The handsome bi-centennial exhibition “The Genius of Wedgwood” at the Victoria and Albert Museum should not be regarded by the present-day company Waterford Wedgwood Plc as a triumph but an indictment. When compared with its contemporary range, the masterful artefacts on display at the museum simply highlight that the company is not resting on its laurels: it has crashed right through them.
The founder, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95), was a polymath. He straddled the worlds of art, business and science and won a fitting encomium from Gladstone three-quarters of a century after his death: “The greatest man who ever, in any age or country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art and industry”.
As Neil McKendrick’s pioneering research has shown, a principal reason for Wedgwood’s supremacy over rival English potters (who were, as Lorna Weatherill has proved, similarly innovative in introducing streamlined methods of manufacture) was that he cunningly sought out and exploited that fickle maiden, Fashion.
He cajoled, flattered and enticed her from every vantage point. Since she was amused by the latest hot beverages—tea, coffee and chocolate—he supplied her with exquisite cups, saucers and pots to sip from, and as she deemed a white complexion to be desirable, he introduced black basalt ware to flatter her pale hands. When she was struck down by “vase madness”, inspired by the recent excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, he jettisoned the Baroque and Rococo in favour of the neo-Classical, and obliged her cravings. To excite her palate, he ruthlessly pursued society’s tastemakers, the monarchy, the nobility and art connoisseurs. As one of the pioneers of the industrial revolution, he realised that the exacting demands of fashionable women would determine what could be sold in bulk to the “inferior members” of “middling ranks”.
In pursuing the tastemakers, no hurdle was too great for this disabled entrepreneur to leap. (His leg had been amputated, but he could work up to eighteen hours a day in considerable pain to achieve his goal.) He accepted difficult commissions (notably the “Frog” service for Catherine the Great of Russia, over 200 pieces of which have come to the museum from the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg); he invented new delights for his capricious audience, such as the neo-Classical plaques and Jasper Ware; he flattered prominent customers by soliciting their opinions on matters of taste; he pandered to political prejudices the world over, offering portrait plaques of saints to the South Americans, freedom fighters to the Americans and popes to the Italians.
To beguile the ladies he set up fashionable showrooms in London and private viewings and even priced goods so that they could be paid in a genteel way—at a guinea and a half rather than thirty-four shillings, for example. For fear that his respectable ladies would find the copies of naked neo-Classical figures “too warm”, he clothed them in fig leaves or draperies but appreciated that the upper classes had a more robust appetite and so left the most expensive vases bawdily naked.
As he wrote in a letter to his partner, Thomas Bentley, he never forgot that “it will be our interest to amuse, and divert, and please, and astonish, nay, even to ravish the ladies”.
Wedgwood today has little to amuse, please or divert the fashionable palate. The pavement outside their Regent Street showrooms is not blocked with fashionable carriages, for Wedgwood have failed to woo fashion, unlike Gianni Versace with his Medusa-head table-ware that continues to appeal to certain monied circles. Fruit and flower-strewn plates and some clod-hopping interpretations of Jasper Ware hardly compare with the wares offered by other long established decorative arts companies. Wedgwood may show with pride their new range called Cornucopia but it certainly won’t set your heart pounding when placed alongside the original Wedgwood. The range of six plates commissioned by the National Art Collections Fund from the artists Peter Blake, Bruce McClean, John Piper, Edouardo Palozzi, Patrick Caulfield and Patrick Heron is hardly a sensational triumph of modernity and technique, mildly pleasing though it may be to some eyes.
And there’s the rub: Wedgwood today is not truly committed to modernity, unlike its founder. Where are the imaginative collaborations at Wedgwood today? The award-winning shell piece by an Italian artist, Mirko Bravi (1994), while handsome, evokes the Fifties rather than the Nineties. And sadly, a stroll round Wedgwood showrooms does not excite a mania for their insipid and dated pastiches of past glories.
Bearing in mind their founder’s farsighted commitment to slave emancipation, wouldn’t it have been an apposite promotional opportunity to commission a large service commemorating remarkable black men and women through the ages and present it to President Nelson Mandela? One senses little investment in the future of Wedgwood’s name and reputation.
The late Jean Muir and Sir Terence Conran, stalwarts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, have long fought for a fruitful interplay between the arts and industry. Yet UK graduates remain divided into two isolated and mutually uncomprehending camps: the arts and the sciences. Perhaps every student in the land, arts and sciences alike, should be set a compulsory paper on this genius. Let him be an inspiration and across the centuries persuade us that a communion between the two camps is not only stimulating but profitable.
One hopes that this well-curated exhibition and excellent catalogue will serve as a catalyst. Waterford Wedgwood Plc could, with profit, reflect on their current paucity of invention and let “The Genius of Wedgwood” be a reminder of their past glories.
“The Genius of Wedgwood” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London until 17 September.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Wedgwood: gone to pot'