Pieces of Wedgwood
Location: State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
Event Date: July 2012
Review Date: 17th July 2012
Reviewed By: Mark de Vitis, University of Sydney & National Art School, Sydney
Review Citation: Mark de Vitis, review of Pieces of Wedgwood
Date Accessed: 22nd May 2013
Where Sydney Cove her lucid Bosom swell,
Courts her young navies, and the storm repels;
High on a rock amid the troubled air
Hope stood sublime, and wav’d her golden hair.
Erasmus Darwin, Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove, 1789 (extract)
No name in the history of British ceramics is able to conjure a more immediate mental image than Josiah Wedgwood’s. His classically-inspired jasperware and trademark use of a particular shade of jubilant blue function as recognisable signs of the triumph of the British ceramics industry of the later eighteenth century. A display of Wedgwood pieces produced to commemorate British exploration and habitation in the Antipodes is currently on show at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney. It creates a visual history of European settlement in Australia by presenting works celebrating key moments and figures of Australia’s colonial past. In addition, the exhibition provokes a consideration of the relationship between the materiality and visual presence of the Wedgwood ceramics and the nature of British settlement in Australia. The celebratory tone of the objects strikes an unsettling note when acknowledging the actual conditions of the early settlers and their relationship with the land and indigenous peoples of Australia.
In 1766 Josiah Wedgwood bought Etruria, a large Staffordshire estate that served as both his home and the site of his manufactory. There he successfully developed production techniques to take full advantage of the scientific and industrial advancements of his age. Experimenting with a variety of innovative practices he created new forms of ceramic ware and furthermore is credited with founding the industrialisation of pottery manufacture. His achievements brought him into contact with prominent intellectuals and artists of his day. He befriended Erasmus Darwin, Sir Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs and Sir Joseph Banks. It was through his relationship with the latter that he became connected to the history of European settlement in Australia. Soon after the First Fleet disembarked at Sydney Cove in January 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip learned that white clay had been found in great plenty a few feet below the surface of his convict settlement. Samples of local red ochre, sand with ‘black lead’, and the white clay were dispatched to England in 1789 aboard the Fishburn, the largest of the three First Fleet storeships.
Governor Phillip intended the samples for Sir Joseph Banks, the incumbent President of the Royal Society and erstwhile botanist of Captain James Cook’s first voyage to the Pacific region in the 1770s. As President, Banks knew Wedgwood, who had been elected as a Fellow of the Society in 1783. Banks forwarded the transported clay to Wedgwood in order to determine its suitability for ceramic manufacture. After many trials and experiments Wedgwood confirmed that it was an excellent material for pottery. Using the clay, the Wedgwood manufactory subsequently produced several commemorative objects in recognition of the newly-established colony.
The State Library’s current display of a dozen or so pieces from its collection contains several made from the Sydney clay, including the notable Sydney Cove Medallion. This commemorative medal acted as a material expression of the enthusiasm felt towards the colonial project as displayed by its original extended title: Hope encouraging Art and Labour under the influence of Peace to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to the infant colony. Of those produced at the Etruria manufactory, approximately two dozen were delivered to Sydney in 1790. Tracing the progress of the clay from Australia to England and back again uncovers its innate meaning. Wedgwood’s efforts to shape the unprocessed clay into an expression of British hopes for the colony in effect materialised the appropriation of Australian territory and raw materials. Governor Phillip’s response upon receiving the medallions was to highlight the effect of British industry upon the Australian clay: ‘Wedgwood has shown the world that our Welsh (New South Welsh) clay is capable of receiving an elegant impression.’ Phillip’s comments reveal the administration’s wider prerogative, whereby the future of the colony was envisaged through established paradigms of British invention.
The text accompanying the medallion in the exhibition only provides the basic narrative of the exchange of the clay material. However, at a deeper level the object provokes a consideration of the impact the self-assurance of the motherland had on the native and imported populations of Australia. The medallion overtly refers to British expectations for the colony. Figures of Hope, Peace, Art and Labour are portrayed on the shores of a bay. Hope stands above the others and takes the commanding gesture of the scene. She extends her right hand towards the representations of Peace and Art, shown with a cornucopia and palate respectively. Labour, the only male figure in the scene, is placed furthest from Hope, but closest to the depiction of the colony, thereby promoting the virtue of physical work as the principal factor in its future success. A later generation of Australian-born artists would adapt this ideology through imagery promoting stoic virtue in the face of the challenges of working a harsh and inhospitable landscape. Such realities are absent from the Wedgwood medallion, yet it counts as an important precedent for the development of what would later be presented as a distinct Australian identity.
References to the dialogue between British hopes for the colony and an emerging national consciousness are not explicitly made in the exhibition, which is restricted in scope and scale. The opportunity to build an early history of the rhetoric of the civic role of labour is hampered by the limited system of display, which segregates and inadvertently sanitises the works. Objects are placed in cases set within the architecture of a main thoroughfare. Each case displays a sole work and when combined with the dramatic spot lighting, this system functions to disconnect the pieces from one another. This is most pronounced in the series of jasperware portraits of individuals involved in the early phases of European settlement in the Antipodes. Included are cameos of Sir Joseph Banks and his wife, Lady Dorothea Banks. Even though the images of husband and wife were made as companion portraits, they receive the same fragmented treatment as the other objects in the collection, and are exhibited separately. This limits the opportunity to consider the implications of the choice of subjects and the consequences of their representation in the standardised format and recognisable aesthetic of the Wedgwood manufactory.
The exchange of meaning between subject and materials is, however, readily apparent in the portrait of the Prussian naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster. He is depicted with a sprig of Forstera sedifolia emerging from his lapel, an alpine plant recorded by Forster in New Zealand on his voyage with Captain James Cook. The finely-worked portrait shows a lively and subtle rendering of the subject’s features. Yet it is of interest principally for its representation of the Forstera, which works in parallel with the ideological basis of the series of portraits. Both Forster’s work as a naturalist and his representation in jasperware are instances of an effort to catalogue the histories and realities of the newly-settled territory. The individuals represented in the series of ‘Australian’ portraits are united and defined by Josiah Wedgwood’s distinctive jasperware. They are drawn into the discourse of eighteenth-century expansionism through the association between the materials and processes of their manufacture and the wider history of Britain’s technological and industrial supremacy.
Erasmus Darwin’s poem, which opens this article, written at the behest of Josiah Wedgwood to accompany the production of the Sydney Medallion, displays a tone of confidence which was widely adopted in response to the founding of the Sydney settlement. Darwin’s verses express the enthusiasm felt within intellectual and artistic circles for the establishment of a colony in New South Wales. However much this distinctive variety of eighteenth-century optimism now seems eerily discordant with the unfolding reality of colonisation in Australia, these Wedgwood pieces disclose the relationship between Britain and her colony through their materiality. While the limitations of the display somewhat hamper the visitor’s understanding of pieces, the attentive viewer is nevertheless able to perceive the attitudes and responses of those involved in the initial phase of the European settlement of the Australian continent.