Wedgwood, Austen, and Elegance
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
I LOVE dishes. I would use the good china and crystal every night. My favorite is an Edwardian tea set that belonged to my maternal great-grandmother. It was one of the few things my grandparents brought with them from Scotland when they emigrated to Canada after World War II. I have Royal Doulton china, some Waterford Crystal, and a Belleek vase, but nothing from Wedgwood, the Staffordshire china and porcelain manufacturer established by potter Josiah Wedgwood in 1759.
At this time, Georgians could buy porcelain from China, Sêvres in France, Meissen in Germany, or from the first English pottery factories like Wedgwood. By the time General Tilney is trying to impress Catherine with his two-year old, "neat and simple" Staffordshire breakfast set, Wedgwood tableware was accepted and admired at all social levels and its ornamental wares were coveted by the wealthy.
Josiah Wedgwood was an innovator who created a new variety of cream-colored earthenware in 1765. Queen Charlotte was so impressed with her tea set that she allowed him to call it the “Queen’s Ware" and, as the technique continued to be perfected, it became so popular in Europe and America that other European factories began to adopt this English style. Josiah Wedgwood was also an early adopter of transfer printing. This was far cheaper than hand painting, although the techniques were often combined.
Wedgwood might be best known for its Jasperware, a production technique developed in the 1770s. This is a still-secret way to create unglazed fine stoneware with a matte finish. It was produced in a range of colors, but the most often used was a pale blue, with a contrasting white relief, that is now known as "Wedgwood Blue." These decorative pieces were usually done in a Neo-classical style of figures, plagues, vases, and cameos. However, during Jane Austen’s lifetime it was table china that represented most of Wedgwood’s sales.
We know that Jane Austen visited the London showroom with her brother Edward Knight and niece Fanny in 1813, and that the Austen women purchased pieces for Chawton in 1811. Austen’s parents purchased a Wedgwood set—once they could afford one—early in their marriage, but it was auctioned when they moved from Steventon to Bath. Wedgwood also made useful wares such as inkwells, food molds, and chamber pots, so it is likely that Austen was surrounded by Wedgwood her entire life.
On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking, and approving our Wedgwood ware. It all came very safely, and upon the whole is a good match, though I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the woods about Birmingham must be blighted.
It seems that Jane Austen’s Wedgwood purchase was intended to match an existing service set rather than the purchase of a new pattern. The Wedgwood Archives might hint at what Austen ordered in April 1811, but we know for certain what Edward Knight ordered in 1813.
His set survives, and Jane Austen would have used it often at her visits to Godmersham. It was at least 90 individual pieces and the decoration corresponds with pattern no. 424 in Josiah Wedgwood’s first pattern book. Austen described the Knight pattern as:
a small lozenge in purple, between lines of narrow gold, and it is to have the crest.
Josiah Wedgwood revolutionized English public taste—both among the middle class and the wealthy—with his emphasis on elegance and simplicity, and also developed new marketing techniques such as money-back guarantees, free delivery, and illustrated catalogues. There were avid collectors of Wedgwood’s wares beginning in his own lifetime
What Austen characters might have had simple, elegant, and neat Wedgwood sets in their homes? General Tilney is a likely candidate, and maybe so is Mrs. Dashwood, with her breakfast set that Mrs. John Dashwood thinks is too good for her newly-reduced circumstances. I suspect that if anyone did not have Wedgwood dishes it’s Lady Catherine. Elizabeth, by comparing her taste to Darcy’s decoration of Pemberley, suggests Rosings had a little too much splendor and not enough real elegance to make it likely Lady Catherine ate off of Wedgwood plate.