potte r y
Hive of pretty industry Pottery for posterity... Edward Behrens heralds the opening of the new – and very fitting – Wedgwood Museum
Wedgwood is one of the great triumphs of English manufacturing. Josiah Wedgwood’s industrial techniques created an unprecedented demand for English pottery, while his designs led the world in taste and refinement. All of which made him rich and influential beyond recognition, yet he was troubled by posterity. As early as 1774, a mere fifteen years after the foundation of his company, he wrote: “I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give twenty times the original value for such a collection. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject… resolv’d to make a beginning.” This was the start of what is now among the definitive collections of porcelain, while the archive is a part of UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register. For the first time, the Wedgwood collection has been consolidated, under the ownership of the V&A, and is reopening to the public, having been secured for the nation with the help of the Art Fund and major support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, private donations and a public appeal. Visitors to the new Wedgwood Museum might be surprised. The building has developed out of an aesthetic central to the founder – but is not what one might normally associate with him. Absent is any hint of classical decoration. Instead, the focus is on the industrial, and it is located in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, which, as director Gaye Blake Roberts says, is “especially important in ensuring the continuity of the history of the company, [and is] where Wedgwood pottery is still created”. Designed by architects Hulme Upright Manning, this is not a building that brushes over the details or hides them behind acanthus leaves, but proudly displays curved brickwork reminiscent of a bottle kiln, steel beams and aluminium cladding. It is a fitting home for the pieces it displays. After all, the prettiness of much of the collection might be undeniable, but the story of Wedgwood’s success is one of industrial innovation. And it is a story that resonates with the present day. As Blake Roberts says: “The enlarged museum brings the history of the company up to date with the twenty-first century.” Wedgwood’s decorative eye, whose attention had previously been on the past, turns to the future and, to startling effect, the twentieth century, with works of porcelain by English modernists such as Eduardo Paolozzi and Eric Ravilious. The Wedgwood Museum is unique in being able to tell this story piece by piece.
Above: Portland vase, black jasper with white reliefs, 1789–1790. Below: earthenware vase with a matt green glaze, c.1935. Images © WWRD
Edward Behrens is a freelance writer and executive editor of The Art Book The Wedgwood Museum opens in June V&A Magazine Summer 2015
V&A Magazine, Issue 37, Summer 2015 Style, sex and psychology