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.
This exhibition was organized by The Mint Museum, and was made possible with generous support from presenting sponsor Wells Fargo Private Bank, with additional support provided by Moore & Van Allen and the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The exhibition catalogue was fully funded by the Delhom Service League and an anonymous patron.