World of Wedgwood

Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire
Nicola Sullivan
Josiah Wedgwood triumphed in the face of adversity. Nicola Sullivan finds that the World of Wedgwood has rather followed his example.

Visitors to the World of Wedgwood, near Stoke-on-Trent, are met by a nine-metre-high mural of potter and namesake Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) made from more than 1,000 coloured plates, each fired in the factory on site.

In many ways, this striking image, which becomes more defined through the lens of a mobile phone camera, resonates with how this new attraction has linked the work of a past master with today’s global Wedgwood brand.

The Wedgwood Museum, which sits at the heart of the £34m redevelopment of the Wedgwood estate and factory in Barlaston, has gone from an underwhelming venue that once faced the prospect of selling its collection to being the most impressive part of an experience that is expected to attract around 145,000 visitors in its first year.

The museum, which covers 250 years of British art and history, is home to the collection that was under threat of sale to meet a £135m pension deficit inherited after Waterford Wedgwood collapsed in 2009.

It was saved last year after a public campaign raised £15.7m. Its collection of 80,000 ceramic artefacts was bought by the Art Fund and gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which loaned it back to the Wedgwood Museum on a long-term basis.

The newly refurbished and extended museum provides space to display half the collection, as well as pieces by contemporary designers, including Jasper Conran and Vera Wang.

Social conscience

The objects are arranged chronologically in four galleries spanning the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Among those that caught my attention were the cauliflower coffee pot earthenware made by Josiah between 1759 and 1765 and noted for its innovative green glaze and the Portland vase – a replica of the famous Roman cameo glass vase once owned by the Duchess of Portland.

I also spotted some beautiful small boxes that were designed by Josiah and carried the typical jasper-style motifs his work is famous for. The boxes, I was told, were used to contain patches to cover smallpox scars.

It is objects such as these that show the extent to which challenges caused by then- common illnesses influenced Josiah’s work. He partially lost the use of his right leg after contracting smallpox as a child, which meant he was unable to operate the traditional kick-wheel used to throw pots in the 1700s.

The potter, who later had to have his leg amputated with no anaesthetic, had no choice but to experiment and improve the methods and materials used in the ceramic industry. For example, he explored using steam to power potters’ wheels and lathes.

This fascinating tale of triumph in the face of adversity will be of interest to visitors, whether or not they are ceramics enthusiasts.

An anti-slavery medallion is among the items made by Josiah that help build a picture of his socially conscious character, but it also challenges the perception that ceramic objects only serve a decorative function.

Contemporary artists such as Paul Scott are increasingly exploring the power that everyday objects have to make statements about the human condition.

Commercial opportunities

The museum’s colourful and eclectic collection is somewhat at odds with the rest of the World of Wedgwood complex, which, with its glass walls and minimalist grey and white interiors, can feel a bit sterile.

There are plenty of opportunities for shopping and the flamboyant displays in the flagship store showcase the latest ranges of pricey Wedgwood tableware produced today.

There is, however, money to be saved at the factory outlet store, which offers up to 70% off end-of- line pieces.

The site, managed by Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton, which was acquired by Fiskars Group earlier this year, also boasts a luxurious tea room, a tea tasting bar, a dining hall and Wedgwood Design Worlds, four aspirational interior design spaces.

Although these sleek commercial elements can feel a little clinical, they illustrate how commercial enterprise can be used to shore up museums and their collections.

It is, therefore, a relief to get one’s hands dirty in the master craft studio. Making your own pot out of silky smooth clay, which turns traditional Wedgwood pale blue when fired, is a magical way of connecting with the history of the 250-year-old business.

Master potters are on hand to prevent disasters and the finished product is yours to keep.
The decorating studio is a fitting end to the tour of the working factory, which is responsible for half of Wedgwood’s global ceramics production.

During the tour, visitors have a bird’s-eye view of day-to-day operations from mezzanine platforms that overlook the moulding, firing and glazing process in the factory.

Information panels provide an insight into how the craft has evolved since Josiah established his pottery in 1759. Many of his innovations are still used by potters today, including the engine-turned lathe, first used by the potter in 1763.

The World of Wedgwood fully embraces new commercial opportunities and exploits the popularity of the brand in ways that maintain the integrity and value of the museum’s collections.

Such innovation is certainly in keeping with the tenacity of Josiah himself, and is proof that if museums work creatively and keep the public onside, they can overcome the toughest of challenges.

Project data

Cost £34m
Funders and supporters Regional Growth Fund; Art Fund; Victoria and Albert Museum; Heritage Lottery Fund
Architect Brownhill Hayward Brown

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