This article on ceramic portraiture in the 17th and 18th centuries focuses on notable potters and artists, the various figures that were produced (from homely figurines such as courting couples to important people, such as Queen Anne and Sir Isaac Newton), as well as the history of the art form. It originally appeared in the September 1939 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Although English artists began working very early in other media, the making of portrait busts and statues in ceramics lagged far behind. But once these potter-sculptors began to “hold the mirror up to nature,” what they made formed one of the most important achievements in the history of English pottery.
They had two sources of inspiration, the bronze, marble, and terra-cotta works of 17th-Century English and Continental sculptors, and the ceramic figures that found their way into England from China about this time. The former accounts for the fine work done during the Restoration period under John Dwight at the Fulham pottery near London; while the Oriental figures were at the root of a gradual folk art development which culminated over a half century later in the potteries of Staffordshire.
English ceramic portraiture covers practically two centuries, and ranges in subjects from Prince Rupert, nephew of Charles I, to an equestrian figure of Abraham Lincoln. The figure of Prince Rupert, now in the British Museum, is an example of the work of Dwight at Fulham; that of Lincoln is typical of the wide variety of busts and statues that were produced in quantity by the Staffordshire potters even as late as the Victorian period. These latter efforts were in the nature of “spot news” portrayals of prominent people. And while they lack the artistic merit of those done in the late 18th Century, are biographically interesting and at least serve to complete the story.
English ceramic portraiture divides sharply into two periods. First there was the work done in the second half of the 17th Century, at Fulham, for which there are reasonable grounds for believing that the artist who did the actual modeling was none other than Grinling Gibbons, the great wood carver of the Restoration, first called to the notice of Charles II by the meticulous diarist, John Evelyn. Certainly the Dwight bust of Prince Rupert in salt-glaze stoneware, already mentioned, was the work of an expert artist rather than a gentleman deeply concerned with developing ways and means of achieving results in pottery.
It shows the subject in a full-bottomed curled wig of the Restoration, wearing a handsome cape and around his shoulders the collar and star of the Order of the Garter. The modeling is done in bold relief with exceptional detail. Technically and artistically, this bust and several others that have survived are most remarkable when one remembers that they were made at a time when English potters were producing very little else except primitive salt-glaze jugs, mugs, and plates.
Probably the explanation lies in John Dwight. His background was not that of the potter but of the gentleman. He was a man with a university education, and about 1660 was secretary to the Bishop of Chester. Possibly it was his interest in science, as it was then known, which turned his attention to pottery. Fulham being near London, he found it a convenient place to carry out his experiments in the field of pottery. By 1671 he had obtained a patent for making transparent earthenware “commonly known by the names of porcelain or china, and Persian ware, as also the misterie of the stoneware vulgarly called Cologne ware” and that he purposes “to introduce a manufacture of the said wares into our Kingdom of England, where they have not hitherto bene wrought or made.”
In 1684 he secured a second patent, and later he went to great lengths to retain the secrets of the materials and tools used and methods followed at his pottery. He died about 1700 and was succeeded by his son, Dr. Samuel Dwight, whose writings on scientific subjects were well known. In 1737, Samuel also died and management of the Fulham pottery passed into the control of Margaret Dwight in partnership with Thomas Warland. These partners produced a few examples of portraiture and then such work lapsed in England until the rise of the Staffordshire group.
The latter were practical potters closely related by intermarriage. Their early attempts were, for the most part, three-dimensional portrayals in native clays of the life going on about them: a courting couple seated on a fireside settle, a man on horseback, and other homely subjects. These were practically all white salt glaze with occasional touches of color achieved with dark brown clay.
The few examples depicting people of prominence include a three-quarter statue of Queen Anne with white gound color relieved with touches of blue, and a full-length statue in clerical robes of Doctor Henry Sacheverell. This is in white salt glaze with eyes and buttons touched with dark brown. Although crude, the little statue is full of life and vigor, an excellent representation of a cleric whose sermons were considered so radical, “scandalous and seditious,” that he was impeached, tried, and suspended for three years in 1709.
Out of this folk-art movement, two potters of exceptional capacity developed. They were John Astbury, 1688-1743, who introduced the use of the white clays of Devon and Dorsetshire and of ground flint instead of sand, and Thomas Whieldon, 1719-1795, who made great contributions to the art of achieving various colored glazes through metallic oxides. He also developed the mottled pottery known as agateware.
Most of the human figure pieces by Astbury and Whieldon are so much alike that, being unmarked, it is difficult to ascribe an individual piece to one or the other. So it has come to be the practice to refer to them as Astbury-Whieldon type. Except for such examples as the seated portrait marked “Samuel Brumel” they are genre subjects rather than portraits of specific people. They date about 1740.
After Astbury’s death, Whieldon was for a time in partnership with Josiah Wedgwood, but with the understanding that he could continue his experimental work for his own benefit. Also, at various times, men who later made distinct contributions to Staffordshire potters served their apprenticeships under him. These included the younger Astbury, Josiah Spode, and Aaron Wood. The latter was the most skillful model-and-moldmaker in Staffordshire, and there is no reason to doubt but that he made a number of models and molds for the later Whieldon figures.
It was the Wood family, in fact, which made the greatest contribution to Staffordshire ceramic portraiture. All were descended from Ralph Wood, 1677-1785, who was a miller in Burslem. There were two distinct branches, founded by brothers. One was the line of Ralph Wood, 1716-1772, whose wife, Mary, was one of the Wedgwood family ; the other started with Aaron Wood, the modelmaker, and his son Enoch, 1759-1840, who was not only a great artist but was the first collector of Staffordshire pottery. His collection became the basis of the leading museum collections of this material in both England and Germany.
As regards markings, Ralph Wood the elder, used “R. Wood”; his son employed the mark, “Ra. Wood” or “Ra. Wood, Burslem” in italics, capitals and small letters. But neither marked all of their figures. So in many instances, examples of their work have to be identified by modeling and coloring. Among the marked specimens is a statue of the Dutch admiral, Van Tromp, a full-length statue of Lord Mayor Beckford of London, and an equestrian statue, probably of the Duke of Cumberland, attired like a Roman emperor.
Some of the early examples of Ralph Wood’s work are primitive enough in both design and execution as to be difficult to distinguish from that of the Astbury-Whieldon type. One of the most interesting and charming of his portrait groups depicts himself and his son Ralph. It shows the father with his left hand resting on a tree trunk, while his right is clasped in that of his son, shown as a boy of about six years. The figures stand on a green natural base. The father wears a white shirt, brown jacket, green breeches, white stockings, and a brown, three-cornered hat. His small son is dressed in a green jacket, light brown vest, deep green breeches, white stockings and brown shoes and hat.
Another version of the same group is also known but the modeling and coloring is not of the same quality, so it probably was the work of some other less-skilled Staffordshire potter. All of the figures of Ralph Wood, the elder, are characterized by the variety of fine colors used, all accomplished at the time the glaze was applied. To his son must go the credit for the adoption of overglaze enamels fixed by a second firing in a muffle kiln.
The work of Ralph Wood, the younger, includes a bust of John Milton, one of Handel, a full-length statue of Sir Isaac Newton, another of John Wilkes, and one of Benjamin Franklin, the first American of enough importance to be depicted by any English potter. This shows Dr. Franklin standing on a pedestal in the attitude of speaking. His left hand holds a book and he wears a brown coat, yellow breeches, white stockings, and brown shoes. Over his shoulders is thrown a purple cape with green lining. Possibly this statue was the suggestion that later prompted other Staffordshire potters to make other figures of the same man which they labeled “Dr. Franklin” or “Washington” as their fancy dictated.
In many ways it was Ralph Wood’s own cousin, Enoch, who did some of the finest and most artistic of the portraits in ceramics. One of his earliest and most outstanding accomplishments is the bust of John Wesley, done when the divine was the artist’s guest on his second trip through Staffordshire in 1781. Enoch Wood was only twenty-two years old at the time. He also did a remarkable portrait bust of Wesley’s co-worker, the Rev. George Whitefield. It shows the subject with full-bottomed white wig, cream-white complexion, white clerical stock and gown of a beautiful pale green. On the back, inscribed in an oval tablet is “The Rev. George Whitefield, died 30th Sept., 1770, aged 56 – Enoch Wood, Sculp. Burslem.”
Two other fine examples of his portrait busts are one of George III and one of George Washington. The latter is marked on both bust and pedestal, “Washington, born 1732, died 1799, Enoch Wood, Sculp., 1818.” Enoch Wood also went to the prize ring for a subject at least once. There is, for example, the full-length statue of Tom Cribb, who held the English championship from 1811 to 1821. This sporting portrait shows the subject stripped to the waist, his arms raised and fists clenched. From his stance, Tom is obviously just waiting for an opening to land a hard right to the jaw.
Josiah Wedgwood also had his share in making portrait busts. The black basalt he had perfected was an ideal material for such ceramic depiction, and he used Flaxman and other outstanding artists to prepare the models. Among the finest of Wedgwood busts are those of Flaxman, Edmund Spencer, John Milton, Voltaire, and Washington. Each is a work of art that ranks in quality with sculpture of marble or ivory.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.