During the latter half of the eighteenth century, the Neoclassical style developed in England. This style, present in everything from architecture to decorative arts, was largely influenced by the English rediscovery of Antiquity through the Grand Tour and proclaimed a heritage of Western culture, at the time perceived to be the pinnacle of civilization. It was during this period that Josiah Wedgwood developed his celebrated black stonewares, coining them “Black Basaltes” in 1768.
Staffordshire potteries had been making black ceramic vessels throughout the eighteenth century using reddish brown clay that was fired around 1,200 degrees Celsius. Potters would add a coloring agent known as “carr” derived from iron residue in mine drainage. During the firing process, the clay would turn black. They termed their wares ‘Egyptian black.’ The 1760s saw the successful experimentation of purely black wares. Innovators such as Josiah Wedgwood added manganese to the clay to create an even richer black color.
Black basalt pottery was created during the height of the Grand Tour. Beginning in the seventeenth century and lasting through the nineteenth century, the Grand Tour took the English into the Continent to experience the seat of Western culture in the Italian peninsula. Tourists often had an education in the Classics, which made travel to ancient sites such as Rome and Naples popular. These Classical sites welcomed travelers who in turn picked up inspiration from Antique architecture and artifacts, then brought it back to England to incorporate into new designs. The Antique style was disseminated through publications and catalogs, most notably Sir William Hamilton’s 1766 catalog entitled Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquities. Other seminal catalogs of Antiquity included Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquite Expliquee et representee en figures (1722) and Count Caylus’s Receuil d’Antiquites Egyptiennes Etrusques, Greques et Romaines (1761). The major British designers owned their own copies of these texts, including Josiah Wedgwood.
Wedgwood saw the potential of “Black Basaltes” because of their connection to Italy. Indeed, the very name “black basalt” is connected with the Italian peninsula through its reference to volcanic rock: “The choice of the name ‘Black Basalt’ for this type of ceramic was no doubt influenced by the so-called basalt controversy over the disputed volcanic origins of the black basalt rock” (Jenkins & Sloan, 1996: 182). Southern Italy was home to the famous Mount Vesuvius, which was a popular Grand Tour destination for classicists and natural historians alike. Classicists were interested in the newly unearthed artifacts at Pompeii and Herculaneum, which had a marked influence on the present vase, discussed in detail below. Natural historians and amateur scientists were interested in the Neapolitan environment, which experienced six volcanic eruptions throughout the eighteenth century. Possession of this vase would show the worldliness of its owner through its implicit reference to both Antiquity and to Italy. Diana Edwards explains that black basalt was the perfect medium to express taste:
“The technology of the basalt fabric was in the incubus; the past, forged by a social elite anxious to protect its authority by reference to Antiquity, provided the iconography, and the rise of a prospering middle class provided the market. The prospering of all classes clamoured for urns, cassolettes and garnitures of vases for chimney-pieces (Edwards 1994: 34).”
Not only was black basalt technologically innovative through its production methods, which utilized engine-turned lathes, but the medium also employed Neoclassicism as a reference to an Antique past which was vital to establishing a social hierarchy. The Neoclassical style allowed the British to display Grand Tour aesthetics in their homes. Nicola Pickering asserts that the Neoclassical style was “frequently employed for domestic use in public rooms, those intended to be seen and admired, used for leisure and entertainment. The Neoclassical style could imply that the patron had European connections, education and refinement, reflecting their connoisseurship and appreciation of ancient history” (Pickering 2018: 74). This vase was likely displayed in a public place in the home and demonstrated the status of its owner by connecting him to an aristocratic tradition of traveling throughout the Continent. The owner of this vase would have been expressing cosmopolitanism as well as historicism: the means to travel abroad, a knowledge and appreciation of the Classical world, and taste in his possession of an object in the new style of Neoclassicism.
This Wedgwood black basalt vase features many Neoclassical details which reveal the British interest in both copy of and allusion to Classical forms. The overall form of the vase is that of the amphora, an Ancient Greek vessel used to store wine. This exact form is found reproduced in Sir William Hamilton’s catalog, meaning that the exact form comes from an actual Ancient vessel (possibly this amphora in the British Museum). The vase’s design shows a seated youth holding a box and a tambourine within ornamental, acanthus-type borders. The design is also found illustrated in Hamilton’s catalog, with one notable change: a drape has been carefully added across the seated youth’s lap to cover his nudity. While nudity, both male and female, was prevalent on the Ancient vases, Wedgwood and his contemporaries never included it in their designs as it would have been too scandalous for “proper” British society.
The Wedgwood factory used Hamilton’s catalog as a blueprint for its Neoclassical ceramics. Shapes and figures were selected by the designer to fit his vision of a particular object. Designs such as this one could have been found on vases, plates, candlesticks, and more. The decorations’ interchangeability enabled the factory to quickly produce items that were unique and of high-quality at little expense and effort, demonstrating the Wedgwood factory’s adeptness for marketing and manufacturing.
This amphora, an homage to Western culture with references to Antiquity, was at the height of fashion when it was introduced to the British market in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. As the provenance of the vase is unknown, we can only speculate about the previous owners, who were likely upper-middle class (black basalt, while not inexpensive, was more affordable than silver, which was the other popular medium for Neoclassical vases). Regardless of the economic status of its owners, however, it is clear that the vase was used to convey a social elitism. The technologically innovative new medium of black basalt, the Classical iconography, and the connection to the aristocratic Grand Tour all worked to turn this object into a symbol of status, taste, and refinement for its owner.