Exhibition | Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Editor on December 30, 2019

Bacchanalian Triumph, Wedgwood black basalt rectangular plaque, late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Copied from a bas-relief by Claude Michel Clodion (1738–1814).

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From The Mint:

Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries
The Mint Museum Randolph, Charlotte, North Carolina, 8 February — 30 August 2020

Featuring more than 100 ceramic objects, with loans from notable public and private collections in the United States and England, this exhibition is the first to focus exclusively on the black basalt sculpture made by Josiah Wedgwood and other Staffordshire potters in late eighteenth-century England. The works of art on view include life-size portrait busts, statues, vases, and other fully three-dimensional, ornamental forms, as well as works in low relief, such as large plaques, portrait medallions, and medals.

Among the ceramic bodies produced in great numbers in Staffordshire, England in the late eighteenth century was black basalt. Josiah Wedgwood perfected this fine-grained stoneware in 1768, creating its dark color by adding manganese and carr, a slurry rich-with-iron oxide obtained from coal mines, to the clay body. Basalt was soon produced by many other Staffordshire potters as well. Although Wedgwood and the other potters used black basalt to create so-called ‘useful wares’, such as teapots and bowls, this exhibition showcases basalt sculpture, especially works with classically inspired themes or ornament.

Many of the basalt objects on view in the galleries were copied directly from works of art made in ancient Greece and Rome, such as busts of Homer and Socrates, gems and statues depicting gods and other mythological creatures, and coins with portraits of Julius Caesar and his successors.  Other basalt pieces derived from works made much later. Among the many artists represented in the exhibition by basalt versions of their creations are Michelangelo from the sixteenth century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini from the seventeenth century, and sculptor Louis François Roubiliac from the eighteenth. The Staffordshire potteries also hired modelers and other craftsmen to create new designs for their basalt wares.

Whatever the design source, the basalt sculpture made by Wedgwood and his contemporaries was well-crafted, refined, and perfectly suited for the neoclassical interiors so popular among style-conscious consumers, both in England and beyond, in the last few decades of the eighteenth century. Classic Black proudly highlights this fascinating chapter in the history of ceramics.

The catalogue is published by Giles:

Brian Gallagher, ed., with contributions by Gaye Blake-Roberts, Robin Emmerson, M.G. Sullivan, and Nancy Ramage, Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries (London: D. Giles, Ltd., 2020), 248 pages, ISBN: 978-1911282358, £45 / $60.

Classic Black explores classically inspired sculpture and other ornamental wares in black basalt. This famous stoneware was perfected by Josiah Wedgwood in 1768 and then went on to be produced by other prominent Staffordshire potters. Wedgwood, with prescience, said of his new creation, “Black is Sterling and will last forever.” This volume presents approximately 120 examples of ornamental black basalt, including portrait busts, statues, and vases, ewers and other fully three-dimensional, ornamental forms. It also features works in low relief including tablets, plaques, medallions and cameos. Essays by renowned subject specialists enhance the fully illustrated catalogue entries, which are grouped into three chapters. These each focus on an era of the design sources used by Wedgwood and his contemporaries to create their basalt wares: Classical Antiquity, the 16th and 17th centuries, and the 18th century.

Brian Gallagher is the curator of Decorative Arts at The Mint Museum. His recent projects include the publication, British Ceramics 1675–1825: The Mint Museum, which highlights over 225 examples from the Mint’s renowned British ceramics collection, and the reinstallation of that collection in a long-term display called Portals to the Past: British Ceramics 1675–1825.
Gaye Blake-Roberts is curator of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston.
Robin Emmerson is the former curator of Decorative Arts, National Museums, Liverpool.
Nancy H. Ramage is the Charles A. Dana Professor of the Humanities and Arts Emerita, Ithaca College.
M.G. Sullivan is an independent scholar, York University.


Foreword by Todd Herman, President and CEO, The Mint Museum

Robin Emmerson, Classicism and the Design Business
Gaye Blake-Roberts, Wedgwood’s Customers for Ornamental Black Basalt
M.G. Sullivan, Wedgwood’s Basalt and the Sculpture Market

Catalogue by Brian Gallagher
I. Works Based on Sources from Classical Antiquity
Rome and Pompeii: Fountains of Inspiration
Introduction by Nancy Ramage
II. Works Based on 16th- and 17th-Century Sources
From Renaissance Italy to the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic and Restoration England
III. Works Based on 18th-Century Sources
Enlightened Thinkers, Contemporary Events, and New Interpretations of the Classical Past
Concordance (by Object Type)

Selected Bibliography
Photography Credits

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