15 May 2006 - 20 July 2006
The Black is Sterling
The period around 1769 is one of tremendous innovation and upheaval in Britain and Europe. It is the year in which James Cook first arrived in the Pacific, a quintessential Enlightenment achievement. Social history is marked by significant levels of industrialisation, the first British Enclosure Acts, the English loss of the American colonies within a few years, the French Revolution a decade later and terrible wars that followed. By century’s end, such intellectual expansionism, social change and violent conflict gave rise to the Imperial phase of colonialism.
1769 is the year in which Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley realised the production of basalt porcelain with their refinement of Staffordshire “Egyptian Black.” Wedgwood Black Basalt is hard, fine-grain stoneware smoother of surface and richer in hue than any of the industrially produced black ceramics that preceded it. The vases and relief pieces were the first ornamental ware Wedgwood & Bentley developed.
It was a complex revival inasmuch as it marked a purposeful inventiveness of design that matched the industrial expansiveness of the firm, responded to the drive of and desire for an expanded knowledge-field that characterises the period and both served and was underpinned by resolute economic interest. The motivation for its development was the mania for contemporaneous imitations of ancient vases. Other pieces moulded in relief respond to a different mode of classicism, one derived from Italian Renaissance progenitors.
Basaltes were produced as “useful” ware as well as a range of decorative pieces such as relief plaques, busts, medallion portraits (of ancient and contemporary political and intellectual leaders), seals and intaglios – often intended to adorn libraries of the well-to-do. The better pieces reveal an assured understanding of silhouette and compelling approach to decoration (whether moulded or machine-turned) that respond to the particular qualities of the material. They range from an almost aggressive sense of Adamite restraint through to highly detailed and poised quotations of ancient models. Some of Josiah Wedgwood’s designs from the late eighteenth century were deemed too radical to go into production until the 1930s (the coffee cans and saucers). The “brand” has also been invigorated by subtle and nuanced interpretations of the wares’ history by contemporary designers such as Nick Munro, whose work echoes both the silhouettes of the early years and the modernist aesthetics of designers such as Keith Murray.
The best black basalt and jasper wares afford a sense of divergent iterations of classicism that is highly suggestive of Renascences in European art and may realise Wedgwood’s remark: “The black is sterling and will last for ever.”
Remembrances of the Departed
This collection of mourning jewellery began in the late 1970s with the purchase of a mourning ring in an antique shop off Cuba Street, Wellington. Black and white Victorian jewellery with overtones of extravagant sentiment was not very sought after in the post-psychedelia era, and consequently not very expensive. Since then we have accumulated more items, in a somewhat magpie fashion, buying what we came across and liked for style, inscription or materials. But we have been seriously interested in what mourning jewellery represents.
Since medieval times jewellery has portrayed the range of human feeling, both love and grief. Until twentieth century improvements in health and hygiene, death played a far greater part in everyday life than it does today. Mourning as a social custom reached a peak in the nineteenth century, encouraged by the example of Queen Victoria who went into lifelong mourning on the untimely death of her husband Prince Albert. Two years in black were expected for ordinary widows.
But jewellery could subtly lift the gloom of grief and mourning. It was expected that matt black would be worn initially, but polished black, gleaming pearls, lustrous moonstones and sparkling diamonds were acceptable in the latter stages of mourning. And who could resist choosing a new brooch after the initial grief had passed?
Being in mourning did not mean being unfashionable. Mourning jewellery followed fashion just as mourning clothes did. At first glance the bereaved maiden drooping under a willow over a broken urn while a cherub points heavenwards looks just the same as the lovelorn swain under his willow gazing at a column on which perch two turtle doves. Same materials, same composition, different symbols.
Private remembrances could be hidden in the back of the jewels as inscriptions or locks of hair set in little compartments. Photographs replaced both eventually, often leaving a face but no name.
Not every mourning jewel represents deep grief. In Jane Eyre the mourning rings the Rivers siblings buy with a small legacy from their uncle are a galling reminder of the loss of their expectations of a large inheritance from him. Mr. Wemmick in Great Expectations wears a profusion of rings, brooches and seals “as if he were quite laden with remembrances of departed friends”. He is, in fact, a lawyer’s clerk, wearing tokens of respect for departed clients.
This collection displays emotion openly. Are modern photo lockets so very different?