Classical inspiration

The consuming interest in classical form and style that dominated design in the second half of the 18th century meant that much source material, either in the form of printed books or from collections brought back from the classical world to be emulated, was available to decorators and manufacturers. Wedgwood was quick to realise the opportunity and rapidly absorbed the influences. The illustrated catalogue of Sir William Hamilton's vase collection, published in 1766–67 by d’Hancarville, was perhaps his most significant inspiration.

Hamilton was British Ambassador in Naples from 1764–1800, a posting which allowed him to indulge his passion for archaeology. He amassed a large collection of Greek and Italian vases, particularly from the current excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which, in 1772, he sold to the British Museum. Their display contributed greatly to the public interest in and desire for copies of these antique marvels.

Josiah’s classical enamelled basalt wares were derived directly from the plates in the catalogue's volumes, the painted figures often appearing as precise replicas. Wedgwood’s debt to Hamilton as a source of designs, for vase shapes and decoration, for bas reliefs and tableware patterns, is scarcely calculable. Josiah acknowledged Hamilton’s contribution, describing him as: ‘Our good, & very polite friend' who showed 'repeated favours' – Hamilton had allowed Wedgwood access to the volumes prior to publication.

In late 1769 Wedgwood announced that encaustic painted vases were to be, ‘the principal articles for the ensuing season’. Josiah’s customers, smitten with neo-classical vases, were clamouring for the most recent products, and his early access to the plates from the catalogue gave Wedgwood a significant advantage; he was able to market good copies of classical works before anyone else. His 1769 patent stated he intended: ‘Completely to imitate the painting upon Etruscan vases; but to do much more; to give Beauty of Design’. 

 

Images

Two-handled encaustic vase

Two-handled encaustic vase