Wedgwood – more than just the “blue stuff”

The stuff is gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful, and so well-crafted. Not that I would know, of course, whether any particular pottery or china is expertly crafted or not. But I recently visited the Wedgwood: Artistry and Innovation exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, and it’s probably safe to make some assumptions.

I grew up with the idea that “Wedgwood” just referred to those blue vases and plates and plaques with the white reliefs depicting classical mythological figures. My family didn’t have a lot of china or other valuables, so I didn’t get much exposure to the finer things. It was only in the last few years that I reached the vague realization that Wedgwood actually makes more types of china than just the “blue stuff.”

And now that I’ve seem the exhibit at the ROM, to my surprised I’ve discovered just how extensive and varied Wedgwood pottery and china really is, and always has been.

The displays contained samples of the company’s artistry throughout its history, from a  “Husk Service” plate of the pattern sent to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1770, all the way down to 2008, with an elegant cup, saucer, and oil-and-vinegar set from the “Night and Day” pattern. 

There is earthenware with transfer printed designs and coloured glazes, and bone china with roses and other patterns, similar to the types of products you’d see from other companies.

Some of the pieces are very elaborate, like the complex and enchanting “Fairyland Lustre” design, with ornate pillars and fairyland creatures on the inside of a bowl, with trees, spreading leaves, and other fairy beings on the outside, done with transfer prints, enamel, and gold decoration.

A simpler, yet equally beautiful pattern is the “Isis” earthenware plate, with a lotus border in overglazed enamel colours.

But then you have the truly distinct productions that set Wedgwood entirely apart from any other company.

And this is where the “blue stuff” comes in, or rather, the jasper ware which isn’t, I’ve learned, always blue. Josiah Wedgwood, even in the early years (until 1759) when he partnered with the well-known pottery producer, Thomas Whieldon, did thousands of experiments until he concocted exactly the right formula to produce this unique type of pottery. Now the company can produce items made entirely from jasper ware with the famous white reliefs, or pieces made with other materials that are then dipped in jasper to produce an overlay.

The creations that bowled me over, though, were the black basalt pieces. I’d never have expected that these burnished, understated items would be Wedgwood too. They sat in their simple displays, solitary and unadorned except for their own black sheen, in stark contrast with the ornate jasper ware pieces in nearby cases.

The ROM’s Wedgwood china is displayed in the same space where they previously showed the Deco Lalique glass as well as the Paperweights exhibit. It’s a smallish space, softly lit, with an intimate atmosphere that enables quiet contemplation. The small, three-shelf display cases are very simple: glass on three sides, with a black background, allowing each piece to stand on its own in all its crafted glory.

There is some audio accompaniment, though: in one corner of the space, two films run quietly in a constant loop, projected on an empty wall before several seats. One briefly describes Josiah Wedgwood’s life and career, which plays a soft counterpoint to what you read as you move among the display cases. But the other film, for me, was even more interesting. There is no narration, so you can’t listen with half an ear as you can with the biographical piece. You sit down to watch some of the actual techniques used as real workers in one of the Wedgwood factories create pieces before your eyes. I was astonished how quickly – and accurately – these people could shape the objects, add the reliefs, or paint the designs.

So in addition to being “gorgeous stuff,” Wedgwood is, indeed, expertly crafted. I can say that for sure, now.

This visit to the ROM’s Wedgwood exhibit was so worth it: an intimate tour through two centuries of the history of a remarkable art form.

2 thoughts on “Wedgwood – more than just the “blue stuff”

  1. MEC says:

    I love pottery/porcelain, especially from the era that was Wedgwood’s heyday. I must come to Toronto again, to see this exhibit.

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