‘Natural History on a Plate’ exploring the link between Wedgwood and Darwin. Free Gallery Talks Tuesday 3 & 17 of February, 1 – 1:30 pm. In 1879 the Liverpool Art Club held a large and famous exhibition of Wedgwood. One of the catalogue entries reads ’Plate in white pottery with painted decoration of water lilies. One of the dinner plates from the service made for Dr Darwin by Josiah Wedgwood. Lent by Sir Joseph Hooker.’ Josiah Wedgwood had been a great friend of Dr Erasmus Darwin. Both were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the gathering of scientificallyminded men who met once a month at the time of the full moon, so that there would be enough light to ride home in the dark. Erasmus Darwin was a radical thinker and was already working towards a theory of evolution, although it was his grandson Charles who worked this out and published it as ‘The Origin of Species’. Erasmus Darwin was a keen botanist and even wrote a long poem about botany, the Botanic Garden, including a long section published separately called ‘The Loves of the Plants’. The service was described as painted with water lilies. In the poem the Botanic Garden, one of the most purple passages described the Nelumbo water lily: ‘Cold from a thousand rocks, where Ganges leads The gushing waters to his sultry meads; By mooncrowned mosques with gay reflections glides, And vast pagodas trembling on his sides; With sweet loquacity Nelumbo sails, Shouts to his shores, and parleys with his gales Invokes his echoes, as she moves along, And thrills his rippling surges with her song.’ So what could be more appropriate than Josiah Wedgwood decorating a service with waterlilies for his old friend? Sir Joseph Hooker, who owned these pieces of the service, evidently thought so. He was the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, so he had an obvious interest in Erasmus Darwin and The Botanic Garden. This is the story that was then handed down with the different pieces of the service as they changed hands. Hooker sold the service to William Erasmus Darwin, son of Charles Darwin and greatgreat grandson of Erasmus Darwin. Just before he died in 1914, William Erasmus gave two plates and a tureen to the dealer Frederick Rathbone. Rathbone gave them to his two best customers: Lever, the best, got a plate and a tureen; Grenville Lindall Winthrop in America, second best, got a plate. Rathbone told him that when Erasmus Darwin completed The Loves of Plants, Wedgwood presented him with the service as a compliment, in about 1782. This is a splendid story, but it’s completely wrong. The waterlily pattern on the service is not painted but printed, and printed under the glaze. The Wedgwood factory did not do any printing before glazing until 1805. By this time Josiah Wedgwood I and Erasmus Darwin were both dead. The waterlily pattern in brown was in fact produced for only three years, from 1808 to 1811. As a printed pattern it was of course massproduced, not designed for one special service. The source of the design was a botanical magazine, the Botanists’ Repository of Henry C. Andrews. The Wedgwood design actually takes elements from three different illustrations. Most of it, including the middle, comes from the illustrations of ‘Nelumbium speciosum’, the Sacred Lotus of the Buddha, published in February 1806. But the background fill on the left comes form the illus. Of the Starry waterlily, ‘nymphaea stellata’, published three years earlier. And a bit of fill on the right comes from a third illus., the Lotus of Egypt, ‘nymphaea lotus’, published in 1804. Botanical painting on china had been the fashion for almost twenty years, but this was the first time that printing was used for accurate botanical decoration. Whose idea was it? John had inherited his father’s scientific interest, but through Erasmus Darwin and his son Robert Waring Darwin, he had become interested in plants. In 1794 he was elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society. After his father died the following year, he bought himself a country house, Cote House at Westbury near Bristol. He was an inactive partner in the pottery and also in a bank. He spent his time on horticulture. He built greenhouses where he grew pineapples and exotic plants. He planted orchards, and acres of vegetables and flower gardens. The gardens at Cote House became so well known that the King’s gardner William Forsyth came to visit and exchanged advice and information. In 1801 John proposed to William Forsyth the foundation of a Horticultural Society. Three years later he presided at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly over the inaugural meeting of what was to become the Royal Horticultural Society, and was appointed Treasurer. In March 1806 he was succeeded as Treasurer by his friend the Rt Hon Charles Greville. The waterlilies grown by Greville in his hothouses at Paddington Green were celebrated, and it was one of his specimens which was drawn by Sydenham Edwards for the illustration of the Sacred Lotus of the Buddha in the Botanical Magazine. As we have seen, this was published in February 1806, and by the autumn of that year Wedgwood’s engravers were using it to make their pattern. John Wedgwood’s special interest in all this makes it highly probable that the waterlily design was his idea. He was the botanist behind the design. So was the involvement of the Darwins just a misunderstanding? When Hooker wrote to William Erasmus Darwin in 1895 he offered to sell him ‘your grandfather’s breakfast and dessert services’. Wiliam Erasmus was the son of Charles Darwin the naturalist, and grandson of Dr Robert Waring Darwin and his wife Susannah, daughter of the first Josiah Wedgwood. Josiah Wedgwood was Charles Darwin’s grandfather. After Wedgwood died in 1795, the business was run by his old partner Thomas Byerley. Wedgwood’s sons Josiah and John took a back seat. In 1800 John learned that Alexander Davison & Co, the bank in which he was a sleeping partner, was in trouble. The bank demanded more capital from the partners to keep it afloat. Suddenly John needed more income from the pottery. He re joined as a partner and started drawing three times as much money from the business as was his rightful share of the profits. Meanwhile the pottery itself, neglected by the brothers, was not doing well. In 1804 John moved to Seabridge near NewcastleunderLyme in order to be nearer to the factory, and attempted to improve the discipline of work there, as he wrote to his brother Josiah on 17 February 1804: ‘The whole system of the slip kilns and clay beating is gone to ruin, and nothing will restore it but vigorous measures… Whilst I was at Etruria I had begun to bring back the clay into good order; but it is a work of such length that vas soon as I had begun to see the good effects of my efforts I was called away; and Mr B. not knowing anything at all of the manipulations, he is of no use but to fall into passions and get laughed at. When I was at the works this last week I found the clay was in miserable order… The whole system of the ovens also requires a fresh arrangement…’ John created a new underglazeprinting department to bring the factory’s technology up to date, and put his second cousin Abner Wedgwood in charge of it. But John did not have a good head for business. He and his brother Jos would send the firm’s accounts to Robert Waring Darwin in Shrewsbury for him to check. Robert Waring Darwin and Susannah Darwin lived at the Mount in Frankwell, Shrewsbury, and their house is open to the public. In 1807 Susannah wrote to her brother Josiah Wedgwood on 25 August about a new dinner service: ‘My dear Jos … We are very much obliged by your kind intention respecting the dinner service, which we are in no kind of haste for, as it is not the custom of this town to give dinners in summer – I am therefore well inclined to follow your advice, and wait for the very handsome pattern.’ In 1807 the handsome new pattern in preparation was the Brown Water Lily. Susannah evidently followed her brother’s advice and waited until the end of the year when it was ready. The botanical gene in John Wedgwood which created the service must have been passed on to his sister’s son Charles Darwin. But it is also worth thinking what influence the waterlily design itself had on young Charles, since he must have eaten his dinner off these plates literally hundreds of times as he was growing up. By 1810 John Wedgwood was in debt to his brother Jos for £5000 and to his brotherinlaw Robert Waring Darwin for even more. Now he was insolvent and had to resign his partnership in the Wedgwood company. In 1816 the bank in which he was a partner failed, and his financial ruin was complete. Robert Waring Darwin’s son Charles followed the Darwin tradition and John Wedgwood in being keenly interested in nature. He did not want to follow his father into medicine and went to Cambridge expecting to study for the Church. At Cambridge he met the Revd John Stevens Henslow, Professor of Botany, and also became interested in geology. After he came down from Cambridge in 1831, Charles went on a geological tour of Wales with Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology. When he returned home to Shrewsbury he found a letter from Henslow recommending him to apply for the job of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle which was to make a surveying voyage round the world. Charles’ father objected to this plan, still convinced that his son was going to become a clergyman. But he said ‘If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent.’ Charles went to see Uncle Jos Wedgwood. Jos not only wrote to Robert but also accompanied Charles back home to persuade Robert that Charles should go. Robert changed his mind and agreed to finance the voyage by continuing Charles’ allowance. The rest is history. This is not the final Wedgwood link with Darwin. In 1838 Charles Darwin married Jos Wedgwood’s daughter Emma. She was his cousin, because they were both grandchildren of the first Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Sarah, who were themselves cousins. It was a family tradition. Charles Darwin’s sister Caroline also married Emma Wedgwood’s brother the third Josiah Wedgwood. With Robert Darwin and Susannah Wedgwood, that makes four intermarriages. So much for inbreeding. It is perhaps worth considering the genetic evolution of Charles Darwin in another way. His grandfather Erasmus was a doctor by profession, and interested in everything. He designed for his friend Josiah Wedgwood a windmill whose sails revolved horizontally, not vertically. It was to be placed at the top of a tower covered with slatted boards. When the wind from any direction hit the slats, they carried it up to the sail at the top. He can’t have been very confident about it, because when Wedgwood pressed him for the real thing, Erasmus suggested he wait for their friend James Watt’s steam engine with its ‘Power so much more convenient than that of Wind.’ Darwin also invented a speaking machine with a wooden mouth, lips of leather, a valve at the back for nostrils, and a silk diaphragm. When he blew on the silk with some bellows, it could make the sounds of the letters a, b, m and p, so well ‘as to deceive all who heard it unseen, when it pronounced the words mama, papa, map and pam; and had a most plaintive tone, when the lips were gradually closed.’ The machine caused a sensation. Darwin’s family coat of arms was three scallop shells, and it was painted, as was the custom, on the doors of his carriage. In 1770 he added a motto invented by himself – E Conchis Omnia – which means ‘Everything [comes] from Shells.’ He had realised that life developed from simple to complex over enormous spans of time, and laid the basis of a theory of evolution. His neighbour in Lichfield Cathedral close, Canon Seward, was deeply shocked: ‘He too renounces his Creator And forms all sense from senseless matter Great wizard he! By magic spells Can raise all things from cockle shells… O Doctor change thy foolish motto Or keep it for some lady’s grotto.’ Darwin painted out the motto on his carriage, but the Church could not stop him from believing in the principle of evolution. It was just that nobody yet knew how it worked. The Wedgwood ancestry certainly left his grandson Charles with more of a taste for botany than for Wedgwood. In 1856 when he was in need of a new billiard table, he decided to sell a group of thirty five wax models for Wedgwood designs which he had inherited from his mother. They had been made in Rome to the order of the first Josiah Wedgwood between 1788 and 1790 by several different modellers, but mostly by two Italian sculptors Camillo Pacetti and Giuseppe Angelini. They had all been modelled on backboards made of slate, and then painstakingly packed up, shipped to England and delivered to Josiah. They were – and are the most important body of original design material surviving from the Wedgwood factory in Josiah’s time. Charles Darwin opened negotiations with the South Kensington Museum, now the V&A, through an intermediary, the leading Wedgwood collector Dudley Coutts Marjoribanks. The V&A did not want the lot and would only make an offer for six of the thirtyfive. Darwin did not want them himself but he knew they should be kept together as a group, so he refused. Impasse. Marjoribanks solved the problem by buying them himself and keeping them together. They decorated his shooting lodge at Guisachan in the far north of Scotland, along with most of his Wedgwood collection. He became Lord Tweedmouth, and after he died they eventually went with the rest of his Wedgwood collection to a London dealer Charles Davis to be sold as separate lots. Lever stepped in and bought not only all the wax models but the entire Tweedmouth collection of Wedgwood, so the whole lot have ended up here. If Charles Darwin had not needed a new billiard table when he did, the story might have been very different… Object of the Month in March will be ‘Clytie’, Frederic Lord Leighton’s last and unfinished painting. Free public talks take place on Thursday 12 & Tuesday 24 February, 1 – 1:30 pm.
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