The Arts of Etruria

Wedgwood’s London shop opened in 1768, under his partner Bentley’s management, and ‘Etruria’ was built in North Staffordshire. Over the years it hired thousands of workers to produce the medallions, miniature sculptures, vases and cameos that made the firm so successful. Wedgwood chose the name because, as we have seen, all ancient Greek and Italian vases were often subsumed under the name ‘Etruscan’: the very first six vases manufactured there, on 13th June 1769, bore the motto ‘Artes Etruriae Renascuntur’, ‘The Arts of Etruria are Reborn’. Wedgwood threw these pots while Bentley turned the wheel. The shape and the illustration, depicting three semi-naked Greek heroic male figures, were all drawn from an image in the first volume of Hamilton’s Antiquities. The pots were black, ten inches high, made of basalt and painted in the ‘encaustic’ enamelled manner with red figures then known as the ‘Etruscan’ style.64

On employing John Flaxman and John Voyez, a superb modeller of busts, the association of Wedgwood’s name with classical shapes and imagery was consolidated.65 Another important collaborator was James Tassie (1735-1799), a Scottish gem engraver and modeller, born into poverty in Glasgow and apprenticed to a stonemason. He was inspired to change direction after visiting central Glasgow during a fair and seeing the painting collection of the printers Robert and Andrew Foulis (see above p. 336), of whom a relation of his own, a Glasgow barber, was a good friend.66 Still supporting himself by his masonry work, with the encouragement of a Dublin medallion-maker, Tassie developed a method of imitating ancient engraved gems in a hard enamel.67 This required taking impressions of hundreds of examples in museums and private collections. He was the greatest expert on this category of ancient artefact in Europe,68 and specialised in white enamel cameos of classical gods and heroes inspired by ancient artefacts.69 Tassie provided numerous casts for reproduction by Wedgwood from 1769, and they constantly exchanged designs. Independently of each other they both made fine reproductions of the Portland Vase.70

Etruria set an example to the pottery industry internationally. Wedgwood based his factory organisation on the principle of the division of labour, requiring specialisation in each of his workers and single processes conducted in separate workshops. New types of ceramic product required the mastery of difficult new techniques in cutting, pressing and casting. The expanding size of the market demanded increases in the volume and variety of goods.71 In the enamel works he opened in Greek Street, London, the same system was adopted: designs moved from the painting room to the kiln room, then the account room and finally the ware room to be stored. His workers were similarly separated: The ‘fine figure Painters are another ord[e]r of beings’ compared with the common ‘flower painters’, he wrote,72 and they were kept separate, better paid, and required to develop their single skill to consummate level: ‘We are preparing some hands to work at red & black [ware] ... constantly & then we shall make them good’.73 In June 1790, there were 278 men, women and children employed at Etruria, of whom only 5 were ‘Odd Men’, general workers of the lowest status assigned to no specific task.74

Wedgwood retrained his workers tirelessly. In 1773 Tsarina Catherine sent him her famous order for a 952-piece dinner service painted with ‘the most embelished views, the most beautiful Landskips, with Gothique Ruins, Grecian Temples, & the most Elegant Buildings’; Wedgwood was worried that many of his workforce would not be up to the task—‘hands who have never attempted anything beyond Huts and Windmills, upon Dutch Tile at three half-pence a doz!’ But, as he wrote to Bentley, if they could ‘succeed in this, tell me no more of your Alexanders, no more of your Prometheus’s neither, for surely it is more to make Artists than mere men’.75 Both the Macedonian monarch Alexander and the demiurge Prometheus, who had modelled the first humans out of clay, were the subjects of artworks made at Etruria by the very people Wedgwood was determined to make into artists himself. His visionary approach and encyclopaedic knowledge attracted requests for employment, for example from one Jos Mayer:

ETRURIA, on Accot of the Proprietor, as well as the delightful, salubrious situation, and beauty of the place, is thereby render’d to me the most eligible ... [I would like to work in] a place that derives its beauty, elegance, and granduer [sic], from the embellishments, and decorations of so good a judge, and so great a Connoisseur of the Fine Arts, as Mr Wedgwood is universally and justly allow’d to be.76

Despite his obsequiously flowery prose, poor Mayer did not secure a position.

One reason that pottery workers were keen to work for Wedgwood was that he invited them to participate in his vision that they were collectively engineering the renascence of the lost art of classical pottery, to make the Arts of Etruria live once again in Staffordshire. This was in the Enlightenment tradition by which workers in all kinds of trades identified classical ancestors or were compared with classical experts by admirers. The achievements of the late 17th-century potter John Dwight were summarised in 1677 by the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford thus:

In short, he has so advanced the Art Plastick that ’tis dubious whether any man since Prometheus have excelled him, not excepting the famous Damophilus and Gorgasus of Pliny.

(Nat. Hist. lib. xxxv. c. 12)77

Other factories in the potteries encouraged their workers to participate in similar flights of fancy, and to keep up with the news of finds in Mediterranean excavations. A Samuel Alcock vase was designed to imitate one found at Cumae in 1855 after an article publicising it was published in the Illustrated Loudon News (Figure 21.2a and Figure 21.2b), as the information on the vase’s base proudly informs the reader.

The ‘renascence’ trend spread across the nation. When Samuel Worthington opened his new pottery factory in Toxteth near Liverpool in 1796, he recruited about 60 skilled pottery workers from Staffordshire, and shipped them up by canal to their new homes. He chose to name the factory and the settlement for workers adjacent to it ‘Herculaneum’, in imitation of Wedgwood’s ‘Etruria’ and in homage to William Hamilton’s seminal collection.78 An early commission was for the dinner and dessert services of the Liverpool Corporation for use at the Town Hall; these had the Liverpool coat-of-arms, complete with resplendent figures of Neptune and Triton printed on the rim of every item.79 The stamp of Bell’s Pottery in Glasgow depicted a classically delineated

A and B Vase by Samuel Alcock, designed to imitate one found at Cumae in 1855,© Edith Hall

FIGURE 21.2 A and B Vase by Samuel Alcock, designed to imitate one found at Cumae in 1855,© Edith Hall.

Amazon on horseback. Ransome’s Patent Stone Works in Greenwich had a single trade mark—a winged genius grinding an arrow copied from an antique Roman gem.80 The principal painter at Dillwyn’s Swansea works was William Young, who presented himself as an ancient Roman painter by using the signature ‘YOUNG PINXIT’.81 Instruction manuals for the novice potter conventionally ask the reader to remember that their art ‘originated in the minds of great Assyrian, Persian and Egyptian modellers some 3000 years bc’.82 When it comes to drapery, it is the ancient Greek and Roman sculptors who ‘handed down to posterity the finest draped studies ... such as the Venus de Milo’.83

Another attraction of employment at Etruria which throws light on the workers’ expertise in ancient culture and art is Wedgwood’s apprenticeship scheme, the plan for which he described in 1773 as ‘a regular drawing, & modeling school to train up Artists for ourselves’. The idea was to ‘pick up some likely boys of about 12 years old & take them apprentice ’till they are twenty or twenty one & set them to drawing’. He dreamed of imitating the proud ancient vase-painters who signed their works and made others in the workshop use their name, too: Exekias, Nikosthenes, Douris. The highly trained apprentices would paint the vases and make Wedgwood and Bentley famous for eternity: ‘The Paintings upon these vases are from W & B school—so it may be s[ai]d 1000 years hence’.84 At first he brought well-known artists to Etruria to work alongside low-paid employees, but the imported celebrities did not relish his factory regime. Instead he purchased their designs and implemented them personally in his workshops, where discussions of the necessary modifications were made: his workers, for example, were to bestow modest dresses and fig leaves on pagan, naked and libidinous classical figures to render them acceptable to the consumer base.85

Wedgwood’s products drew on motifs copied, adapted, mingled or eclectically ‘cut-and-pasted’ from a vast variety of ancient artefacts—gems, intaglios, ivories, coins, bas-reliefs, frescoes, friezes, statues and sarcophagi as well as vases—and introduced figures copied from medieval, Renaissance or Palladian artefacts and monuments alongside antique ones: occasionally, the source is much more recent, for example female figures of the nymphs decorating the (thoroughly emasculated) statue ofPriapus on a pale blue jasperware medallion of the 1780s. While Priapus’ head is copied from an ancient gem, the source for the nymphs is a design by Angelica Kauffman.86 Working on the frontline of design for Wedgwood entailed an intensive education in the visual culture of antiquity based on his huge collection of books, manuscripts, drawings and prints by everyone from the Italian antiquarian Antonio Francesco Gori to Johann Winckelmann and Thomas Dempster, the Aberdonian expert on Etruria.87

By 1790 he had effected a transformation in the ethos of his labour force that must have fostered a self-conscious professional identity and considerable pride in being the agents responsible for the renaissance of the arts of ancient Etruria. Many of them were female and a quarter of them were now highly skilled former apprentices—‘Wedgwood’s contribution to the tradition of the skilled artisan of the nineteenth century’.88 He imposed strict rules about punctuality, attendance, cleanliness, tidiness and abstinence from alcohol. For his occasional absences, he devised a system of delegating authority to a supervisor in each of the workshops, an innovation in workplace administration that was to have far-reaching implications in 19th-century factories. Some workers were terrified of him; those who openly rebelled were soon silenced or replaced. He smashed any products he deemed sub-standard: a figurine of Achilles proved particularly troublesome, as he wrote to Bentley in 1779: ‘We cannot master Achilles. I have had him demolished ... more than once’; ‘I have broke some which were to have been sent to you’.89 It would be fascinating to know exactly what was wrong with the figurines of Achilles he had smashed. But the narrative suggests intense altercations involving knowledge of both classical aesthetics and ancient mythology.

Another clue to the expertise of his employees lies in the serious problem Etruria faced with industrial espionage and emigration. Spies from rival potteries infiltrated the factory in order to steal plans for new designs; financial incentives attracted his excellent workforce to potteries abroad. In 1773 Wedgwood became so concerned about losses that he published an appeal to his workers, using an argument that implies he knew that they took pride in being part of his whole enterprise and in their unusually high levels of skill: he asks them to remember that emigrants would be

ruining a trade, which had taken the united efforts of some thousands of people, for more than an age, to bring to the perfection it has now attained, a perfection nowhere else to be found—an object exciting at once the envy and emulation of all Europe.90

His letters contain other indications that he discussed the products with his workers. He enjoyed being closely involved with them, in October 1769 writing: 'I have been an Etruscan, & dined at the works every day, except Monday, this week. I have been turning models & preparing to make such Machines of the Men as cannot err’.91 A few weeks later he says that he is spending all his time in the workshops, ‘I now give myself almost entirely to Vasemaking & find myself to improve in that Art & Mysterie very fast’.92 He is concerned about whether to call them ‘urns’ or ‘vases’, and decides that urns are monumental and need covers but no handles; vases, meanwhile, ‘are such as might be used for libations, & other sacrificial, festive & culinary uses, such as Ewers, open vessels &c.’93 He records his impatience waiting for the first ‘Etruscan’ vases he tried to make himself to be brought from the kiln by a replacement fireman, because his usual ‘old fireman is ill’.94 He laughs about having to do the job of‘warehouseman’ at the London shop himself when two of the regular employees were out and Lord Bessborough came in to view the Etruscan vases.95 He is aggravated by a man called Boot, who is supposed to be making terra-cotta figures of sphinxes, lions and tritons, but whose behaviour is regrettably ‘loose and wild’; fortunately, Boot later settled down and made the tritons and sphinxes at least ‘very well.96 But Wedgwood is delighted with one new employee: ‘I hired an ingenious Boy last night for Etruria as a Modeler. He has modelled at nights in his way for three years past, has never had the least instructions, which circumstances considered he does things amazingly & will be a valuable acquisition’.97 Even in 1769, Wedgwood was still personally putting the Etruscan vases, in new styles with which he was experimenting, ‘into the oven’ himself.98

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