Flashback: Some Sources of Wedgwood Designs

April 3rd, 2009

This article notes the inspiration behind Wedgwood designs, especially their Greek and Roman influences, and uses the items illustrated as examples. It originally appeared in the March 1947 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

Many years before his death in 1943, Grenville L. Winthrop decided to leave his art collection to his university, Harvard. His steadfast belief in the training that the Harvard Fine Arts Department gives young people planning to enter teaching and museum work convinced him that his collection could best serve the public in this way.

image1

1. Wedgwood's black basalt copy of an Etruscan urn with encaustic design copied from d'Harcanville's catalogue of Greek vases in Sir William Hamilton's collection.

Indeed, few institutions offer comparable opportunity for students to come into intimate contact with original material. From direct experience they learn to form their own standards and criteria of quality; come to determine whether an object is the “best of its type” and to understand its relation to other works of art.

The Winthrop Collection of Wedgwood offers just such an opportunity. In a museum like the Fogg, with a few ceramics other than those in its Far Eastern and Classic collections, such a Wedgwood collection is welcome. Mr. Winthrop had acquired it piece by piece in the early 1900s from the London dealer, Frederick Rathbone, who for more than fifty years had been purveyor to all important Wedgwood collectors. His correspondence with Mr. Winthrop is filled with anecdotes and reflections of his own and of his contemporaries. This correspondence has proved not only a valuable source of information but also a revealing mirror of a particular period.

Grenville Winthrop’s taste in Wedgwood was always individual. It has been termed a “man’s taste.” He ignored many categories such as table ware and concentrated on ornamental ware, that is, medallions, plaques and vases. Many of the 90 pieces he acquired are black basalts.

2. Jasper Medallion figure of Adonis, after Lord Lansdozene's Greco-Roman statue of Hermes.

2. Jasper Medallion figure of Adonis, after Lord Lansdozene's Greco-Roman statue of Hermes.

The collection offers a student numerous points for study, such as technique, provenience and the history of collecting, for many pieces come from renowned collections. Perhaps the most interesting and fascinating approach is a study of the sources of Wedgwood’s designs.

Josiah Wedgwood was not only a potter of distinction who raised his craft to a fine art; he was also a patron of the arts, a collector, an astute business man, and an Englishman conscious — in a period of Empire expansion — of his civic duties. In short, he reflected his period, its tastes and interests. It was a period steeped in the classic, a result, in part, of wide interest in books on antiquity and travel. B. Sprague Allen in his Tides of English Taste calls it the “Age of Folios.”

Certainly the sumptuous folios of the time were a considerable factor in determining the style of the architecture, the gardens, the furniture, silverware and porcelain of the period. The classic interest was also stimulated by that necessary complement to the education of a cultured young man of the 18th century, the “grand tour.”

3. The design source of this tri-colored Wedgwood medallion, The Three Graces, was a carnelian.

3. The design source of this tri-colored Wedgwood medallion, The Three Graces, was a carnelian.

Traveling on the Continent, the English gentleman purchased pictures and sculpture for the adornment of his country house. The foundations of many an important private collection was laid during these tours. After visits abroad to see masterpieces, these young collectors were naturally drawn to one another, and similar “sentiments” gave rise to groups such as the Society of Dilettanti. The Society of Dilettanti, confessedly social in purpose, was responsible for a long succession of publications devoted to Greek and Roman antiquities, among them Stuart and Revett’s Antiquities of Athens.

Where did Wedgwood find his classic subjects which, even when misunderstood, were always an integral part of the decoration of his ornamental ware? Many of the motifs he adopted from the richly illustrated folios and from antique and renaissance gems. He knew his countrymen’s collections. The British Museum was a storehouse containing endless suggestions for a person of his curiosity and imagination.

4. D'Harcanville's illustration of the carnelian from which Wedgwood's Three Graces was derived.

4. D'Harcanville's illustration of the carnelian from which Wedgwood's Three Graces was derived.

He had a discriminating eye for subjects that lent themselves happily to his particular medium. At times his transcriptions were literal; at others, they were more or less transformed variations on a classical theme. Always they became his own. There is a precious quality in everything that comes from his wheel or modeler’s tool, even when the source is monumental.

He employed the best artists he could command, men like John Flaxman who, though dependent on the classic, still brought originality to their work. And there was a small group of friends, like Lady Templeton and Lady Diana Beauclerck, who furnished designs for genre subjects.

In cataloguing the Winthrop Collection of Wedgwood an effort was made to note whenever possible the source of each design. Contemporary books were of great help.

5. Hygeia, a Wedgwood medallion modeled from a carnelian illustrated in Raspe's catalogue.

5. Hygeia, a Wedgwood medallion modeled from a carnelian illustrated in Raspe's catalogue.

Wedgwood himself had a considerable library. In writing to his partner, Thomas Bentley, in 1770, he listed the books then in his workshop. They included Count de Caylus’ monumental work, a volume of which was his constant traveling companion; catalogues of the collections of the papal-princes and cardinal-nephews in Italy; handbooks of ornament for the cabinetmaker and silversmith; Stuart’s Athens and others.

The list included d’Harcanville’s catalogue of the Hamilton (later Sir William Hamilton) Collection of Greek vases. Hamilton, the year before his appointment as envoy to the Court of Naples, had acquired the Portinari Collection and engaged the French archaeologist, d’Harcanville, to publish it.

Hamilton sent his brother-in-law in London, Lord Cathcart, proof sheets from this impressive four-volume work before its actual publication (1766-68). Cathcart, in turn, gave these proof-sheets to Wedgwood. It is easy to picture Wedgwood’s delight. Then shortly before Cathcart’s departure to the Court of Russia he presented Wedgwood with the first volume.

6. Raspe's illustration of the carnelian from which Wedgwood derived his Hygeia and AEsculapius.

6. Raspe's illustration of the carnelian from which Wedgwood derived his Hygeia and AEsculapius.

In our collection is an “Etruscan urn” (fig. 1) that can only be derived from a series of illustrations in this volume or its proof sheets (fig. 8). The identical vase, however, had been illustrated, though not in such detail, by Abbe Montfaucon in his Antiquité Expliqué (1722) which Wedgwood may have known from his British Museum visits. Our vase was made probably in the early 1770s since black basalt and encaustic painting were first introduced in 1767 and 1769 respectively. These “Etruscan” vases were less successful and far less interesting than Wedgwood’s later vases in the collection. In comparison with a 4th century amphora in the Fogg Museum, made by the Greeks in Tarantum and similar in detail, Wedgwood’s copy is dry and completely lacks the vigor and spontaneity of the Greek original.

A delicate tricolored jasper of Nymphs Caring for Pegasus (fig. 9), modeled by William Hackwood about 1790, also was inspired by an engraving (fig. 10). In the mid-17th century the Nasonii tomb in Rome, with its wall paintings of the 2nd century A.D., was discovered. These were published by Bellori six years after their discovery in 1680, Le pitture antiche del sepolcro de Nasonii, with engravings by Pietro Bartoli, and again in 1750 the engravings appear in Picturae antiquitae cryptarum Romanarum. From the rather dry and heavy figures in the engraving Wedgwood’s creatures come forth truly at home on Olympus.

7. AEsculapius, a Wedgwood medallion modeled from an engraved carnelian illustrated by Raspe.

7. AEsculapius, a Wedgwood medallion modeled from an engraved carnelian illustrated by Raspe.

The collection is fortunate in containing a pair of Flaxman’s Dancing Hours. The six figures on each plaque were first modeled in 1777-79. Obviously the design is derived from the Borghese Dancers, a Greco-Roman relief that decorated the Borghese Palace in Rome and entered the Louvre through Napoleon’s conquests. Flaxman had not yet been in Italy so his source probably was an engraving. These dancing maidens appear in Bartoli’s Admiranda Romanum Antiquitatum, 1695. They are repeated in Montfaucon (1722).

Flaxman may have known these engravings, or it is possible that at this moment Abbe Saint Non’s engraving in Recueil de griffonis (177173) of this same Pincian villa relief may have suggested to him his light, gay, carefree maidens. Apparently the slightly draped figures offended contemporary taste and it is assumed that Flaxman’s molds were destroyed, for in 1802 Hackwood remodeled them.

The latter version is better known today. The 18th century prejudice against the nude is clearly stated in a letter from Wedgwood to Flaxman in 1790. Wedgwood laments that it would mean expense and labor to clothe the figures, which were not selling, and adds that once clothed they are no longer classic.

8. The design copied by Wedgwood for the vase in fig. 1. Illustration from d'Harcanville's catalogue, of Greek vases in the collection of William Hamilton.

8. The design copied by Wedgwood for the vase in fig. 1. Illustration from d'Harcanville's catalogue, of Greek vases in the collection of William Hamilton.

Many of the Italian collections of gems, as they came on the market, found their way to England. Wedgwood knew certain of these cabinets and his patrons were more than generous in placing them at his disposal. At first he took his designs from casts supplied by James Tassie, a Scotsman who developed a “vitrious paste” with an enamel-like texture closely resembling the gems.

He was not the sole maker of paste impressions. Christian Dehn flourished in Rome and Lippert in Dresden issued a series arranged in neat cabinets. But it was Tassie who had access to the great English and Continental collections. His was the largest collection of its kind in existence and demands for his impressions were constant. Indeed, his reputation reached Catherine of Russia who ordered a complete set of nearly 16,000 items. Rudolph Raspe’s catalogue of Tassie’s gems, published in 1791, is a valuable source of information and is amazingly accurate.

The design in our tri-colored medallion of the Three Graces (fig. 3), convex in shape to be used as a watch back, comes from a carnelian in the King of Naples’ collection, probably a Tassie paste. The subject is repeated in collection after collection as well as in d’Harcanville (fig. 4); who describes it as a sujet que je ne puis expliquer. In each the central figure is nude; Wedgwood, however, has discretely draped his central Grace.

One of the handsomest of Wedgwood’s designs, Ganymede Feeding the Eagle, appears to have come from a Roman sardonyx in the Duke of Marlborough’s collection. The subject was known through engravings. It appears with variations in Montfaucon; Maffie’s catalogue of the gems of Cosimo III; as an initial letter in d’Harcanville and also in the catalogue of the Marlborough gems.

9. Nymphs Caring for Pegasus, a tri-colored Wedgwood jasper inspired by Bartoli's late 17th century engraving of a wall-painting in the Nasonii tomb (2nd century A.D. Roman).

9. Nymphs Caring for Pegasus, a tri-colored Wedgwood jasper inspired by Bartoli's late 17th century engraving of a wall-painting in the Nasonii tomb (2nd century A.D. Roman).

But Wedgwood’s boy has become a youth. Is it possible that the source is some intermediary gem? In the British Museum there is a renaissance cameo that was at the time in the collection of the French Crown. In it the Ganymede, although undraped, seems closer to Wedgwood’s youth.

Often subjects in gems were misunderstood. We have an illustration of this in two medallions, AEsculapius (fig. 7) and Hygeia (fig. 5), derived from a carnelian. Raspe, deploring the cinquento ignorance of classic subjects, describes an engraving of a renaissance rock crystal, entitled “Moses and Peace” (fig. 6), in which these figures confront each other.

A source that is neither an engraving nor a gem but an actual piece of sculpture is reflected in an oval jasper medallion, Adonis (fig. 2). The Wedgwood and Bentley imprint places it in the decade of the 1770s. In this decade, in fact in 1771, Lord Shelburne (later Marquis of Lansdowne) following a visit to Italy, engaged Gavin Hamilton in Rome to collect sculpture for Shelburne House which he had recently acquired from Lord Bute. In four short years the order was consummated at great cost. Among the marbles brought to England was a Hermes, which had been excavated in 1771 in Tor Colombaro on the Appian Way. Our small Adonis clearly was modeled after the Lansdowne Hermes.

10. Illustration from Bartoli's engravings of Roman tomb paintings.

10. Illustration from Bartoli's engravings of Roman tomb paintings.

Perhaps the best known instance of Wedgwood’s copying the antique is the famed Portland Vase. A Graeco-Roman amphora of deep blue glass, decorated with figures of white opaque glass, was discovered near Rome about 1580. Supposedly it was found in the sarcophagus of the Roman Emperor, Alexander Severus, under the Monte Grano, but present-day scholars question this point and are uncertain about its exact provenience.

It was long in the library of the Barberini palace. Sir William Hamilton purchased the vase from a dealer in Rome who had obtained it from the mother of Prince Barberini in payment of her gambling debts. It was Sir William who sold it to the Duchess of Portland in 1784.

So much secrecy surrounded the transaction that even the family were unaware of its purchase until her death in 1786 when it came into the possession of her son. The new Duke of Portland entrusted it to Wedgwood to copy. It had been published in the 17th century and was illustrated by Montfaucon. Writers had speculated on the material but Wedgwood seems to have been the first to find it glass. His correspondence is filled with the difficulties he encountered in making a facsimile.

The first successful copy was exhibited in London in 1790 and created a storm of acclaim. This copy is now in the British Museum. Other copies were made between 1791-96, probably not more than thirty of the so-called “first fifty.” Today only half of that number are known and they are in European collections. The copy in the Winthrop Collection is, we believe, the first recorded in this country.

Wedgwood used his subjects with great flexibility. He separated and combined figures and motifs again and again. His repertoire was so great that a search for his sources is endless but there is no research more fascinating or rewarding. The few examples mentioned here may suggest to students of Wedgwood’s work that much yet remains to be discovered about his sources.

All photographs from The Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University. Collectors and students of Wedgwood Ware will find the catalogue of Grenville Winthrop’s Wedgwood Collection-prepared by Jean Gorely and Mary Wadsworth (published by the Fogg Museum) of high value and interest.

This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.

2 comments so far

  1. Nina Says:

    I have a ring that is almost an exact copy/replica(??) of picture no.4
    It is almost as if either the drawing was taken form the ring or the ring copied off the drawing.

    All I knw is my ring is a glass stone in a new (C.1910) setting
    I am thinking it was a tassie- is there a way to find out.
    This picture brings the idea closer but still I am not sure where to go from here. Got any hints or tips for me?

  2. Margaret Gregory Says:

    approx 18″high beautiful Black Vase/Urn with White etched figues of 3 Men
    one sat down one standing with harp one standing with shepherds crook
    on back etched design and etched all around top and bottom


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.




z