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Josiah Wedgwood had been a great friend of Dr Erasmus Darwin. Both were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the gathering of scientifically-minded men who met once a month at the time of the full moon, so that there would be enough light to ride home in the dark.  Erasmus Darwin was a radical thinker and was already working towards a theory of evolution, although it was his grandson Charles who worked this out and published it as 'The Origin of Species'. Erasmus Darwin was a keen botanist, which even inspired poetry.

In 1879 the Liverpool Art Club held a large and famous exhibition of Wedgwood.  A catalogue entry reads ‘’Plate in white pottery with painted decoration of water lilies.” It was, in fact, a dinner plate from the service made for Dr Darwin by Josiah Wedgwood lent by Sir Joseph Hooker, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Over time different pieces of the service changed hands. Hooker sold the service to William Erasmus Darwin, son of Charles Darwin and great-great-grandson of Erasmus Darwin. Just before he died in 1914, William Erasmus gave two plates and a tureen to the dealer Frederick Rathbone. Rathbone gave them to his two best customers: Lever, the best, got a plate and a tureen; Grenville Lindall Winthrop in America, second best, simply got a plate. Rathbone told him that when Erasmus Darwin completed his poem 'The Loves of Plants', Wedgwood presented him with the service as a compliment, in about 1782.

This is a splendid story, but it’s completely wrong. The water lily pattern on the service is not painted but printed, and printed under the glaze. The Wedgwood factory did not do any printing before glazing until 1805. By this time Josiah Wedgwood I and Erasmus Darwin were both dead. The water lily pattern in brown was in fact produced for only three years, from 1808 to 1811. As a printed pattern it was mass-produced, not designed for one special service.

The source of the design was a botanical magazine, The Botanists’ Repository of Henry C. Andrews. The Wedgwood design actually takes elements from three different illustrations. Most of it, including the middle, comes from the illustrations of 'Nelumbium speciosum', the Sacred Lotus of the Buddha, published in February 1806. But the background fill on the left comes from the illustration of the Starry water lily, 'nymphaea stellata', published three years earlier. And a bit of fill on the right comes from a third illustration the Lotus of Egypt, 'nymphaea lotus', published in 1804. Botanical painting on china had been the fashion for almost twenty years, but this was the first time that printing was used for accurate botanical decoration.

John had inherited his father’s scientific interest, but through Erasmus Darwin and his son Robert Waring Darwin, he had become interested in plants. In 1794 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. After his father died the following year he bought himself a country house, Cote House at Westbury near Bristol. He was an inactive partner in the pottery and also in a bank. He spent his time on horticulture. The gardens at Cote House became so well known that the King’s gardener William Forsyth came to visit and exchanged advice and information. In 1801 John proposed to Forsyth the foundation of a Horticultural Society. Three years later he presided over the inaugural meeting of what was to become the Royal Horticultural Society. In March 1806 he was succeeded as Treasurer by his friend the Rt Hon Charles Greville. The water-lilies grown by Greville in his hothouses at Paddington Green were celebrated, and it was one of his specimens which was drawn by Sydenham Edwards for the illustration of the Sacred Lotus of the Buddha in the Botanical Magazine. As we have seen, this was published in February 1806 and by the autumn of that year Wedgwood’s engravers were using it to make their pattern. John Wedgwood’s special interest in all this makes it highly probable that the water lily design was his idea.

So was the involvement of the Darwins just a misunderstanding? When Hooker wrote to William Erasmus Darwin in 1895 he offered to sell him ‘your grandfather’s breakfast and dessert services’. William Erasmus was the son of Charles Darwin the naturalist, and grandson of Dr Robert Waring Darwin and his wife Susannah, daughter of the first Josiah Wedgwood. Josiah Wedgwood was Charles Darwin’s grandfather.

After Wedgwood died in 1795, the business was run by his old partner Thomas Byerley. Wedgwood’s sons Josiah and John took a back seat. In 1800 John learned that Alexander Davison & Co, the bank in which he was a sleeping partner, was in trouble. The bank demanded more capital from the partners to keep it afloat. Suddenly John needed more income from the pottery. He re-joined as a partner and started drawing three times more money from the business as was his rightful share of the profits. Meanwhile the pottery itself, neglected by the brothers, was not doing well. In 1804 John moved to Seabridge near Newcastle-under-Lyme in order to be nearer to the factory, and attempted to improve the discipline of work.

John created a new under glaze-printing department to bring the factory’s technology up to date and put his second cousin Abner Wedgwood in charge of it. John did not have a good head for business. He and his brother Josiah would send the firm’s accounts to Robert Waring Darwin in Shrewsbury for him to check.

Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Darwin lived at the Mount in Frankwell, Shrewsbury, and their house is open to the public. In 1807 Susannah wrote to her brother Josiah Wedgwood on 25 August about a new dinner service:

By 1810 John Wedgwood was in debt to his brother Jos for £5000 and to his brother-in-law Robert Waring Darwin for even more. He was insolvent and had to resign his partnership in the Wedgwood Company. In 1816 the bank in which he was a partner failed and his financial ruin was complete.

Robert Waring Darwin’s son Charles followed the Darwin tradition and John Wedgwood in being keenly interested in nature. He did not want to follow his father into medicine and went to Cambridge expecting to study for the Church. At Cambridge he met the Revd John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, and also became interested in geology. After he came down from Cambridge in 1831, Charles went on a geological tour of Wales. When he returned home to Shrewsbury he found a letter from Henslow recommending him to apply for the job of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle which was to make a surveying voyage round the world.

Charles’ father objected to this plan, still convinced that his son was going to become a clergyman. But he said ‘If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent.’ Charles went to see Uncle Jos Wedgwood. Jos not only wrote to Robert but also accompanied Charles back home to persuade Robert that Charles should go. Robert changed his mind and agreed to finance the voyage by continuing Charles’ allowance. The rest is history.

This is not the final Wedgwood link with Darwin. In 1838 Charles Darwin married Jos Wedgwood’s daughter Emma. She was his cousin, because they were both grandchildren of the first Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Sarah, who were themselves cousins. It was a family tradition. Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline also married Emma Wedgwood’s brother the third Josiah Wedgwood. With Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood, that makes four intermarriages.
The Wedgwood ancestry certainly left his grandson Charles with more of a taste for botany than for Wedgwood. In 1856 when he was in need of a new billiard table and decided to sell a group of thirty-five wax models for Wedgwood designs which he had inherited from his mother. They had been made in Rome to the order of the first Josiah Wedgwood between 1788 and 1790 by several different modellers, but mostly by two Italian sculptors Camillo Pacetti and Giuseppe Angelini. They had all been modelled on backboards made of slate, and then painstakingly packed up, shipped to England and delivered to Josiah. They were – and are - the most important body of original design material surviving from the Wedgwood factory in Josiah’s time.

Charles Darwin opened negotiations with the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A, through an intermediary, the leading Wedgwood collector Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks. The V&A did not want the lot and would only make an offer for six of the thirty-five. Darwin did not want them himself but he knew they should be kept together as a group, so he refused.  Marjoribanks solved the problem by buying them himself and keeping them together. They decorated his shooting lodge at Guisachan in the far north of Scotland along with most of his Wedgwood collection. He became Lord Tweedmouth, and after he died they eventually went with the rest of his Wedgwood collection to a London dealer Charles Davis to be sold as separate lots. Lever stepped in and bought not only all the wax models but the entire Tweedmouth collection of Wedgwood, so the whole lot have ended up here. If Charles Darwin had not needed a new billiard table when he did, the story might have been very different… 

You can download a pdf document of the full talk about the link between Wedgwood and Darwin below: