Monday, June 18, 2018

Review: Wedgwood show at Plant Museum is craft of highest order


I thought I knew Wedgwood: the elegant jasperware with a matte-colored background (most famously blue), decorated with bas-relief flora and fauna, or the pretty bone china dinnerware.

Turns out I have a lot more to learn after a visit to "The Pottery of Wedgwood" at the Henry B. Plant Museum. The special exhibition is small, with about 70 pieces, mostly from the 19th century, but it has a wide range of styles and techniques, demonstrating that Wedgwood defies categorization.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) founded the British company in 1759 after working in other potteries and learning the trade. He was innovative in developing new firing and glazing techniques but, more important, he was a businessman who used such variety in service to profits and broad appeal. That meant you could buy an affordable teapot or an extravagant urn. And both would be well made.

Henry B. Plant, railroad tycoon, was a customer who could afford extravagance. The most spectacular piece in the show is the magnificent Swan Vase standing almost 5 feet tall, with three swans circling its base and another perched on its lid. He bought it for his Tampa Bay Hotel, opened in 1891, to which wealthy winter visitors flocked.

When Wedgwood's company was still young, it got a big boost in 1765 when Queen Charlotte ordered a tea service. In 1773 Catherine the Great of Russia commissioned an entire dinner service (and she had large dinner parties). By the early 20th century, Wedgwood's reputation was such that in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt purchased another dinner service for the White House. A plate from that set is in the show, bone china rimmed in gold with the Great Seal.

Wedgwood and successors did not produce their pottery on instinct; they followed trends. In the 18th century, Europe was in the swoon of neoclassicism after discoveries in Italy and Greece renewed an interest in antiquities. A Roman vase dated between A.D. 1 and 25, known as the Portland Vase, became an inspiration to many artisans, including Wedgwood, who copied it multiple times in jasperware. Three examples are in the show.

That multiplicity is important in what it means. Yes, many pieces, especially those that are functional, were produced in quantity but there usually was considerable handwork in them, too. Four movies in constant loop offer a look into the pottery's production and provide justification for some of the high prices.

Beginning with Josiah Wedgwood and continuing after his death, the company often employed gifted artists to create scenic paintings. That trend spiked in the mid to late 19th century when neoclassicism yielded to romanticism. Emile-Aubert Lessore decorated dishes and plates with cherubs and lovers; Susannah Margaretta Makeig-Jones painted fairyland scenes on lusterware. Neither look like "traditional" Wedgwood. To me it's a tad garish. That's the point. Wedgwood was artful craft, not art, with an egalitarian and pragmatic mission to please everyone. And I'm still a jasperware fan.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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