About the artwork
Between 1781 and 1786 Wedgwood made his most ambitious fireplace products, a series of tablets designed to go all the way around a mantelpiece. Only four complete 18th century jasper mantelpieces like this are known to survive, and three of the four are in this room.
The fourth one is in the USA, at Biltmore House in North Carolina, a mansion of the Vanderbilts, and it was put in when the house was built in the 1870s. Of the three in this room, the green one came from the house of the Master of the Mint in Dublin, and the other two came from Longton Hall in Staffordshire.
We know when Wedgwood was making chimneypieces of this type because they are recorded in the factory’s Oven Books. These are a list, made once a fortnight, of what went into the kilns and what came out. The spelling is a sort of phonetic rendering of the Staffordshire dialect. At the end of March 1782 the book lists a number of pieces ‘for a chindeypiece colud Ceres’, in green and white. The Lady Lever has a chimneypiece with the head of Ceres, but it is in blue and white. One of these was made in 1783, and another in 1786. The records do not list all the pieces of each chimneypiece, and it is therefore possible that more chimneypieces were made than were recorded.
In 1786 another type is recorded for the first time, described as an ‘Aribaske’ chimneypiece. This is the dialect spelling for arabesque, referring to the scrolling foliage on the friezes of the other two Lady Lever examples. The following year two green ones of this type were made, and the components are listed, including the heads of the Gorgon Medusa, and the ‘Jug festoon’ on the uprights. Soon afterwards a blue one was also made.
Wedgwood kept working until his death at the beginning of 1795, but no other example is found in the Oven Books. We can only guess at why he stopped making them. Perhaps it was just too difficult to make all the elements to match exactly, or perhaps they were just too difficult and fragile for builders to set into marble surrounds without damaging them. Despite this they remain the largest and most spectacular objects ever made by Josiah Wedgwood in his favourite material.
Josiah Wedgwood’s most famous product is the one he developed in 1775, the hard stoneware pottery in blue and white or green and white, to which he gave the brand name jasper ware.
We tend now to think of it as a material for vases or teacups, but for the first seven years it was produced, that was not what it was used for. There were good reasons for this. The jasper body, as the clay mixture is called, is difficult to work. If you throw it on a potter’s wheel, you need great skill to prevent it from tearing.
What Wedgwood concentrated on for the first seven years of jasper were flat tablets. He started small, with little medallions, but by May 1776 he had made a tablet over a foot long, and sent it proudly to his London showroom with a note that said,
‘the only one which has stood free from cracking in cooling out of four. So you must put a tolerable price on the living, or the dead will not be paid for. The tablet of Silenus if it had been whole would have been worth 4 or 5 guineas….Nothing so fine can be had for five times the money, if at all, and these things can only be had from us, nor shall we have any competitors in haste.’
Why did Wedgwood want to make tablets? He intended them as architectural decoration for rooms, especially for fireplaces. Over the previous decade the fashionable style for interiors had changed from curly Rococo to four-square Neoclassical. Architects like Robert Adam and James Wyatt were using panels with classical figures in relief as focal points on walls, chimneypieces and even furniture.
Some very flashy chimneypieces in the style were made in Rome using many different colours of Italian marble, and were imported into England by the very rich - you could easily pay £200 for one. An enterprising duo named Bartoli and Richter set up business in England to supply the demand at a slightly lower price.
Wedgwood’s tablets were not really stone or marble, but they were just as smooth and beautifully finished. He chose a soft blue and green because in the 1770s these were the most popular colours for painting walls. When used for a fireplace, his tablets were intended to be set into a fire-surround of marble or painted wood. The one called the Apotheosis of Homer could be bought in 1779 for six guineas (£6.30). Smaller pieces, which he called friezes, could be bought to go on either side of it and square pieces called blocks to go at either end.