WEDGWOOD BLACK BASALTE
The rich black stonewares perfected by Josiah Wedgwood in the 1770s caught the popular imagination and were widely
copied by other Staffordshire factories.
Josiah Wedgwood was the premier figure in 18th-century British pottery making. He began his career working with another important figure, Thomas Whieldon, but set up his own factory in 1759, making mainly useful wares. A few years later, he had his first great success with the production of creamware.
Then, in 1769, he opened a new factory in partnership with Thomas Bentley. The Etruria works was the largest pottery in the world at the time, and was dedicated to producing ornamental wares in a fine, unglazed black stoneware that Wedgwood called Black Basalte. These were a refinement of a cruder
Staffordshire ware, known as Egyptian black, and was made by adding manganese dioxide and some cobalt to the Egyptian black mix. Wedgwood himself threw the first six vases, with Bentley turning the potter's wheel.
Black Basalte wares were based on Roman, Greek and Etruscan originals, and fitted in perfectly with the neoclassical style that was the dominant fashion for interior design in the 1770s. They were decorated in classical style, too. Enamel colours were burnt into the body, using a technique that was based on an ancient method of painting in melted wax. Red was the favourite colour, though white was also used.
Vases and ewers were the mainstay of production at Wedgwood's Etruria factory, but the range also included a ~ great deal of useful wares, including candleholders, lamps, baskets, flowerpots, ink stands, mugs and teapots. Busts were also produced, some of them copied from classical examples and others modelled from life or from painted portraits.
The success of the Wedgwood range prompted other Staffordshire potters to produce black basalt wares, particularly useful wares such as tea sets. They were relatively cheap to produce, as they could be moulded, and did not need to be painted. Spode and Neale were among the better factories.
Basalt wares had perhaps their greatest popularity in the first half of the 19th century, but the appeal of this stoneware has proved as durable as its body, and the Wedgwood company still makes Black Basalte ware today.
BLACK BASALTE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Black basalte wares are extremely durable, and pieces
from the late 18th and early 19th survived in some numbers. This is true of
both Wedgwood originals and the products of various other factories. Though you
may be lucky enough to find some pieces market stalls, garage sales and the
like, basalt wares have been collected for many years, and are more likely to
turn up in an antique shop or fair or at an auction.
WEDGWOOD & BENTLEY
The great prize would be an early vase bearing the
impressed mark Wedgwood & Bentley, found only on rare pieces made before 1780.
The mark took two forms; the names either appeared in an ellipse, the letters in upper and
lower case, or in a circle, all in capitals, with the word 'Etruria' added. Some pieces may
simply be marked W & B. These marks have
been faked in recent years, perhaps added to unmarked pieces. The techniques used
always leave a mark softer than the real thing. If the point of a knife or a pin easily scratches the mark, then it's a fake.
Wedgwood Black Basalte ware made after 1780 carries the familiar WEDGWOOD mark. Do not confuse this with other marks intended to mislead buyers, including Wedge wood and J Wedgwood,
made by John Wedge Wood, WEDGWOOD & CO, used by Enoch Wedgwood, and WEDGEWOOD and VEDGWOOD, used by various makers.
Although most unglazed stonewares, including the Jasper ware introduced by Wedgwood in 1774, have a matt finish, basalt ware was capable of developing a high polish as it was dusted and handled over the years, and could sometimes resemble bronze.
Basalt ware was often polished on a jeweller's wheel after it was fired. Learn to distinguish between the natural glow this produces and the versions of black basalt introduced in the 1830s which have a glossy glaze. Look for pieces with good, crisp moulding and a warm sheen. The ware should be smooth to the touch, with a very fine grain.
It's quite difficult to damage basalt wares as Wedgwood himself claimed, 'The black is sterling and will last forever' - but any chipped or cracked pieces you do come across are best avoided. Keep your collection in good condition by dusting and polishing the pieces regularly with a soft, dry cloth; a cotton bud or, better, an artists' paintbrush, will help you get into awkward
Read articles and references: Good standards are Warman's
English & Continental Pottery & Porcelain (Susan and Al Bagdade), and Marks
& Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain (William Chaffers).