Through finer sieves, and falls in whiter showers;
Charm’d by your touch the kneaded clay refines,
The biscuit hardens, the enamel shines;
Each nicer mould a softer feature drinks,
The bold cameo speaks, the soft Itaglio thinks.
(Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, published in 2 parts, 1790-1, p. 87)
Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was a poet, physician, naturalist and close friend of the famous Staffordshire pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood I (1730-1795). Darwin’s, The Botanic Garden, is a set of two poems, ‘The Economy of Vegetation’ and ‘The Loves of Plants’, published by J. Johnson in 1790-1. It is no surprise that a rare edition of Darwin’s book should be on display at The Wedgwood Museum, Stoke-On-Trent, opened at p. 87 and showing the tribute paid to his dear friend. Darwin and Josiah were members of the Lunar Society, both sharing a common interest in science. Darwin also became the Wedgwood’s family doctor.
The Wedgwood-Darwin alliance was a powerful one. Darwin’s son, Dr Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), married Josiah’s eldest daughter, Susannah (1765-1817) and they had a son who became the famous naturalist Dr Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Charles Darwin went on to marry Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) who was Josiah Wedgwood II’s (1769-1843) daughter.
Emma and Charles married on 29th January 1839 at the Parish Church of St. Peter, Maer, Newcastle-Under-Lyme. In 1802, Josiah Wedgwood II had brought the seventeenth century stone-built country house and estate, Maer Hall using funds he had borrowed from his relative Robert. The pretty church of St. Peter is built on a small hill overlooking Maer Hall and its estates.
The Darwin-Wedgwood family tree certainly has many branches and most are intertwined, you would be forgiven for being confused. The Museum had a section explaining this complex family genealogy. If you want to find out more, CLICK HERE.
Josiah Wedgwood I’s father (Thomas Wedgwood) died in 1739 when Josiah was just nine years old. His father’s will included a provision for Josiah, along with his five younger siblings, to receive the sum of £20 when they reached the age of twenty. As a teenager, Josiah contracted smallpox which left him with reduced mobility in his right knee and needing the use of a walking stick for the rest of his life. His father had owned Churchyard pottery and aged fourteen the young Josiah took-up an apprenticeship at there under the tutelage of his older brother Thomas Jnr who had inherited the pottery following his father’s death:
Josiah reputedly began his apprenticeship by learning how to throw, the art of making and shaping hollow vessels on the potter’s wheel. The flat wheel, or circular board, was placed horizontally at a convenient working level, and an axle through its centre connected to another wheel at the base, this latter being made to revolve by the action of the worker’s foot. There can be little doubt that the damage to his knee would have made it difficult for Wedgwood to operate the device, and it assumed that he was forced to transfer his attention to other sides of his craft.
(Geoffrey Wills, 1988, Wedgwood, p. 16, published by Spring Books)
Josiah’s right knee and leg gave him many problems throughout his life. Finally, in 1768 he had no choice but to have his right leg amputated just below the knee. Josiah completed his apprenticeship at Churchyard in 1752 and subsequently went into partnership with two gentlemen, John Harrison and Thomas Alders, at Cliff Bank, Stoke-on-Trent. The firm’s main output was ‘scratched blue’ stoneware. The partnership ended prematurely in 1754. Josiah then entered into an agreement with another pottery firm, Thomas Whieldon, of Fenton, this agreement also ended a few years later. Eventually, after a few more business ventures, in 1760, Josiah went back to live in Burslem. He became a sole trader with his own pottery business producing large numbers of White Stone pottery. He continued to grow his business and in the summer of 1766, Queen Charlotte (1744-1818) appointed him ‘Potter to Her Majesty’. Josiah, thereafter referred to his pottery as ‘Queensware’ and his London address became ‘The Queen’s Arms’. (Wills, 1988, p.35).
In 1767, Josiah purchased a new site nearby to his existing one in Burslem. He paid £3,000 for a substantial estate located in the path of Trent and Mersey Canal. He named his factory and estate, ‘Etruria‘ and his new grand house on the same site, Etruria Hall. Etruria remained Wedgwood’s main factory from 1769 until 1950. It is possible to take a 3D digital tour around Etruria, (CLICK HERE.), seeing how it would have looked, c.1900. The Etruria factory has long since been demolished (1966), save for one Listed building.
In 1940, Wedgwood’s production moved from Etruria to a three hundred and eighty acre estate at Barlaston, near Stoke-On-Trent. Geoffrey Wills comments on the reasons behind the move:
In addition to the difficult trading conditions then prevailing, another problem urgently demanded attention: Etruria was proving inadequate for modern manufacturing methods and could not be enlarged as other premises had been erected in its proximity. Also, the building was slowly and steadily subsiding, so that it became sited no less than eight feet below the level of the canal running alongside it. It was decided that a move should be made to Barlaston, five miles distant to the south-east, where a new factory and village would be built. This duly took place, the first part of the new building being opened in 1940, with the remainder gradually taking shape and being fully occupied ten years later.
(Wills, 1988, p.117-8)
A railway station (Wedgwood railway station) opened on site at Barlaston in 1940, closing in 2004. Barlaston, where the Wedgwood Museum is located, is still a thriving manufacturing hub for the world-famous, high-end, pottery range.
One of the main reasons for my visit to The Wedgwood Museum was to make a study of Wedgwood blancmange moulds. Those of you who are regular readers will know that I own a Wedgwood blancmange mould from 1875 that used to belong to my great, great, grandma. I still use this mould today and have a large repertoire of blancmange recipes from which I produce this much misunderstood dessert. My beautiful mould, with strawberry motif, has been used to make thousands of blancmanges over the last one hundred and thirty-seven years. It is still in very good condition, evidence of Wedgwood’s quality manufacturing techniques. Blancmange was an extremely popular, ‘showy’ dessert, throughout the nineteenth century. Unsurprisingly, the Museum have a number of blancmange moulds in their collection. One of the more unusual can be found in cabinet 34, the Egyptomania section. Egyptomania was an early nineteenth century craze for anything related to Ancient Egypt. It was inspired by Napoleon’s (1769-1821) Egyptian Campaign, which began in 1798 and ended in 1801. The nation’s artisans responded. Wedgwood manufactured many items in the Egyptian style. One such being an earthenware blancmange mould with a Canopus vase relief (c.1811).
In cabinet 36, there is a large collection of cream-coloured, earthenware blancmange moulds with embossed motifs from the late Georgian period (1810-1830). The attention to detail on these moulds is exquisite. The range of motifs include: a turkey; lion; clover; thistle; grapes; cabbage rose; wild poultry and mythological figures. I just wish I could have a go at making blancmanges in them! Unfortunately, no photography was permitted inside the main exhibition, which is a shame, as I would love to have shown you these quirky, but nonetheless, charming objects.
Also on display are some of Charles Gill’s research notebooks which contain many examples of early nineteenth century blancmange moulds.
Although my particular interest in Wedgwood are their jelly and blancmange moulds, this is only a small fraction of the collection on display at Barlaston. It is possible to browse the on-line catalogue and view some of the extensive range of objects (although sadly no blancmange moulds are included in the database, only one jelly mould). CLICK HERE.
I spent three hours looking around the Museum, much to the shock of my husband, who after an hour came to find me, only to discover that I was still in the first section reading about the history of the company. He remarked, ‘you are not even half-way through yet, there are so many beautiful objects still to see, my eyes are exhausted, I am going for a cup of tea.’ Three cups of tea and two hours later (I know, I have a patient husband), I re-emerged into the Museum restaurant.
The Wedgwood Museum is a fine example of superb curatorial techniques being applied to best effect. There is enough to satisfy the needs of both casual visitor and demanding scholar. In the first part of the Museum, where you can read about the development of Wedgwood’s manufacturing techniques, it is possible to touch small fragments of various styles of pottery. Since the collection is so precious, it is understandable that the original pottery has to be display in locked cabinets. Therefore, the decision to include samples of pottery for visitors to touch shows educational flair.
In addition to the Museum there are seasonal, behind-the-scenes, tours of the manufacturing facility where you can view the traditional ceramic production processes. If you have an urge to shop, there is a Museum gift shop, a Retail Store selling gifts and tableware designs from the extensive Wedgwood portfolio, including Waterford Crystal, Royal Doulton and Royal Albert. If the Retail Store is out of your price range then pop into the Wedgwood Factory Outlet, grab a trolley and fill-it with lots of pottery bargains. Discounts of up to 75% off of Wedgwood, Waterford, Royal Doulton, Royal Albert, Mason’s and Minton. We brought loads of quality pottery in the Retail Store. Best of all was a stack of side plates priced at 64p each. I also brought a mug which my husband describes as ‘absolutely horrible’ but I like it very much and is a lovely souvenir from of a most enjoyable day-out.
For more information about visiting this award-winning Museum complex, CLICK HERE.