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Black Basalt sculpture of Mercury on a rock - c.1787

Black Basalt sculpture of Mercury on a rock, © Wedgwood Museum
    Black Basalt sculpture of Mercury on a rock
    © Wedgwood Museum

Figure of Mercury on a rock. Black Basalt. After a statue by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle; model supplied to Wedgwood by Hoskins and Grant, June 1779. c. 1787

Figure of Mercury on a rock. Black Basalt. After a statue by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle; model supplied to Wedgwood by Hoskins and Grant, June 1779. c. 1787. Mercury is the Roman manifestation of the Greek god Hermes and appeared during Roman and Greek religions' synchronisation during the republic era. Mercury like Hermes is the god of messages, financial gain, commerce, travellers, boundaries, thieves, trickery and luck. He is commonly depicted in winged sandals, a winged helmet and a caduceus which is a winged staff with two snakes entwined around it. Mercury is one of the primary gods of Roman religion and according to myth the son Maia and Jupiter. He was particularity revered by merchants, messengers and especially travellers.

  • Type of object: Portraits and figures/sculpture
  • Mark: WEDGWOOD
  • Year produced: c.1787
  • Body: Black Basalt
  • Material: ceramic
  • Accession number: 5262
  • Dimensions: 485 mm (height), 315 mm (width of widest point), 270 mm (depth), 260 mm (width of base)


  • Black Basalt

    Black Basalt

    A fine-grained black stoneware body, composed of ball clay, calcined ochre and manganese oxide. Josiah Wedgwood developed black basalt in 1768 to replace the earlier ‘black Egyptian’ ware produced in Staffordshire in the mid-eighteenth century. 


    Basalt was described by Josiah Wedgwood as ‘A fine black Porcelain, having nearly the same properties as the Basaltes i.e., the mineral rock', resisting the Attack of Acids; being a Touch-stone to Copper, Silver and Gold, and equal in Hardness to Agate or Porphyry'. It was the result of his experiments to perfect fine-grained stoneware suitable for the production of ornamental pieces, one that would complement the neo-classical styles then coming into vogue. It is probable that Wedgwood was experimenting with a basalt body in September 1767. He wrote to Bentley, ‘I am still going on with my tryals, & want much to shew you some of them'. Certainly within 12 months Basalt was generally available. From 1773 Wedgwood's plain-black body became universally known as ‘basaltes'. Both ornamental and useful wares were produced in this versatile body and it was used to make virtually anything the public required. Wedgwood placed great confidence in his material, predicting that ‘Black is Sterling and will last for ever'.

    Black clay was derived from ‘Carr', an oxide of iron suspended in the water that had flowed through coal seams and mines. This was drained and dried and then sold by the cartload to potters for use in the production of basalt pottery. Wedgwood made no secret of his recipe for Basalt, which he recorded on page 236 of ‘Common Place Book I. The entry is dated 1777, and reads:

    ‘Our Black Basalt Body. 80 of ball clay sifted 80 of Carr [ochre] calcined & ground 9 of manganese. The above is one Blending.'

    When these ingredients were fired together at a high temperature they vitrified into a fine-textured black body. The distinctive colour of Wedgwood's basalt, which has a deep purplish-black hue, is due to the high proportion of manganese included in the formula.