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Wax on Slate ‘Mercury uniting the Hands of Britain and France' - 1787

Mercury uniting the hands of Britain and France, © Wedgwood Museum
    Mercury uniting the hands of Britain and France
    © Wedgwood Museum

Wax on slate depicting ‘Mercury uniting Britain and France’modelled by John Flaxman Jnr.For many years, from 1772, Wedgwood had sought to negotiate a trade treaty with France to open trade in cream coloured ware between the two countries. Trade at this time with France was exceptionally difficult as importation of pottery and porcelain was prohibited but Wedgwood desired that the vigourous laws could be relaxed in the hope of securing a trade with France in cream ware, in order that he could fulfil a wish expressed some years previously in a letter to Bentley at the Queen’s Arms to ‘ make a complete conquest of France’ (13September 1769 ms: E25-18252).

Wax on slate depicting ‘Mercury uniting Britain and France’modelled by John Flaxman Jnr.For many years, from 1772, Wedgwood had sought to negotiate a trade treaty with France to open trade in cream coloured ware between the two countries. Trade at this time with France was exceptionally difficult as importation of pottery and porcelain was prohibited but Wedgwood desired that the vigorous laws could be relaxed in the hope of securing a trade with France in cream ware, in order that he could fulfil a wish expressed some years previously in a letter to Bentley at the Queen’s Arms to ‘ make a complete conquest of France’ (13September 1769 ms: E25-18252). In April 1783 Wedgwood wrote to the Rt. Hon C. J. Fox (ms: E25-18957) (see catalogue entry 18): ‘… in behalf of the manufacturers of earthenware in Staffordshire & himself as one of them humbly to represent to the Rt. Hon.ble C.J. Fox… that the exportation of their wares to various foreign markets is greatly diminished in some states by high duties upon its importance there, & in other totally obstructed by prohibitions . . .even at the time our ports are open to their manufacturers of the like kind upon a certain & moderate duty. It is therefore humbly hoped that these matters will be thought worthy of consideration in the treaties of commerce to be negotiated…’. Eventually, through the offices of Sir William Eden, later first Baron Auckland, Ambassador to France, a successful commercial treaty was negotiated. Wedgwood, in June 1786, wrote a long and involved letter on the effect of duties on the effects of the import and export trade with France. The outcome of the treaty was that the tariffs of goods from France to England, and England to France, were cut from 43% to 12%. The treaty favoured the English in as much the pottery manufacturers here could retail French ‘reproduction’ pots made in cream ware at a lower price than the French originals, thereby effectively undercutting French prices. In celebration of the Treaty signed in September 1786and ratified by Parliament the following year, Wedgwood commissioned Flaxman to produce two bas-reliefs which were to be ‘Scrupulously impartial’. ‘We must take care not to shew that these representations were invented by an Englishman; as they are meant to be conciliatory, they should be scrupulously impartial. The figures for instance, which represent the two nations should be equally magnificent & important, in their dress, attitude, character and attributes; and mercury should not perhaps seem more inclined to one than the other, but shew a full front face between them, as if you think there is no impropriety in it, I should wish France to have her helmet and shield as well as Britannia, & the Fleur de lis upon the latter’. Wedgwood to Flaxman Jnr 2 November 1786 (L2.30193)

  • Type of object: Manufacturing paraphernalia and miscellany/wax
  • Mark: DOUANES FRANÇAISES Recette de Paris Chapella
    [paper label]
    '66' '1787'
    [ink on paper label]
  • Year produced: 1787
  • Body: Jasper
  • Material: ceramic, slate
  • Decoration: wax relief
  • Accession number: 3149
  • Dimensions: 240 mm (width), 230 mm (height)

Related people

  • John Flaxman Jnr RA Modeller

    John Flaxman Jnr RA - Modeller (1754 - 1825)

    English sculptor, and designer, born in York, the son of a modeller and maker of plaster casts. The family moved to Covent Garden, London in 1756. In 1766 at the age of 11 Flaxman Jnr won a premium from the Society of Arts, now the Royal Society of Arts, enrolling three years later as one of the first students of the newly founded Royal Academy Schools. He exhibited for the first time at the Academy in 1770, and had come to the attention of the founder of the Wedgwood company, Josiah I himself, in 1771. By 1775 Flaxman Jnr had commenced to provide models and designs to the Wedgwood factory. Flaxman at Wedgwood’s behest went to Rome in 1787, where he remained, studying classical architecture and arts until 1794. During this period Flaxman supplied many important designs to Wedgwood. Amongst these can be numbered the famous ‘Apotheosis of Homer’ relief and vase; ‘Hercules in the Garden of Hesperides’; various bust subjects including Mercury, as well as the Josiah Wedgwood memorial in St Peter ad Vincula, Stoke-on-Trent’s parish church. Flaxman also supplied a huge range of portrait medallions and smaller sized bas reliefs for use by the firm.