity).
Located on the factory campus near the established visitor centre, the museum has opened just in time for the company’s 250th anniversary, which falls next year. It seems set to become a major tourist attraction, with a target of 100,000 visitors a year.
The former museum closed eight years ago when the company spent £10 million on developing a new visitor centre and since then its collection, including around 7,500 ceramic items and well over 75,000 documents, has been locked away in secure storage.
Now revealed in all its glory, with a display area nearly 10 times that of the former museum, it adds something of international significance to the West Midlands arts and heritage landscape. Before even thinking about the ceramics, consider the paintings. George Stubbs was once thought to be a journeyman among 18th century British painters, but in the last 40 years his stock has soared. Birmingham’s museums don’t have a painting by him and it’s doubtful they could afford one at the prices they command today, but the Wedgwood museum has no fewer than five.
They include individual portraits of Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Sarah, plus the famous large portrait of the couple with their six children, which is regarded as one of Stubbs’ most important works.
However, Wedgwood himself was not entirely convinced by it: “My wife I think very deficient – Mary Ann more so & Susan is not hit off well at all,” he wrote to a business colleague. The display of this important painting, incorporating touch-screen technology, exemplifies the fine balance struck throughout the displays between the objects themselves and both high and low-tech presentation.
There are also portraits of Josiah and Sarah by Joshua Reynolds, and other notable artists who painted members of the family or key contributors to the Wedgwood story range from George Romney to John Singer Sargent and John Bratby.
The ceramics themselves range from the company’s earliest products through its first blossoming of fame to the present day.
The image still first called to mind for many of us by the word Wedgwood is that of the neoclassical heyday of “vase mania”, when no country house was complete without its Wedgwood urns or busts. In a flash of inspiration the designers have constructed a freestanding display area which on the outside is a typical Potteries bottle oven but on the inside a classical rotunda with ceramic busts ringing the domed ceiling. It cleverly makes the link between the two seemingly disconnected worlds of industry and aristocratic classical taste.
But while Josiah Wedgwood, like William Morris, may have been dependent on the patronage of the “swinish rich”, his own sympathies evidently inclined towards the radical. The earlier phase of the French Revolution, at least, merited commemorative plaques, and other products show his sympathy for the fledgling American Republic and the campaign to abolish the slave trade.
In other words, Wedgwood was a man of the Enlightenment. He was a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, along with his associate Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin. The Wedgwood and Darwin families intermarried and their descendents included the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
One of the attractions of the museum is that while it shows the cream of Wedgwoods’ products, it also gives something of a glimpse behind the scenes. The reproduction of the Portland Vase in 1789 was regarded as one of the applied arts triumphs of its time, but it wasn’t achieved without trial and error, and the display includes several unsuccessful attempts revealing firing problems.
Nearby, in a giant chest of drawers, you can inspect trays of early glaze experiments on small ceramic tablets – an astonishing survival. Presumably these are some of the forgotten examples which were discovered in an old store room at the factory in 1906, providing the original stimulus for founding the museum.
“That formed the basis of the collection,” says museum director Gaye Blake Roberts. “Then they searched the factory and a lot of the early inventory entries say ‘Found on the works’. Since then it’s just developed and grown.
“There’s about 65 per cent of the collection on display in the museum. Currently we have a big touring exhibition out in Japan as part of 250th anniversary celebrations. The idea is that the display will not be static. We don’t want people to think they’ve seen it and that’s it, we want them to come back and find something new. Obviously we are a growing collection, and we are aways acquiring things.”
While Wedgwood isn’t a name immediately associated with the art pottery movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, its productions at this time reflected the new taste and it employed renowned designers like Christopher Dresser and Walter Crane.
In the 20th century Wedgwood developed a tradition of collaborating with modern artists including the sculptor John Skeaping (first husband of Barbara Hepworth, who is represented by two competition designs), Eric Ravilious and Eduardo Paolozzi, and notable designers like Susie Cooper and Jasper Conran.
Like Cadbury at Bournville, the Wedgwood works has sometimes been described as a factory in a garden, so it is pleasing to discover a link between the two companies. In the early 1930s Wedgwood produced a special jug and mugs for Cadbury’s malted drink Bournvita – a contract which apparently helped preserve a significant number of jobs during hard financial times.
* The Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, is open daily except December 24-Jan 1 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm, weekends 10am-5pm). Admission: £6 adults (£5 concessions), £4.50 children (aged 5-16), £18 family. Joint tickets with the Wedgwood Visitor Centre are also available. For more information call 01782 371900 or visit www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk