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Tray of Black Basalt Encaustic Enamel Trials - 1765

Tray of Black Basalt Encaustic Enamel Trials
    Tray of Black Basalt Encaustic Enamel Trials

Wooden tray, with a selection of Black Basalt Enamel Trials.

This selection represents work by Josiah Wedgwood I on perfecting the Black Basalt. Each trial is carefully numbered to correspond with an entry in Josiah’s experiment books.

  • Type of object: Trials and experiments/jasper trial
  • Year produced: 1765
  • Body: Black Basalt
  • Material: ceramic, wood
  • Accession number: 4122
  • Dimensions: 391 mm (length), 299 mm (width)


  • Encaustic painting

    Encaustic painting

    Developed by Josiah Wedgwood I for the purpose of imitating Greek and Italian vases decorated in the red-figure style. The most usual colour combinations utilised are red and white, although green and blue encaustic enamels are also known. The surface of the colours is matt as well as being smooth and durable.


    Encaustic painting was a technique of decorating black basalt pieces developed by Josiah Wedgwood principally for the purpose of emulating the classical ceramics referred to as Etruscan wares. It was also employed on cane ware and rosso antico bodies. The surface of the colours is matt and smooth. Wedgwood patented the technique in 1769, which compelled him to reveal the composition and technique. This was the only patent taken out by Josiah in his lifetime. Encaustic decorating was continued at the Etruria factory from time to time during the 19th century.

  • 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.