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Vasemania, by Wedgwood and Bentley

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About the artwork

Wedgwood wrote a letter in 1769 describing the stampede of buyers at his London showroom: 'There was no getting to the door for Coaches, nor into the rooms for Ladies and Gentlemen and ... Vases was all the cry.' He had only recently started making vases. Why were they selling faster than he could make them?

It had been the fashion to decorate rooms with vases - especially Chinese porcelain vases - for at least a century. In the 1690s William III's Queen Mary displayed Chinese blue and white vases in great clumps, on the tops of Chinese lacquer cabinets, filling all the space on top. Later, in the middle of the 18th century, English porcelain factories opened, and made vases in the curly Rococo style of the day.

Wedgwood began making vases in a style quite different from previous English ceramics. This was his first major venture into making ceramics for interior decoration. Before this he had been basically a tableware manufacturer, but he spotted an opening in the market for decorative wares of a type that nobody else in England was making.

In the 1760s the fashionable style of interior decoration was changing. The leading architects Robert and James Adam, James 'Athenian' Stuart and William Chambers all created novel interiors inspired by ancient Greece and Rome. This new fashion was a big contrast to the previous Rococo style, which suddenly looked awkward and outdated.

Many of the gentry had never given their rooms the full Rococo treatment. They had relied on movable furnishings and ornaments to make their living spaces look fashionable. This made it much easier to make the change to the new fashion in the years around 1770. The term art-historians use for this fashion is 'Neoclassical’ but they called it 'the antique taste' because 'antique' meant 'from the ancient world'.

Fashion-conscious householders who wanted their drawing room to look at least a bit like Adam needed not only furniture but also ornaments in the 'antique taste'. Most of all they needed vases. The Adam brothers employed a team of craftsmen who designed and made ornaments, usually in carved and painted wood, for their customers. Both of Stuart and Chambers depended on independent craftsmen to make up their exclusive designs, especially one metalworker, Nicolaus Diederich Anderson who unfortunately died in 1767.

It may well have been Wedgwood's friend and partner Thomas Bentley, a Liverpool merchant, who pointed him towards this potential new market. Unlike Wedgwood, Bentley had received a classical education and was familiar with ancient Greek and Roman culture. In the 18th century this was the most important element in the education of any gentleman. Bentley understood both the classics and fashionable taste.

Wedgwood imitated the veining of marble by using a mixture of liquid clay of different colours, and coating the vase with it. It was a very skilled job to apply the colours in the right sort of swirls without making the colours blend together too much. He also imitated the appearance of darker stones like granite or porphyry by a different technique. Coloured oxides in powder form were sponged on to the vase. It was then dipped in glaze and fired. In the firing, the colours ran and blended in the glaze, giving a mottled appearance like stone.

Wedgwood also developed a special new pottery body: - black, and so hard that the pots did not need any glaze. He at first referred to his black vases as Etruscan. Ancient Etruria was modern Tuscany, and in the 18th century the tombs of the Etruscans were being unearthed. Wedgwood and Bentley opened a new factory in Staffordshire in 1769 to make their ornamental wares, and deliberately named it Etruria, so that their customers would associate it with their black pottery..

In the early 1770s Wedgwood did not have a serious competitor making vases in the 'antique taste'. Matthew Boulton in Birmingham started making them in gilt bronze at about the same time as Wedgwood, but his were much more expensive. Porcelain factories were at a disadvantage because porcelain did not look like any sort of ancient pottery. Eleanor Coade at Lambeth made vases of a ceramic 'artificial stone' but this looked uninteresting next to Wedgwood's coloured wares, and was better suited for garden ornaments. Among the Staffordshire potters only Humphrey Palmer and his partner the London china dealer James Neale attempted to compete.

By 1770, the rush of fashionable gentry equipping themselves with Wedgwood's 'pebble' vases had subsided. He began to make them in larger batches, which in turn made them cheaper so the middle classes could afford them.
On 23 August he wrote:

'We could make them almost as currently as useful ware, and at one half the expense we have hitherto done, provided I durst set the men to make about 6 to 12 dozen of a sort. The Great People have had these Vases in their Palaces long enough for them to be seen and admired by the Middling Class of People, which class we know are vastly, I had almost said, infinitely superior in numbers to the Great, and although a great price was, I believe, at first necessary to make the vases esteemed Ornament for Palaces, that reason no longer exists. Their character is established, and the middling People would probably buy quantitys of them at a reduced price.'

The other advantage, though he did not mention it, was that once the middle classes owned these vases, the rich would not want them any more and would be ready to buy Wedgwood's latest invention.