I'm fond of the 18th century English sporting artist George Stubbs, and I'm equally fond of a ceramic compotier I own that dipicts, in raised, diminutive form, one of Stubbs' horse portraits. The small cake dish is in pristine condition, and it bears the inscription, in black ink, 'Wedgwood.' A couple of years ago, the current Lord Wedgwood, Piers Wedgwood, was good enough to scrawl his name on it. 'Ah, a Stubbs!' he declared as he acceded to my request.
My piece of Wedgwood jasperware, in the familiar, iconic blue and white, is also of museum quality.
Like most people, owning a Stubbs oil (several are in the Philadelphia Museum of Art) would involve an impossible financial stretch. Yet, in a way, I do own a Stubbs, thanks to Wedgwood. And, yes, it would do nicely in the Art Museum, as well.
That's the thing about Wedgwood. It's accessible art -- real art -- for the masses.
My compotier was crafted about the time the legendary English pottery firm, founded by Piers Wedgwood's ancestor, Josiah Wedgwood, had been in business for about 200 years. Last year, more than fifty years later, a more modern Wedgwood firm, now part of a vast publicly-traded conglomerate known as WWRD Holdings Ltd. that also flogs Waterford crystal, Royal Doulton, and Minton china celebrated its 250th year.
It was a milestone not to be missed, most of all by Lord Wedgwood, who, known as the 'brand ambassador,' has become something of a jet-setting pitchman for the company.
Nor was it missed by two notable institutions, the Art Museum in Philadelphia and the Daughters of the American Revolution in Washington, both of which have used the occasion to mount ongoing Wedgwood installations. Of the two shows, the Washington exhibit, running at the DAR until February 27, is most expansive, with hundreds of antique and modern pieces. The Art Museum show, extended to March 14, presents just about 20 works.
But Art Museum's theme, how Josiah Wedgwood created, commercialized, and marketed, more than two centuries ago, patterns and shapes morphed from the earthenware designs of ancient Greece and Italy, is more tightly and richly focused. And, moreover, with a surprisingly, piquant relevancy to our brand-conscious times.
Though never stated by Donna Corbin, the Art Museum's associate curator of European decorative arts and the show's curator -- at least, in the installation itself -- it's hard not to walk away from the exhibit -- all beautifully preserved works from the 18th and 19th centuries -- without the notion that Josiah was something of a brand image-maker. In this case, the antique style that found quick favor with the aristocracy of the time, including George III.
Wedgwood still likes to rattle its royal associations. (Like its chief competitor Spode, Wedgwood parades its Warrant from the Queen).
Was Josiah Wedgwood, then, an ur Martha Stewart?
Ask Martha. Wedgwood Ltd. recently introduced her collection to its starting line-up.
That the Philadelphia Museum is taking a lead in recognizing Wedgwood's key artistic and commercial achievements in American and English decorative arts isn't surprising.
Philadelphia, Piers Wedgwood said during a recent lunch gathering at the Philadelphia Club, is 'Wedgwood country.' Actually, with four or five of the 'best' private collections in the country, he added.
At this point, it gets a bit complicated.
In fact, for more than 50 years, Philadelphia was not only 'Wedgwood country,' it was the Mecca of Wedgwood, boasting the world's largest collection, about 8,000 items, in private hands.
The collection had been amassed, starting in the 1930s, by Harry M. Buten of suburban Merion, and later his son, David Buten. Over time, Harry Buten became an expert in ceramics, particularly English ceramics, and most specifically Wedgwood ceramics, and, subsequently, he created in Merion the Buten Museum of Wedgwood, a one-off showcase. (In other words, Merion was home to two world-class museums, including the nearby Barnes Foundation).
Harry Buten was also the author Wedgwood ABC but not middle E, the most comprehensive primer of its kind and a volume I've consulted for this article.
Years ago, I encountered another Wedgwood collection, at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama. I didn't know it at the time, but this Beeson Collection, at about 1,400 items, had been a distant second in size to the Philadelphia stash.
Interestingly, it was said there was 'little overlap' between the two collections. Furthermore, at the time of my visit to Birmingham, in 2005, the Buten Collection had already been mothballed, after David Buten closed the family museum in 1988 and loaned the works -- no one seemed to be know exactly why -- to the Nassau County Division of Museums, on Long Island, New York.
All that changed, after some legal wrangling, when the Buten Collection -- valued to at least $4 million -- was wrested away last year from the Long Island museum and donated to the Birmingham Museum. Together, with the existing Beeson Collection, the museum's Wedgwood holdings rival the inclusive Wedgwood Museum in the company town, Stoke-on-Trent.
The missing piece? Why -- what with the Buten connection to Philadelphia -- did all family Wedgwood not go the Philadelphia Museum.
'It was before my time. Water under the bridge,' Donna Corbin told me, gently closing the door on the subject.
The DAR installation in Washington, which I visited recently, draws heavily on pieces from Birmingham, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and Colonial Williamsburg, and includes the Fairyland Lustre vase, circa 1920, whose owner is Whoopi Goldberg. Martha Stewart -- not only a Wedgwood designer, but also a collector, it turns out -- also helped out.
So did brand ambassador Piers Wedgwood, who, in October, presided over the exhibit's vernissage and accompanying tea. As in Washington and Philadelphia, Lord Wedgwood has become something of a fixture at company-related events. In addition, he seems to be a favorite with Wedgwood enthusiasts (major clubs are based in New York and Washington), who seemingly always get a kick from meeting a peer of the realm, all way from London and House of Lords. (Well, not exactly. Wedgwood gave up his seat in the Lords in 1999 and he actually lives in Philadelphia).
While not as expansive as the Washington show, the Philadelphia Museum's installation is remarkable for the little-known narrative it relates, how the British diplomat Sir William Hamilton popularized neo-classical design in 18th century Society.
Hamilton, of course, is best known as the cuckholded husband of Emma Hamilton, the mistress of Lord Nelson.
Less known -- while his wife was canoodling with Nelson -- was that Hamilton, then British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, was collecting vast quantities of antique ceramics, discovered in new excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Hamilton fit the bill as a scholarly amateur, part connoisseur, antiquarian, vulcanologist -- and cataloger. Hamilton's meticulous accounting of his growing collection was published as Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon. W. Hamilton. (A copy, on loan from the Rare Book Department of the Philadelphia Free Library, is displayed).
Proofs of Hamilton's catalog fell into Josiah Wedgwood's hands, and from these drawings Wedgwood recreated copies of what is now one of the most significant pieces inspired by the original Hamilton collection, now known as the Hamilton Krater Vase. The monumental krater, part of the Art Museum permanent collection, imitates the red figure painting of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Not surprisingly, the wine vessel, manufactured in about 1790, holds a place of pride in the museum's exhibit. It, like another at Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is an 'almost exact copy' of the original, now housed at the British Museum. 'There are very few exact copies,' Donna Corbin said.