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'The Fall of Phaeton' tablet, by Wedgwood

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About the artwork

When people think of Wedgwood they probably think of teapots and vases. But the product which made Wedgwood different from any British potter before him was the tablet or plaque. He saw an opportunity for pottery to become part of fashionable interior decoration.

In the years around 1770 architects such as Robert Adam were transforming the style of fashionable rooms, trying to capture the spirit of ancient Roman and Greek decoration. Many of the fittings and furnishings which they designed included groups of classical figures in low relief. Some of these compositions were copies of ancient stone sculptures, others were greatly enlarged versions of tiny ancient carved gemstones.

Wedgwood decided to make architectural tablets that would suit fashionable rooms in this style. His first tablets were either black, or of what he described as ‘white waxen Biscuit Ware’. His catalogue of 1773 described this second sort as ‘in the polished Biscuit with brown or grey Grounds’ and as ‘fit for inlaying, as Medallions, in the Panels of Rooms, as Tablets for Chimneypieces, or for hanging up as Ornaments in Libraries & c.’ These were tablets with a contrast between the colour of the design and the colour of the background. By making them like this, Wedgwood was able to outdo his main competitor producing tablets, Eleanor Coade of the Artificial Stone Manufactory, because hers were of a single colour.

In 1772 Wedgwood began experiments to create a new type of pottery, which would be white but could be coloured through the body in pastel tints. This was the pottery he would name jasper. He invented it to make architectural tablets, for until 1780 these were the only large objects he made of it. The colours were those most fashionable for painting rooms in the 1770s – soft blue, green, and lilac. Jasper is the name of a hard mineral used as carved jewellery, especially in a cameo technique in which the top layer is partly cut away. Wedgwood’s white reliefs against a coloured background looked like cameo carving, but the mineral jasper is red or brown and Wedgwood did not make his jasper in those colours. He wanted to suggest the values of jewellery while using the colours of interior decoration.

Flat objects are the hardest shape for a potter to make. In a hollow round object like a vase the shape helps to even out any tendency to warp in the heat of the kiln, but there is nothing to stop a flat tablet from warping or curling up. In 1776 Wedgwood was struggling to make fifteen-inch tablets without them cracking. Three years later he was firing this size with success, but was now struggling to fire 28-inch tablets. The Lady Lever Art Gallery possesses the largest jasper tablets that the first Josiah Wedgwood ever made.

The very high survival rate Wedgwood quickly achieved with jasper vases was never matched by large tablets. Their continuing production shows how determined Wedgwood was in his architectural ambitions for jasper: he saw the large tablets as his most prestigious products, and was therefore prepared to use the bulk of his production to subsidise the relatively small number he made.