Basalt vase painted in encaustic colours, about 1785

Basalt vase painted in encaustic colours, about 1785

Many vases made by the partnership used an established Staffordshire technique of decorating earthenware with powdered oxides to resemble marble and other stones. Some designs came not from ancient sources but from 17 th century prints. The vase on this page is an adaptation of a design by Stefano della Bella dating from the 1640s and republished in London in 1762.

Wedgwood was careful to aim his new products at the top end of the market and price them accordingly. His strategy can be seen in a letter he wrote to Bentley in 1771: 'The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admir'd by the Middling Class of People, which class we know are vastly, I had almost said infinitely, superior in numbers to the Great, & though a great price was I believe at first necessary to make the Vases esteemed Ornaments for Palaces that reason no longer exists. Their character is established, & the middling People would probably buy quantitys of them at a reduced price.'

Wedgwood wanted to imitate the matt black surface of ancient Greek red-figure vases, at that time thought to be Etruscan. A matt, unglazed red pottery of the hard kind we call stoneware was already widely made in Staffordshire, inspired by Chinese originals. Although much ancient pottery was red, Wedgwood never liked this colour because he thought it looked too much like ordinary red teapots which were a standard Staffordshire product.

He developed unglazed stoneware in other hues, first black and then the ware in white and various colours which he named jasper. By 1773 the black ware was called 'basaltes' after the black basalt rock which was used in ancient times for sculpture. Wedgwood patented a technique for decorating the new black ware in matt colours. He named it 'encaustic' painting because there was much scholarly interest at the time in an ancient technique of this name described by the Roman writer Pliny.

Wedgwood knew that it was different from his method, but saw that the name had the right associations to sell his ware. The vases made on the first day at the new Etruria factory in 1769 were of this type. Josiah himself 'threw' them on the potter's wheel, and referred to them as Etruscan.