What you see: A Wedgwood “First Day’s Vase”, dating to 1769. Estimated at £120,000 to £180,000 ($151,000 to $226,000), it sold for £482,500 ($607,000) at Christie’s in 2016, setting a record for any piece of Wedgwood.
The expert: Jody Wilkie, international specialist head of European ceramics at Christie’s, as well as a senior vice president and co-chairman of decorative arts.
Who was Josiah Wedgwood? He’s known for several different things. He’s a master potter, a master businessman, and arguably, the first person to do modern marketing for his works. He had a whole coterie of friends–artists and intellectuals–who traded ideas off each other. In the late 18th century, all things scientific were just having their birth, and potting was arguably a science. When Josiah Wedgwood made these [ceramics, he noted] the chemistry of how the clays reacted. He developed whole new materials that didn’t exist. And he would have been considered a cutting-edge contemporary artist.
So Josiah Wedgwood is the sort of person we could pluck from the 18th century and drop in the 21st, and he’d hit the ground running? Except he had a bad leg. [Josiah Wedgwood’s right leg was amputated below the knee due to complications from smallpox.]
He’d be all over Instagram today. Without question. There’s a story told about him and how he realized that marketing was the key to unlocking financial success in his business. In 18th century England, there was a huge industry in pottery, and particularly creamware, which was pale ivory-colored in imitation of porcelain. The middle classes couldn’t afford porcelain, so they had creamware. In 1759, Wedgwood had a showroom [in London], and Queen Charlotte came and bought a creamware tea service. Wedgwood decided his creamware could be called Queen’s ware. Everyone wanted to buy it because it was Queen’s ware.
Josiah Wedgwood understood the power of celebrity influencers. He recognized something like that could be helpful to him, so he did it. You could say he was the father of modern marketing.
Where was Josiah Wedgwood in his career in 1769, when he made this First Day’s Vase? He was ten years into his business and starting a new factory in England called Etruria, outside of Stoke-on-Trent, where the Wedgwood Museum is today. That whole area of England used to be one pottery after another. He decided to start a bigger enterprise, a modern factory.
Why did he call it a First Day’s Vase? The reason for the name is it was one of the first pots to come out of the brand new kiln. It’s known that he potted them, and his business partner, Thomas Bentley, turned the wheel.
Was it unusual for Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley to physically create the ceramics themselves in 1769? I think so. They did it because the First Day’s Vases were what they were. I don’t think Wedgwood was necessarily potting every day at the factory, but he was very much a hands-on owner. When doing tests to come up with new material, he would have been involved, for sure.
I understand that six First Day’s Vases went into the kiln, and four emerged. Are they all decorated identically, or do they differ? They’re basically identical. They definitely all have the same inscription on the back. The inscription is in Latin, and it translates as, “The arts of Etruria are reborn”.
Josiah Wedgwood was not aiming low. He definitely had a high opinion of himself. That’s why he got where he was.
Why did Josiah Wedgwood choose to decorate the First Day’s Vase in the manner that we see here? The whole point of the exercise was to copy Greek vases. At that point in the 18th century, Neoclassical art was in vogue. One of the great antiquities collectors was William Hamilton, the English ambassador to Naples. The shape of this vase was based on a piece in the William Hamilton collection, as is the decoration.
This Wedgwood First Day’s Vase and similar-looking Wedgwood pieces would have connected with the sorts of people who went on the Grand Tour? The 18th century was the height of the Grand Tour. They’d see the original, then go to a Wedgwood showroom and buy one just like it.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this Wedgwood First Day’s Vase might have been to make? We know it posed challenges–six went into the kiln, and only four came out… Making any pottery, any vase, was a highly tricky enterprise because all the kilns were wood-fired. All kinds of physical problems could exist. Things would explode, things would crack. The reason they put six in was they were praying one or two would come out in a usable form. The fact that four came out–that’s a really good yield.
The Wedgwood First Day’s Vase measures 10 inches high. I know that the bigger a pot gets, the harder it is to see the design through to completion. Was Josiah Wedgwood pushing his luck by rendering the vase at this size? Ten inches, to my mind, is a doable size. It’s big enough to make a statement. The perfection of the First Day’s Vase is in its proportions and its shape. If it slumped to one side [in the kiln] or the curve of a shoulder wasn’t perfect, you’ve lost it.
Do we know where the other Wedgwood First Day’s Vases are? Yes. Two are at the Wedgwood Museum, and one is still in a private collection.
What is the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase like in person? My colleagues in London were the ones who really dealt with it and cataloged it. I came over for the sale. When I came over, I was surprised at how small it was. In my mind, it was such a big deal. In the photographs, it had presence. One of the beauties of black basalt [the type of Wedgwood ceramic used for the vase] is it has a wonderful silken surface, very smooth, and it has a light weight. Because of its shape, it fits in your hand very well. That’s the whole point of ceramics–they’re very tactile.
I’ve been told by people who have handled the full range of Wedgwood–pieces dating to the 18th century up to now–that the 18th century pieces feel different. Do you agree? I definitely agree. I’d say it’s lighter, and that silken surface… it draws you. If you touch it with your fingers, you can feel the difference. It’s the craftsmanship. There are techniques that were done in the 18th century that you can’t do now.
What, because of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)-type rules coming in? There are an awful lot of techniques that are highly caustic and couldn’t be used today. But at a certain point in the 18th century, labor was dead cheap. The artist could take the time to develop his technique and make these things perfect. Later, labor became more expensive, and the objects have a more manufactured quality.
What condition was the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase in prior to the auction? A-maze-ing. It had two little tiny surface chips to the underside of the foot rim, and a tiny little nick at the mouth that could have been there when it was made. That’s it. No cracks, no wear, nothing. The finial was in one piece, but it had come off the surface of the cover and been stuck back on. In the general scheme of things, that’s nothing.
The provenance reflected in the lot notes show that the First Day’s Vase descended in the Wedgwood family for centuries. How might that have made it more interesting to collectors? It’s not that Wedgwood owned it and it hadn’t changed hands. That didn’t matter as much as it having stayed in one piece and having been taken care of. But it was the Wedgwood family that had it.
Was this the first of the Wedgwood First Day’s Vases to go to auction? It’s the only one to go to auction. The two in the Wedgwood Museum I don’t think ever left the factory, so, by default, they went into the museum. This one was owned by the Wedgwood family. The other, I understand, is with the family. It hasn’t gone anywhere.
What was your role in the auction? I was on the phone with a buyer. It was very exciting. We went into it knowing it was sold. We didn’t know at what level it would sell.
Did you think it would set a new record for any piece of Wedgwood? No, no, I didn’t go into it thinking it would make a record price. Personally, I don’t care about records. [Laughs.] For me, it’s the object that speaks.
Well, isn’t it good and right that a First Day’s Vase, of all of Wedgwood’s many pieces, holds the world auction record? If anything is going to set the record for the manufacturer, the first piece made [at Etruria] should be it. As a footnote, on the last day of operations, Wedgwood did a modern version of the vase and called it the Last Day’s Vase. For collectors, having a Last Day’s vase is a big deal. It’s a landmark.
Do you remember how many bidders there were at the start of the battle for the First Day’s Vase, and how long it took to drop to two? As I recall, the whole thing, from start to finish, was six or seven minutes. It went back and forth a lot. Getting any bidding started on any major lot is a game of chicken. No one wants to be the first to open their mouth. It started slowly, which was no surprise.
Were you surprised by the final price? I was. I thought it would sell for around £250,000.
Were you shocked to see it get £482,500? It was a lot of money for the period, and a lot of money for English ceramics. It proves that when you’ve got something unique, an object out of the ordinary, of exquisite quality and an icon of the time in which it was made, it’s going to perform like that. That’s why we put it in an Exceptional Sale rather than a ceramics sale.
I had noticed that and was wondering about that. That particular object is a standout that would appeal to audiences beyond the field of Wedgwood ceramics. Museums and private collectors bid on it because it was what it was. When it was on view, it was in a single standing case, surrounded by silver and all kinds of grand objects. People who walked into the gallery were drawn to it.
How long do you think this world auction record for Wedgwood will stand? What could beat it? Would the other First Day’s Vase in private hands have to come to market? I think this record is going to stand for a while. It would take one of the other ones [being consigned], but I don’t know if it would make the same money. I think the odds of it being denied an export permit because the British want to keep it [in their country] is great. If it can’t leave the country, why bid on it?
Why will the Wedgwood First Day’s Vase stick in your memory? Because of the whole story behind the vase, and also because the man who bought it is a longtime client. He’s an extraordinary gentleman, and it’s all tied in. Being on the phone [representing the buyer] made it more personal than standing there, taking down prices.
Could you clarify what happened after the collector won the bidding? The original buyer of the First Day’s Vase was American. The museum that has it now was not the direct underbidder. Because of the system of [issuing] export papers in Britain, they were able to make a case and raise the money [to keep it in the country]. They felt it was taken away from its home and it needed to come back home. I advocated for my client to have it for his lifetime, and put in his will that it would go back to the museum, but that’s not the way it works. It was ultimately put back in the same case it had been in since 1979.
The winning bidder had a place for it in his house? He absolutely knew where it was going. I’m extremely disappointed that the collector never got to see it in person. He was 94 when he bought it. He never got to have it in his hands.
Is he still alive? He is still alive, and he’s that much older. If the piece came up now, in 2020, I don’t know if he would be bidding on it. I can’t say [for sure], obviously, but I do think there comes a tipping point.
But the First Day’s Vase remains the Holy Grail of Wedgwood collectors? It is the Holy Grail, as it were.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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