Josiah Wedgwood, English potter extraordinaire, was born on this day in 1730. Perhaps dishware doesn’t seem super enthralling, but the pristine white porcelain which poured out of a humming Stoke-on-Trent factory and made Wedgwood’s fortune represents much more than one’s ability to host smashing dinner parties. The clean lines and smooth paleness of some of Wedgwood’s best-loved designs are in fact aligned with broad themes of equality, logic and elevation of the human spirit. It turns out the rattling contents of Granny’s china cabinet serve up Enlightenment-era thought right along with her crumbly poppy seed coffeecake.
For Wedgwood did more than sketch fragile-looking teacups all day. He was a true Enlightenment Man— a scientist, teacher, inventor, antiquarian, philanthropist, abolitionist and vehement supporter of both the American and French revolutions. Well-read and curious, opinionated and active in the intellectual circles of his day, it’s somehow not surprising that he was also the maternal grandfather of Charles Darwin. Yet most importantly for this particular train of thought, Wedgwood was a staunch disciple of J.J. Winckelmann’s philosophies concerning the ancient world.
Let’s now take a brief historical detour. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was born the homosexual son of an average German cobbler. He preferred devouring books to resoling work boots, and, as his penchant for bright silks and skin-tight leather breeches might make obvious, the young Winckelmann ached for more cosmopolitan surroundings. He left his native village for Dresden in 1748, where he fortuitously wandered into a storeroom of classical statuary, full of bare white marble buttocks, chiseled abdomens and rippling thighs and chest muscles. Winckelmann had never gazed upon beings so noble and lovely, and he made it his life’s duty to convince all the world of their merits. So he traveled to Rome (where else?) in 1755, and the Eternal City’s decaying white colonnades and triumphal arches promptly inspired him to pen treatises hailing the glories of classical civilisations. His writings impressed the big boys in Vatican City, and Winckelmann was appointed as the Church’s Keeper of Antiquities. One day, while babysitting the pope’s cache of Greco-Roman plunder, Winckelmann came across the Apollo Belvedere in its svelte, virile majesty and consequently began crushing pretty hard. Never before had Winckelmann seen a specimen so well-formed, so white. Though we now know the ancients painted their sculptures all the gaudiest hues of the rainbow, in Winckelmann’s time it was assumed the figures had always been a clean shade of alabaster. To Winckelmann, the Apollo Belvedere’s whiteness was synonymous with the intrinsic sophistication of ancient Greece; the ideals of Beauty, Health, Simplicity and Reason wrought in pallid stone. And such were the cardinal virtues Winckelmann yearned to see instilled on all societal levels in his own age.
Liberal-minded men of the arts and sciences like Wedgwood were exactly the sort Winckelmann wanted to cultivate in his neo-classical, bleached utopia. Wedgwood, too, acknowledged the appeal of cleansing and equalising society through deference to and replication of the very purest manifestations of art. In personal response to Winckelmann’s edicts, Wedgwood strove to create Europe’s first true white glaze, a nagging secret only previously cracked by far-off Chinese ceramists. British crockery had always been necessarily decorated in subdued earthy tones, however, Wedgwood’s ingenuity and knack for mass production would bring the orderly silhouettes and perfect colouration of all that was Good to tabletops across many lands. In 1761, after over four hundred disappointing experiments, Wedgwood’s breakthrough came in the form of an even, transparent glaze that remained resplendently achromatic after firing.
Wedgwood’s first victorious display of his innovation took form on a series of porcelain medallions embellished with profiles of heroes of the Enlightenment, white cameos to make men like Voltaire, Joseph Banks and Captain Cook appear as mighty as the first Roman emperors. He then focused his efforts on a complete service for all rational thinking peoples to sup from, his white-on-white-all-over Queensware. The line’s name came from Wedgwood’s patronage by Queen Anne and had its spiffy advertising benefits, but its maker’s belief in dignity and transcendence for all is present in every piece, from the grand vases with lion masques and garlands to the stark white potpourri diffuser, salt cellar, honey pot and wispy covered egg cup. Wedgwood’s work is riveting in its simplicity; its frosty immaculate curves sold admirably well and inspired legions of copycats. By the end of the eighteenth century, white was all the rage, and classical lines a symbol of good taste and manners. The better-off went to Mr. Wedgwood for their share of enlightened soup tureens, while knock-offs accommodated other budgets. Even today, when neo-classicism and neo-neo-classicism have come and gone, and the kitchenware market and fabrication techniques are limitless as never before, Wedgwood’s aesthetic still pervades. Newlyweds are often littered with sets of stoically elegant salad plates registered for at swanky department stores, and stacks of fluted white ramekins are snagged cheaply each day at Ikea. Directly and indirectly, in life and death, Wedgwood succeeded splendidly in his clear-sighted campaign to bring scores of citizens into the light.
Source: BBC Four, The History of Art in Three Colours (Episode 3: White) with Dr. James Fox, 2012