The V&A Wedgwood Collections Archive contains over 100,000 manuscripts relating to the Wedgwood family and factory. Located in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, the archive is housed on the same site as the still operating Wedgwood factory. The collection records the lives of the people linked to Wedgwood, and the history of Josiah Wedgwood I (1730 – 95) and his descendants, providing an insight into the people that were employed as much as the administrative and technical workings of a ceramics factory. Described by UNESCO as "one of the most complete ceramic manufacturing archives in existence", the records held go far beyond business and manufacturing.
Since the formation of the company, Wedgwood has used pattern books to index designs. These hand painted and printed bound volumes contain samples, such as a small part of a border or a design for a plate, and were used especially in the 18th and 19th centuries to share these design elements. Each design usually features a number for reference purposes. The books were used on the factory floor as a tool for production to ensure uniformity.
'Pattern book No 1', dates from around 1810. As the first pattern book in the collection, it plays a significant part in the series as it depicts the designs from the formative years of the company. The first page shows several border designs with the preliminary one being a simple blue border, progressing to more detailed designs further down the page. The labels on the left-hand side of the page each give short, precise descriptions and, despite the similarities in some of the designs, care has been taken to ensure that each description is different, providing the language needed to refer to the designs without the need for the reference number. In other pattern books, each design is either described on the same page or not at all. The archive at Barlaston has a dedicated room for the pattern books which contains volumes dating from the early 19th century to the mid-20th century, allowing the first pattern book to be studied within the context of later Wedgwood designs.
The pattern books also served as a useful retail and marketing tool. Josiah Wedgwood I ordered that they be placed in the warehouses and showrooms as it would be likely that customers would peruse the books and then order more ware. This type of brand awareness was important to retail strategy and is evident in the production of catalogues and in the use of travelling salesmen who went across the country with portfolios and samples. Within Josiah I's lifetime, Wedgwood went from selling mainly to customers in Staffordshire to being a well-known name both across England and internationally.
Josiah Wedgwood I's commonplace books
Josiah kept commonplace books as a way of recording his ideas, quotes and concepts, rather than any personal introspection like you would find in a diary. We have copies of Josiah's commonplace books in our archives which give a sense of the Wedgwood founder as a scientist, innovator, and businessman. Often written in the hand of his assistant, and scholar in his own right, Alexander Chisholm, they uncover Josiah's methodology and scientific thinking.
As you turn the pages of the commonplace book, you get a sense of Josiah's wide and varied interests and discover insights into his daily life – including instructions on pruning fruit trees and jam making.
Josiah's scientific and experimental interests are very apparent and there are multiple reports of his research on the expansion of metals and achromatic glass. In his experiments for achromatic glass, he details how he discusses the matter with glassmakers and shows his awareness and consideration for the scientific discoveries of the day. It highlights the link between scientific experimentation and the development of manufacturing and industry in the 18th century.
There are further examples of Josiah's interest in the global ceramic trade, including a report on Chinese porcelain which lists the different types and includes the original Chinese names. Although porcelain was not manufactured by Wedgwood during Josiah's time, his cream-coloured earthenware mimicked many of the properties of Chinese porcelain. Later known as 'Queen's ware' after an order was made by Queen Charlotte in 1765, its namesake became an avid patron of Wedgwood which fuelled the prestige and reputation of the brand.
The commonplace book includes a draft advertisement dating from the 1780s which capitalises on royal patronage as a selling point. As one of many English pottery manufacturers, reputation and association with fashionable, upper-class individuals added as much to the Wedgwood brand as appearance and quality. At the end of the advertisement, great pain is taken to explain delivery processes and reassure customers that they could have their money back if they are unhappy with their goods and it is reported that Josiah pioneered the concept of offering a refund.
Great Exhibition Catalogue, 1851
Following the death of Josiah I in 1795, the company was managed by his son Josiah II (1769 – 1843). After his death, the company experienced a stagnation as designs fell out of fashion and production methods suffered. The Great Exhibition, held at the purpose-built Crystal Palace in London, provided a platform for launching the Wedgwood brand afresh in the most spectacular of circumstances and amongst the finest in manufacturing and design. Over six million visitors, including Wedgwood employees, attended the fair with 20,000 people attending the opening ceremony alone.
Of all the Staffordshire potteries, Mintons arguably enjoyed the greatest success of the Exhibition, launching majolica in their display and winning a medal for their efforts. Majolica is characterised by its multi-coloured glazes and natural themes. The Exhibition catapulted majolica into fashion showing how these exhibitions could be used to shape artistic tastes. Wedgwood began its own majolica range in the 1860s as a result of Mintons' success with the style. The international exhibitions in the second half of the 19th century became stages of competition between pottery firms, providing opportunities to capitalise financially as a result of successful displays.
There are approximately 42 photography albums in the archive collection, some of which are personal family albums and some contain scenes from the factory and associated individuals.The album 'Processes employing women and girls' provides an insight into the daily life of female factory workers in the year prior to the start of the First World War. It is a particularly interesting addition to the collection as its author specifically compiled and captioned the images to highlight the work in the factory that was carried out by women. It includes images and a brief description of each of the roles women could undertake, such as thrower's assistant, figure maker, ornamenter and paintress (female painter).
Work in the factory could have harmful health effects and women were invariably paid less than men. Beyond providing a visual record of their working areas, the album does not provide further details on those issues. There are some indicators as to the position of women in the hierarchy of the factory – for example, working as assistants to the men who worked as turners and throwers. Similarly, there is a comment about women ornamentors that apply simple figures, but only after spending significant time as assistants to male figure makers.
The album was assembled by Harry Barnard (1862 – 1933) who began working at Wedgwood in 1897, decorating bone china, jasper and majolica. By the production of the album in 1913, Barnard was a sales manager in London. Eventually, he returned to the Wedgwood factory site at Etruria in Stoke-on-Trent in 1919 and took up the role of expanding the museum. He would go on to publish further works, such as the travel journals My Trip to the West and Successful Additions, as well as a scrapbook commemorating the 1930 Bicentennial Celebrations of Wedgwood, copies of which are held in the archive. He appears to have had a keen eye for capturing key moments at the factory for posterity and the Processes album ends with a group shot of the longest serving factory workers and of workers at the factory welcoming King George V and Queen Mary to Etruria during their visit to the factory in 1913.
Keith Murray designs
Keith Murray (1892 – 1981) was a New Zealand born architect who grew a reputation as a ceramics designer for Wedgwood during the 1930s and 1940s. Murray worked for Wedgwood on a freelance basis for two months per year, receiving a contribution of royalties. His designs were renowned for their modern shapes and matt glazes, with the pieces turned on a lathe to create a distinctive effect. The archive contains a series of watercolours of designs produced by Murray in the 1930s. They depict two-toned green designs which were typical of Murray's simple, modernistic style. Each design has been annotated with its shape number, description of the colour, size and are signed with the initials of unidentified individuals. These designs are known as 'slipware' and pieces would be dipped in coloured slip which would then be cut away using a lathe, revealing the lighter colour underneath. The designs are considered representative of modern style but were created using traditional methods, rather than industrial machinery.
During the time these designs were produced, Wedgwood had just entered a period of change. After the sudden death of Wedgwood's managing director, Francis Hamilton Wedgwood, in 1930, the factory was left in the hands of the new generation – Josiah Wedgwood V. The 1930s saw an overhaul in the creative direction of the company with ornamental ware such as Fairyland Lustre discarded in favour of simpler art deco designs. These simpler designs meant a simpler production process which made manufacturing less costly. The new factory in Barlaston was co-designed by Murray, alongside Charles White, and opened in 1940. It heralded a new era in production with its electric powered kilns and purpose-built, modern facilities, but also included facilities intended to support worker's welfare.
Murray's last collection with Wedgwood was commissioned in 1946 and he parted ways with the firm in 1948. However, his designs were still being produced in the early 1950s and his design and architectural contributions to Wedgwood provide a legacy of one of the most important designers of the 20th century.
Selected items from the V&A Wedgwood Collection Archives are available on Search the Archives with material being added regularly.
Find out about how to access the archives.