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Rediscovering Black Basalt, One of Josiah Wedgwood’s First and Most Enduring Inventions

Rediscovering Black Basalt, One of Josiah Wedgwood’s First and Most Enduring Inventions


“Art comes from one side of the brain. And business comes from the other,” Bill Rau, antiques dealer and proprietor of New Orleans’s 108-year-old M.S. Rau, tells AD PRO over the phone from his French Quarter showroom. “Very few inventors and artisans have been able to merge the two. Josiah Wedgwood was unequivocally one of the best. He was a business genius, he was a marketing genius, and he was a pottery genius.”

Rau, a longtime Wedgwood collector and aficionado, is discussing the 18th-century English artisan’s legacy on the occasion of an exhibition at the Mint Museum Randolph in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is on view through January 3, and a coinciding sale at M.S. Rau, dedicated to one of Wedgwood’s lesser-known material inventions, black basalt.

Invented in 1767, prior to the development of Wedgwood’s iconic jasperware, the blue and white stoneware that has since become synonymous with the brand, black basalt was designed to mimic the inky-black luster of volcanic basalt stone. To achieve the hue, an iron-oxide rich slurry of manganese and iron—sourced from nearby coal mines—was added to a clay body and fired in a kiln. While the material was predominantly used in the production of domestic “useful” objects, the exhibition, “Classic Black: The Basalt Sculpture of Wedgwood and His Contemporaries,” presents a survey of more than 100 decorative basalt sculptures and vessels.

Wedgwood Neoclassical Black Basalt Encaustic Enamel Campana.

Photo: Courtesy of M.S. Rau

Copies of Greek and Roman busts, bas reliefs, and amphorae all show off Wedgwood’s technical prowess, but, as Rau notes, the Wedgwood’s inventor’s spirit was only rivaled by his marketing genius. “He was one of a handful of true artisans who also figured out business to great success,” he says. Inspired by the popularity of the Grand Tour—the 17th- and 18th-century British nobility’s post-university continental sojourn—and subsequent demand of Roman and Greek objects excavated from sites along the Mediterranean such as Pompeii, Wedgwood devised his own stoneware that would allow replicas of those ancient, and rare, vessels to be sold in quantity. In January 1769, Wedgwood wrote to his business partner, Thomas Bentley, that “an epidemical madness reigns for vases, which must be gratified.” Wedgwood observed the craze for all things neoclassical and knew exactly how to capitalize on it.

“They were copies for people that wanted a Greek vase and couldn’t get one,” explains Rau, but unlike the originals, which were weathered and cracked by centuries buried underground, copies were, obviously, beautifully rendered and completely intact. “They cost most than the original,” adds Rau. “They were in perfect condition and people were willing to pay for that luxury.”

In addition to neoclassical themes, Wedgwood also utilized black basalt for more contemporary subjects. Statuary dedicated to the reigning thinkers of the day—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin—were given gravitas with the use of the heavy, dark-colored stoneware. “He chose some of the most famous people in history,” explains Rau, who likens the line of figures to modern-day celebrity memorabilia. “Wedgwood was smart enough to realize the highly important figures that people would want to buy.”

While the popularity of black basalt still in no way rivals that of jasperware, it remains one of Josiah Wedgwood’s most innovative and enduring inventions. Even he understood the material’s staying power, writing of it at the time: “The Black is sterling, & will last forever.”

Black Basalt Figure of Voltaire by Wedgwood.

Photo: Courtesy of M.S. Rau

Wedgwood Neoclassical Black Basalt Encaustic Enamel Campana.

Photo: Courtesy of M.S. Rau



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