This week Secrets of the Museum goes behind-the-scenes at the V&A’s Wedgwood Collection as Professor of Ceramics Neil Brownsword celebrates the early experiments and trial runs of the pioneering potter.
Thursday night’s episode on BBC 2 follows the Staffordshire University professor and internationally acclaimed artist as he explores some of Wedgwood’s unseen experiments with help from curators Catrin Jones and Rebecca Klarner.
Wedgwood transformed English pottery from a cottage craft to a world-beating industry in the late 18th century, and his trial runs show how he did it. These small fragments reveal Wedgwood’s rigorous approach to making the perfect pottery as he experimented with different glazes and firing temperatures to produce the affordable and robust creamware for which he became famous.
The episode documents how Neil selected 500 of these individual trial pieces to display in his solo exhibition Alchemy and Metamorphosis at the Potteries Museum late last year.
He explained: “Part of the project was to curate some of Wedgwood’s early trials which led to his perfections of jasperware, creamware and other glazes over his extraordinary career. There are hundreds of trays of these trial runs, and I was really interested in the fact that they were kind of messy and spoke more about the true nature of research than other more manicured items on display.
“It was like looking in someone’s bottom drawer. Some of these early test trials were stuck to the back of 18th century playing cards and those contrasting materialities were visually fascinating.”
In Alchemy and Metamorphosis Neil showcased a timeline of ceramic objects and archaeology from Wedgwood, The Potteries Museum and other world-class collections. As part of the exhibition, he curated eight trays of Wedgwood’s trials runs which had never before gone on public display.
This was one of the few occasions that the V&A Wedgwood Collection has loaned out something of such significance to another regional museum.
Neil said: “I wanted to engage the broader thinking of what ceramics is beyond the hackneyed references to the bottle kiln or cup and saucer. The concept of the exhibition aimed to elucidate risk, and trial and error in early industrialisation in attaining our notions of perfection. Wedgwood strove for perfection, but I was more interested in the trials that he considered flawed or failures.
“Eventually items of great beauty resulted from this tenacity to succeed, but we often overlook the many years of pain and failure that underpin this process. It is important to unravel the journey of historic objects and how they got here, by remembering the human endeavour of people like Wedgwood and how new knowledge is really created.”
After a successful run in Stoke-on-Trent, Alchemy and Metamorphosis is one of six international exhibitions selected for the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale 2022 and a revised version of the exhibition will go on display at the Yingge Ceramics Museum later this year.
Watch BBC 2’s Secrets of the Museum at 8pm on Thursday 21 April or catch up on the BBC iPlayer