Lever's Wedgwood, what makes it the best in the world?

Internationally-renowned Wedgwood expert Robin Emmerson tells us why he believes our Wedgwood collection is the best in the world.

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The Wedgwood pottery collected by the founder of Unilever, Sir William Lever (later Lord Leverhulme), ended up in the art gallery he founded in his model village of Port Sunlight, named after the soap which was his most famous branded product.

How did the soap king’s collection manage to outdo the national museums in London or the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York you may ask? At first sight the claim that it’s the best seems presumptuous. The collection does not have a decent coverage of Wedgwood made after the death of its founder Josiah Wedgwood in 1795. In answer to that, one can argue that the most innovative and important work was made under Josiah’s leadership.

But the collection doesn’t even have a decent coverage of everything Josiah made: the cream-coloured earthenware tableware which made his fortune, the stuff he called his Useful Ware, is almost completely absent. He had two different partnerships, one of them with his cousin Thomas to make the Useful Ware. Thomas was therefore known as Useful Thomas.

Josiah’s other partnership was with a Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley. They made pottery for interior decoration, and it is this Ornamental Ware which Lever collected. His collection has the finest pieces of jasperware, the pottery which Josiah considered his greatest achievement.

Five whole 18th century mantelpiece surrounds of jasperware are known to survive: Lever bought three of them, the other two escaped to America. Lever fought a running battle with the dealer who owned two of the surrounds, and in the end his patience enabled him to get them at half the asking price.

Lever bought four of the giant earthenware tablets Wedgwood made specially for George Stubbs to paint on in enamel colours. By firing the colours in a kiln, Stubbs could fix them for ever so that they would never fade. The tablets were the most difficult things that Josiah Wedgwood ever made. The largest size one were forty-two inches long when they went into his kiln: only three survive, Lever bought two, and the third went to America.

American buyers dominated the market in Wedgwood in the early 20th century – except for Lever, the one British collector who could outbid them. He got off to a flying start by buying wholesale the best collection of jasperware put together in the 19th century, the collection of Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks, the first Lord Tweedmouth. For half a century this collection was at Guisachan House in the far north of Scotland, and despite its remoteness was visited by Gladstone and his cabinet ministers, and by the future King George V and Queen Mary. By acting quickly to buy the whole collection before it could be dispersed, Lever acquired at a stroke the most important collection of Wedgwood which then existed. Further purchases meant that no-one could catch him up.