All About Wedgwood: A Collector's Guide to Jasperware
This neo-classical decorative pottery is known for its blue background and white cameo patterns.
Jasperware is the quintessence of Wedgwood. This unglazed stoneware, decorated with cameo-like motifs, can be found in 18th, 19th, and 20th century versions of the original blues, as well as lilacs, greens, and whites. These urns and vases—in their smooth, matte finish—stand poised on their pedestal feet and make a stately impression to any room. But what makes them so collectible in the modern day?
The History of Wedgwood
We can thank Josiah Wedgwood who came from a family of potters, had a humble education, and invented himself, around 1776, into a world-class, self-taught, entrepreneurial genius when he redefined the industry. How did he do this? His wares were not porcelain. The hugely successful Queen's ware, for instance, named in 1766 and still made to this day, was a fine cream-colored earthenware and the result of many experiments. It's called creamware because it looked like old-fashioned heavy cream, as explained by Jennaea Denhardt, a china buyer for department stores like Dayton's, Hudson's, and Marshall Field's. "Creamware existed in England long before Wedgwood, but the clays were so coarse and yellow that potteries tried to hide them under heavy, splashed glazes," describes Denhardt. "Josiah's handsome creamware was tough and inexpensive. Almost anyone could buy it. Yet it was so elegant that even Queen Charlotte had to have nine hundred pieces, including two toy tea sets and nine dog pans—and so it is called Queen's ware." Her royal support is what made Wedgwood a household name and sent sales booming.
But the Queen's ware profits underwrote Wedgwood's next discovery in 1768: black basalt. After tweaking the formula for years, he perfected a black basalt stoneware of superfine texture and such extreme hardness that it could be cut and polished on a lathe like metal. "Basalt even looked metallic and made very convincing 'bronze' busts and portrait medallions," explains Denhardt. "Equally handsome were twenty or so different shapes of basalt teapots, a few of which are still made today and the public loved it."
It was lastly, with his new partner Thomas Bentley, that Wedgwood resolved to create the finest of all his ornamental objects. True to his word, in 1776, he refined a secret formula for the superlative jasper. Jasper wasn't necessarily blue, however—it was equally ravishing in green, lilac, yellow, pale gray, black, and chocolate brown. One hundred years later, that original rainbow stretched to include "Quaker grey," celadon, and teal. (An '80s version in a misbegotten color—known now as denture pink—was trendy before it phased out.)
Jasper, a dense white stoneware, was usually made by mixing color into the clay, but the basic white shape might also be dipped in color. In the latter, the colored surface was cut away to reveal the underlying white in patterns. In the former, pure-white appliqués—which had to be laid, wet, on the colored stoneware—were molded to the shape of the cup or vase, undercut, in imitation of ancient cameos, then feathered out to translucence. Jasper was available in all kinds of trinkets: buttons, beads, medallions, mantel pieces, and cachepots. The large impressive urns, depicting ennobling scenes and mythology were ideal for Europeans who were then in love with all things Greco-Roman in style. When these Olympian pieces first appeared in London showrooms, crowds actually fought to get in and "a violent vase madness" was reported, according to historians. Wedgwood, never one to understate, described himself as "Vase Maker General to the Universe."
He certainly employed a universe of techniques in his proprietary styles—Queen's ware, basalt, and jasper. But above them all, "jasperware eventually became the most successful and enduring single item of giftware ever manufactured," adds Denhardt. "Barring wartime interruptions, it has been made continuously by the firm for more than two hundred years."
Today, if you seek truly collectible Wedgwood, try the 18th century pieces—lilac or green jasperware, or the diced confections that look like frosted tea cakes—which cost in the thousands. For less money, though, you can assemble a collection of modern cameos, the children's story series from the '70s, or a selection of 20th century jasperware urns in every color. The canewares and basalts are all easy to find, but for a lifetime challenge, try tracking down the work of one single Wedgwood artist—Eric Ravilious, for instance, a young Englishman who designed effervescent commemorative wares for the firm in the thirties, and died during World War II. There is so much Wedgwood available at antique stores and collectibles fairs that you'll be spoiled by all of the choices.
Prices can vary depending on the age, color, pattern, and condition of the piece. And age is usually determined by marks on the bottom, which changed frequently. An entire set of dishes or a rare vase could cost around $1,000 or even more, while a set of plates or set of saucers might only cost a few hundred. Serving plates, pitchers, coffee pots, gravy boats, and the like especially newer, modern pieces can often be less than $100.
But do beware of fakes. Expensive jasperware is abundantly faked, as is basalt. "Remember that the genuine 18th-century article has a smooth, silky surface and crisp, finely executed detail and appliqués," warns Denhardt. "Most crucially, all real Wedgwood, old and new, is marked on its base. But beware the extra 'e,' so don't buy any Wedgewood."