Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape

Jo Dahn


Mrs Delany in relation to Wedgwood


It is hardly possible (or reasonable) to discuss ceramics in Britain during the 18th century without making reference to Wedgwood, and it may be helpful to further situate Mrs Delany in relation to him. Thanks to the remarkably extensive Wedgwood archive, his prowess in the field of marketing has been well documented, and much has been made of his ability to identify and make use of the emulative impulse.15 In an often quoted letter to his partner Bentley he outlined his plan to first establish his vases as 'Ornament for Palaces' where they would be 'seen and admired by the Middling Class of People'. Having thus promoted the desirability of the vases he would reduce their price to make them more widely accessible.16

Other letters tell of his efforts to improve the clay body, of his experiments with glazes, and of his application of scientific method to both those ends. He was of course a member of the Middling Class himself, and account should also be taken of his intensive interaction with the new museum culture. What one could call the 'museumisation' of the nation was part and parcel of the establishment of a middle class in society. Access to the collections of acknowledged connoisseurs was an important factor in the cultural education of this up and coming social group, which saw itself as responsible for elevating the cultural tone of the nation as a whole, and advancing the position of Britain on the world stage.

Wedgwood had access to the collections of many prestigious connoisseurs, and produced versions of the objects therein.17 Wedgwood's ceramics, made either in close replication of museum objects, or (and perhaps this is the more significant mode) in the style of museum objects but 'up-dated' to suit the period, enabled the consumer to possess a sign of museum culture. Arguably the most important of his 'up-dates' was the Portland Vase, an object poised on a symbolic watershed between the established taste of the aristocracy and the new cultural interests of the emergent middle class.

The original Roman glass vase had belonged to the Duchess of Portland, Mrs Delany's closest friend. Following her death in 1785, her extensive collections were sold at auction. The vase was bought by her son and lent to Wedgwood for the purpose of making a copy. This object and its history became very well known, and Wedgwood's reproduction of it was widely regarded as his crowning achievement. Although it stretched his abilities, at the outset he declared with confidence his intention to 'equal, or excell if permitted' the original.18 Where the original was worn, the Wedgwood version was perfect.19 But recreating the vase was not simply a question of reversing the effects of time: the bas-reliefs on the new version would be more accurate than the original had ever been. It is no wonder that Wedgwood's progress was keenly followed. This was a technical challenge that would set British manufacturing skills - the result of middle class enterprise - on a par with those of the classical world. Public interest was such that 'at least four different sets or single-sheet prints of the Portland Vase were issued in the 1780s.'20

In her account of a visit to Etruria, Wedgwood's mansion in Staffordshire, West Midlands diarist Katherine Plymley gave a comprehensive history of the Portland Vase. It had enormous publicity value for Wedgwood, and some of her information came from a promotional pamphlet. Emphasis was laid on the private origins of the vase:

The Vase was deposited in the library of the Barberini family. This discovery was made sometime between the years 1623 & 1644. - it remained in the Barberini family above a century, after the dispersion of this library it was purchased by Sir William Hamilton & by Sir William disposed of to the late Duchess of Portland, but with so much secrecy at her request, that she was never known, even by her own family, to be the possessor of it… I was told by the family at Etruria that the late Duchess gave fifteen hundred pound for the Vase. - it seems to me wonderful that a person cou'd be gratified by having a thing of that kind in possession when not even her nearest friends were permitted to see it.21

Clearly Katherine Plymley expected such an extraordinary object to have a social function, as the focus of group contemplation. I want to argue that this was in fact the case, but that it suited Wedgwood's purposes to play on the notion of secrecy. The vase was an object with a remarkable aristocratic pedigree. For him to suggest that a veil of secrecy had hitherto surrounded it was also to suggest that he had rent the veil and exposed it to general view. The circumstances of its acquisition by the Duchess of Portland were described by Sir William Hamilton's niece in her diary of a month spent at Bulstrode with the Duchess and Mrs Delany in 1783. Extracts from her diary are included in the last volume of Mrs Delany's published correspondence, and, as Lady Llanover remarked, 'The record which has … been preserved of a whole month in the life of Mrs Delany… is particularly interesting.'22

Miss Hamilton acted as an agent between her uncle and the Duchess. The acquisition was a long drawn out affair permeated with all the niceties of aristocratic conduct. One gains an impression of hushed voices at private meetings:

Mrs Delany came and told me she must contrive to speak to me after dinner, for she had a secret message to me from the Duchess Dowager Portland… and then under the color [sic] of getting me to look for a book took me to her bed-room and told me what the Duchess wanted me to do, viz., to purchase the Vase of my uncle William… I took him down to the parlour under pretence of showing him the pictures, and then told him what the Duchess wish'd about the vase; when we came upstairs again they talk'd upon the subject. My uncle … told me he would think upon what the Duchess had said.23

The negotiations took over two weeks. Finally, on January 15th 1784 Sir William visited the Duchess of Portland without a go-between: '…she shew'd him many of her fine things … they talk'd over and settled the affair of the vase.'24 Although there does seem to have been a certain amount of secrecy about the acquisition, this was probably no more than to be expected. There is no suggestion that the vase could not be viewed by friends of the Duchess. Indeed, a letter from the novelist Fanny Burney to Mrs Delany included a tentative request to see the Portland Vase and suggests that admission to view it was a sought-after mark of social status.25

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15 McKendrick's account (see above) draws heavily on the Wedgwood archive. back to article

16 Wedgwood to Bentley, Etruria, 23 August 1772. See Ann Finer, and George Savage, The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood Cory, London, Adams & Mackay, 1965, 131. back to article

17 Probably the most notable collection of which Wedgwood made use was that of Sir William Hamilton. See Hilary Young, (editor) The Genius of Wedgwood, London, V&A, 1995. Early in his career Wedgwood had established a reputation for making excellent replacement pieces for imported china services. This sort of work had gained him introductions into the households of prominent collectors. Later on, his partnership with Bentley opened the way to many more. Bentley was well liked in high society. He had received a classical education, and after a trade apprenticeship in Manchester had travelled extensively in Europe. He spoke fluent French and Italian, and had studied antique art. back to article

18 Wedgwood to Sir William Hamilton, Etruria, 24 June 1786, in Finer & Savage The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood, 295. back to article

19 He had consulted with Sir William Hamilton on this point: 'In examining the bas reliefs on the vase there are a few palpable slips of the artist's attention. Would it be advisable in these cases, to make any deviations from the original, or to copy as close as we can its defects as well as its beauties? Most of the figures have their surfaces partly decayed by time. When we mould from these figures, may we venture to restore their original smoothness, with care to preserve the drawing etc. - or let the copies pass deficient as time has left the original.' Wedgwood to Sir William Hamilton, 24 January 1786. In Eliza Meteyard, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood, London, Hurst and Blackett, 1865, Vol. II 1861, 579. It seems to me that Wedgwood would have been unable to resist improving the vase. Consulting Hamilton may have been polite procedure with the added benefit of promoting interest in the vase and his own activities. back to article

20 Young (edit.) The Genius, 1995, 117. back to article

21 Diaries of Katherine Plymley in Shropshire Research and Records Office. 1066/14 5/12/1792 -17/3/1793. back to article

22 Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, 151. back to article

23 Diary of Miss Hamilton, in Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, 195-196, 3 January 1784. Miss Hamilton used old fashioned language, such as 'ye' for 'the', and many abbreviations. I have given modern equivalents. back to article

24 Diary of Miss Hamilton, in Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, 205. No prices are mentioned in Miss Hamilton's diary. back to article

25 Miss Burney to Mrs Delany, St Martin's Street, 15 January 1784, in Llanover, The autobiography and correspondence, VI, 204. back to article

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Mrs Delany: biography

Mrs Delany in relation to Wedgwood

Ceramics and feminine subjectivity

Concluding remarks

Mrs Delany and Ceramics in the Objectscape • Issue 1