Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and his Contemporaries

For the first time, the black basalt sculptures of iconic ceramic artist Josiah Wedgwood are the focus of a special exhibition that breaks all the molds. Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries, on view at through January 3, 2021 at Mint Museum Randolph, features 18th-century works with classical themes amid an utterly contemporary—and unforgettable—presentation.  

Classic Black Title WallThe Mint Museum

Organized by The Mint Museum, this exhibition features over 100 works from public and private collections in the United States and England. It struck new ground as the first museum exhibition to focus exclusively on basalt sculpture while also presenting the material— ranging from library busts and ornamental vases to dynamic statues of mythological heroes—in a completely fresh, provocative way. Rather than relying on period-appropriate colors and graphics, the exhibition’s design utilized a contemporary color palette, as well as specially commissioned graphic murals created by Owl, a renowned Charlotte artist. The exhibition was made possible with generous support from presenting sponsor Wells Fargo Private Bank. Additional support was provided by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Portrait Medallion of Josiah Wedgwood by Wedgwood and Hackwood, WilliamThe Mint Museum

The Black is sterling, & will last for ever.

Josiah Wedgwood wrote those words on March 7, 1774, to his business partner, Thomas Bentley, expressing his satisfaction with his black basalt stoneware and forecasting a bright future for it. And what is black basalt? It is a fine-grained stoneware whose dark color was achieved by adding manganese and carr, a slurry rich-with-iron oxide obtained from coal mines, to the clay body. For the latter, Wedgwood preferred to use ball clay from Dorset in southwest England. Wedgwood began his experimental trials for creating a black stoneware by July 1766, and the product was commercially available by August 1768. It was not long before Wedgwood’s competitors added black basalt to their own product offerings. 

Classic Black Sculpture HallThe Mint Museum

Most of the works in Classic Black have classically inspired themes or ornament. Some were copied directly from works of art made in ancient Greece and Rome. Other basalt pieces were based on works made by sixteenth-, seventeenth-, or eighteenth-century artists who themselves looked back to antiquity for inspiration. Wedgwood and his peers also hired modelers and other craftsmen to create new designs for their basalt wares. All these basalt objects were perfectly suited for the neoclassical interiors so popular among style-conscious consumers, both in England and beyond, in the last decades of the eighteenth century.

Bust of Junius BrutusThe Mint Museum

The subject of this bust is Junius Brutus (died 509 BCE), who in ancient Rome purportedly led the successful revolt against Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, his uncle and the kingdom’s despotic ruler. Brutus then helped found the Roman Republic and was elected one of its first two consuls.

The bust derives from an Etruscan bronze head, dating to the late fourth century BCE. Wedgwood purchased a plaster cast of the head, along with 22 other bust casts, from the London plaster shop of James Hoskins (active 1751–91) and Benjamin Grant (active 1751–1809) on March 21, 1774. More than 24 inches tall, Wedgwood’s Junius Brutus is one of his tallest busts.

"Ceres and Cybele" CandlesticksThe Mint Museum

In contrast to Junius Brutus, which derived from an antique source, these candlesticks were designed in the late 18th century at Wedgwood’s factory, which he called Etruria. Josiah Wedgwood was unsure whether he should produce candlesticks, writing in 1778 that “it seems to me that metal is the only proper candlestick material.” Etruria nonetheless produced an impressive variety of candlesticks, including this pair. The one accompanied by a lion is Cybele, goddess of the earth, while the other, a sheath of wheat by her side, represents Ceres, the goddess of agriculture.

Papyrius and His Mother by WedgwoodThe Mint Museum

Privileged young men in eighteenth-century England typically went on a Grand Tour, an extended trip through Europe, especially Italy. The tour gave them the opportunity to visit the historical and cultural sites they studied in their classical education and to view outstanding examples of Western art and architecture from previous centuries. Those tourists lucky enough to be invited to the Villa Ludovisi in Rome would have seen the large, Greek marble sculpture that was the design source for this medallion.

The relief refers to the legend of the Roman youth, Papyrius, who steadfastly deflected his mother’s questions about a Senate meeting he had attended. By preserving the confidentiality of the Senate’s business, he became admired for his rectitude.

Death of A Roman WarriorThe Mint Museum

The Death of a Roman Warrior is one of Wedgwood’s best-known rectangular plaques, or tablets, as he called them. He borrowed figures from at least three distinct, ancient sources to create it, including a marble relief from the second century CE, in the Capitoline Museum, Rome. Such creative dexterity illustrates Wedgwood’s ability to fashion a classicizing design that relates strongly to antique prototypes without being a direct copy of one.

Classic Black LibraryThe Mint Museum

In 18th-century English country houses, the library was a comfortable, relaxed setting, with chairs and small tables arranged in casual groupings to encourage convivial conversations and playing games, as well as more solitary pursuits like reading and letter-writing. It also contained many more books than earlier libraries did, and the books were housed in handsome bookcases lining the walls.

Frequently adorning the tops of those bookcases were portrait busts. They might be of classical philosophers and statesmen, or modern notables. The tradition of displaying busts in a library dates to ancient Rome, but it took on renewed vigor in the eighteenth century as individuals, especially those with a classical education, focused more intentionally on exemplars from antiquity and their own culture’s past.

SocratesThe Mint Museum

The subject of this bust, Socrates, is widely considered one of the most important of the classical Greek philosophers. He wrote nothing, but his teachings are preserved in the Dialogues of Plato, his friend and student. Wedgwood and Bentley purchased the cast for Socrates in 1775 from the London plaster shop owned by James Hoskins and Benjamin Grant, and it derives from a bronze bust that might have been done by Lysippos, a notable Greek sculptor in the 300s BCE.

Sir Isaac NewtonThe Mint Museum

This bust depicts Sir Isaac Newton, the English mathematician and physicist who is still considered one of the foremost scientific minds of all time. Newton is based on a marble portrait created about 1732–35 by the renowned French sculptor, Louis François Roubiliac (1702–1762). Roubiliac represented Newton in classicizing attire, thus relating him to the great thinkers of the ancient past.

Newton was a leading figure of the Enlightenment, the European philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized reason and the rights of the individual over the age-old traditions of class systems, monarchies, and the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church. Classical virtues such as stoicism, self-sacrifice, and frugality were encouraged, and a new interest in democracy and responsible citizenship was kindled.

Bust of DemosthenesThe Mint Museum

As renewed interest in the classical world spread among 18th-century Europe’s elite, many of them became passionate about collecting ancient sculpture or, often just as acceptable, authorized modern copies of those sculptures. As the demand for these works of art steadily increased, it was perhaps inevitable that unscrupulous dealers would introduce fakes into the market. One strategy they employed was to sell casts of an authentic antique bust but reassign its subject to that of an admired historical figure, thus making it more desirable to the unknowing collector.

Wedgwood believed that this bust depicted Demosthenes (384–322 BCE), the famous statesman and orator in ancient Athens. It derives, however, from an ancient marble bust whose subject might be a Roman general.

Classic Black Drawing RoomThe Mint Museum

Josiah Wedgwood’s introduction of black basalt in the late 1760s coincided with a rapidly growing demand among fashionable English consumers for vases “After the Antique” to decorate their newly stylish neoclassical interiors. Wedgwood was certainly aware of this burgeoning wave, writing to his business partner, Thomas Bentley, in January 1769 that “an epidemical madness reigns for Vases, which must be gratified.”

“After the Antique” was the phrase Wedgwood and Bentley used to describe their “Vases and Other Ornaments” in their trade catalogues. It was a fluid concept for them, as their vases were just as likely to be based on considerably more recent designs. Wedgwood’s competitors likewise capitalized on the vase mania sweeping the country and produced their own varieties.

Covered Vase by WedgwoodThe Mint Museum

This vase relates to a design published in 1646 by the Italian draftsman and etcher, Stefano della Bella (1610–1664) in his Raccolta di Vasi diversi (“Collection of Different Vases”).

Its central relief depicts a popular theme of the period: children at play. In this instance, a group of young boys link their hands as the first in their group has just emerged under the arms of two others while holding a large ring in his hand. Another child sits to the side, accompanying his comrades on the bagpipe.

Tripod Vase and CoverThe Mint Museum

This vase, with its three female supports standing on lion’s paw feet and wearing fantastic, fluted headdresses, is based on a design by French artist Joseph-Marie Vien (1716–1809). Wedgwood introduced his own fantastic element, replacing Vien’s mushroom finial with a palm tree.

Wedgwood also altered Vien’s design by fully clothing the figures, perhaps worried that members of polite society might find naked female torsos objectionable. He expressed such a sentiment about fifteen years after the vase was made, when he wrote to John Flaxman, one of Wedgwood’s most talented modelers, about some classical subjects Flaxman was proposing for future bas-reliefs: “There is one objection which I am afraid is insurmountable, & that is the nakedness of the figures.”

Covered Vase by Humphrey Palmer's Church Works factory and Voyez, JohnThe Mint Museum

Humphrey Palmer (1725–1786) was a talented Staffordshire potter and serious rival of Josiah Wedgwood’s in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Palmer competed directly with Wedgwood in the market for high-quality, black basalt. He employed talented craftsmen, such as John Voyez (circa 1740–circa 1800), whom he hired in 1769 after Voyez was released from prison. He had been jailed briefly for stealing clay models from his previous employer, Josiah Wedgwood.

Voyez modeled several unique vase forms while employed by Humphrey Palmer, including this one. The vase’s central scene depicts the “Triumph of Dionysus and Ariadne,” with the Greek god of wine and his bride riding in a chariot pulled by two panthers and surrounded by their followers.

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