Trials

Experimentation and innovation were very much part of Wedgwood's working philosophy, and this is evident in his systematic development of Queen's Ware or a perfect Portland Vase copy. Josiah's scientific knowledge was acquired over years of experimenting with new bodies and glazes for potential wares. His interest in the properties of clays meant samples were sent to him from all over the world: Cherokee clay from America, Chinese kaolin and other rock from Canton, specimens from Australia, and others collected in the British Isles. These were analysed in the privacy of his Etruria laboratory.

Alongside these clay and mineral samples, Josiah's work-bench would doubtless have held the objects which inspired him: antique vases and busts, waxes taken from ancient reliefs, half-finished pots, casts, biscuit ware and trial pieces. Josiah was indefatigable, developing new ceramic bodies, enlarging his factory, experimenting, expanding trade, campaigning for roads and canals and nurturing his family. The letters he wrote, and the recording of his trials, experiments and ceramic work, was necessarily done, by candlelight, late at night or before dawn.

The predominant style of Neo-classicism flourished in the middle of the 18th century taking over almost exclusively from all other decorative styles in England at that time. Josiah wrote on 1 May 1769 that in London, 'Vases were all the cry' and he added that he must, 'endeavour to satisfy ... this universal passion'. Josiah's avowed aim was to become, 'Vase Maker General to the Universe' something which he successfully achieved with his wide range of vases in imitation of natural stones, such as Agate and Porphyry and subsequently those manufactured in Black Basalt. By September 1767, Josiah Wedgwood had already carried out a considerable number of trials for the perfection of Black Basalt, he wrote to Bentley of his secret experiments, "I am still going on with w.th my tryals, & want much to shew you some of them, but I can neither send them in a letter, nor say so much about them to you as I could like, for L.rs are liable to Accidents and therefore I must, though brim full, contain myself 'til I see you'." Less than a year later this new product was on the market.

Towards the end of 1772 the ornamental business of Wedgwood and Bentley was suffering one of its periodic declines and Josiah sought to make a new product. It can be argued that the triumphal outcome of about 5,000 recorded experiments with the production of Jasper, was his most important contribution to ceramic art and one of the most significant innovations in ceramic history since the Chinese invention of porcelain nearly one thousand years earlier. Josiah's almost unbroken series of experiments to produce white earthenware, stoneware and other bodies has made it difficult to disentangle the development of his white 'terracotta' from the invention of Jasper.

Wedgwood's progress in the development of any new ceramic body, glaze or technique was empirical. Josiah was using materials which were full of unidentified impurities and which consequently produced infuriatingly, unpredictable variations in behaviour. His success was purely the result of trial and error. In response to the request from Bentley, in February 1766, Wedgwood revealed part of his Jasper formula with the comment, "You desire to know a Mixture - Will you be content to have part of it now, & the remainder another time - It is too precious to reveal all at once." By February 1773 Josiah was writing to Bentley that he had made, '...some very promising experim.ts lately upon fine bodies for Gems & other thing'’. Nothing much more is heard of these until March 1774 and it is clear that he had little time to spend upon them during the previous 14 months: "I have" he wrote "for sometime past been reviewing my experiments, & I find such Roots, such Seeds as would open, & branch out wonderfully if I could nail myself down to the cultivation of them for a year or two." By the end of August his experiments seemed to have born fruits as he writes that he is, '... at work upon more solid materials, & have no doubt of succeeding'.

By the end of 1774, Wedgwood was making intaglios in two colours by laminating blue and white Jasper and by the beginning of 1775 Josiah had declared himself 'absolute' in white Jasper, blue and '.. likewise a beautifull Sea Green, and several other colors, for grounds to Cameo’s, Intaglios &c'. For nearly two more years Wedgwood struggled with intractable materials which seemed to have a will of their own causing him to write in June 1776 in frustration, 'This Jasper is certainly the most delicately whimsical of any substance I have ever engaged with'. Jasper never became to be the easiest of bodies to work with or fire, and there were still occasional obstacles to be overcome and sophisticated techniques such as the ornamenting of vases and 'diced' decoration, which first appears in invoices for April 1790, still needed to be mastered. Nevertheless, by the end of 1777 Jasper was regularly in production in a variety of objects and colours, dictated largely by the metal oxides available for the staining of the clay mixture (which bore a close relationship to the colours most favoured for interiors by Robert Adam and James Wyatt).

Overall, there can be absolutely no doubt that Josiah Wedgwood’s contribution to the revolution in 18th century ceramic production owes much to his scientific knowledge and systematic experimentation.

Images

Jasper trials, © Wedgwood Museum

Jasper trials
© Wedgwood Museum