The Adam brothers were not content with designing buildings and interiors; they built some of the loveliest furniture of the time. But the great name here is Thomas Chippendale. In 1754, at the age of thirty-six, he published The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, which was to the art of furniture what Reynolds’ Discourses were to painting. His characteristic products were chairs with slim “ribbon backs” and charming legs. But also he delighted the lords and ladies of George Ill’s reign with cabinets, writing tables, commodes, bookcases, mirrors, tables, and fourposter beds—all elegant, mostly novel, generally frail.
The frailty continued in the work of Chippendale’s rival, George Hepplewhite, and their successor, Thomas Sheraton; they seemed converted to Burke’s theory that in art, as in life, beauty must be frail. Sheraton carried lightness and grace to their apex. He specialized in satinwood and other beautifully grained products; he polished them patiently, painted them delicately, and sometimes inlaid them with metal ornaments. In his Cabinet Dictionary (1802) he listed 252 “master cabinet makers” working in or near London. The upper classes in England now rivaled the French in the refinement of their furniture and interior appointments.
They were giving a lead to the French in designing gardens and parks. Lancelot Brown earned the nickname “Capability” because he was so quick to see the “capabilities” offered by his clients’ grounds for fantastic—and expensive—designs; in this spirit he laid out gardens at Blenheim and Kew. The fashion in gardens ran now to the exotic, unexpected, or picturesque. Miniature Gothic temples and Chinese pagodas were used as outdoor ornaments; Sir William Chambers, in decorating the Kew Gardens (1757-62), introduced Gothic shrines, Moorish mosques, and Chinese pagodas. Funerary urns were favorite garden glories, sometimes holding the ashes of departed friends.
The ceramic arts had an almost revolutionary development. England was producing glass as fine as any in Europe.10 The Chelsea and Derby potteries turned out delightful figures in porcelain, usually in the styles of Sèvres. But the busiest ceramic center was the “Five Towns” in Staffordshire—chiefly Burslem and Stoke-on-Trent. Before Josiah Wedgwood the industry was poor in methods and earnings; the potters were coarse and letterless; when Wesley first preached to them they pelted him with mud; their houses were huts, and their market was restricted by impassable roads. In 1755 a rich deposit of kaolin—hard white clay like that used by the Chinese—was discovered in Cornwall; but that was two hundred miles from the Five Towns.
Wedgwood began at the age of nine (1739) to work at the potter’s wheel. He received little schooling, but he read much; and his study of Caylus’ Recueil d’antiquités égyptiennes, étrusques, grecques, romaines, et gauloises (1752-67) inspired him with ambition to reproduce and rival classic ceramic forms. In 1753 he started his own business at the Ivy House Works, and built around it, near Burslem, a town which he called Etruria. He attacked with the energy of a warrior and the vision of a statesman the conditions that hampered the industry. He arranged better transport for the kaolin of Cornwall to his factories; he campaigned—and helped to pay—for the improvement of roads and the building of canals; he was resolved to open avenues from the Five Towns to the world. Heretofore the English market for fine pottery had been dominated by Meissen, Delft, and Sèvres; Wedgwood captured the domestic, then much of the foreign, trade; by 1763 his potteries were annually exporting 550,000 pieces to the Continent and North America. Catherine the Great ordered a dinner set of a thousand pieces.
By 1785 the Staffordshire potteries were employing fifteen thousand workers. Wedgwood introduced specialization of labor, established factory discipline, paid good wages, built schools and libraries. He insisted on good workmanship; an early biographer described him as stamping about his shops on his wooden leg, and breaking with his own hand any pot that showed the least flaw; usually, in such cases, he chalked on the careless artisan’s bench the warning “This won’t do for Josiah Wedgwood.”11 He developed precision tools, and bought steam engines to power his machines. As a result of his large-scale production of commercial pottery, pewter went out of general use in England. His output ranged from earthenware pipes for London drains to the most exquisite vessels for Queen Charlotte. He divided his offerings between “Useful” and “Ornamental.” For the latter he frankly imitated classic models, as in his luxurious agate vases; but also he developed original forms, especially the famous jasper ware with Greek figures delicately embossed in white on a base of blue.
His interest and enthusiasm ranged far beyond pottery. In experiments to find more satisfactory mixtures of earth and chemicals, and better methods of firing, he invented a pyrometer for measuring high temperatures; this and other researches won him entry into the Royal Society (1783). He was an early member of the Society for the Abolition of Slavery; he designed and made the seal. He campaigned for universal male suffrage and parliamentary reform. He supported the American colonies from the beginning to the end of their revolt. He hailed the French Revolution as promising a happier and more prosperous France.
He had the good sense to employ John Flaxman to provide new and refined designs for his pottery. From this work Flaxman went on to illustrate Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante with drawings based on the art of the Greek vase painters. They are admirable in line, but, lacking body and color, they are as attractive as a woman without flesh. Something of this cold quality was carried into Flaxman’s sculpture, as in his monument to Nelson in St. Paul’s; but in the marble Cupid and Márpessa12 he achieved full-blooded forms in one of the best imitations of classic statuary. Funerary monuments became his specialty; he raised them to Chatterton at Bristol, to Reynolds in St. Paul’s, to Paoli in Westminster Abbey. He served in England the same role as Canova in Italy—the neoclassic attempt to recapture the smooth and voluptuous grace of Praxiteles.
We find less beauty but more life in the portrait busts that Joseph Nollekens made of famous Englishmen. Born in London of Flemish parents, he studied there till he was twenty-three, then went to Rome. He lived and worked there for ten years, selling real and counterfeit antiques.13 Returning to England, he made so successful a bust of George III that he was soon in general demand. Sterne, Garrick, Fox, Pitt II, and Johnson sat for him, sometimes to their sorrow, for Nollekens carved no compliments. Johnson grumbled that the sculptor had made him look as if he had taken physic.14
It was an age of popular engravers. The public was intensely interested in the powerful personalities that trod the political and other stages; prints of their figures and faces were scattered throughout England. James Gill-ray’s caricatures were almost as lethal as the letters of Junius; Fox confessed that such drawings did him “more mischief than the debates in Parliament.”15 Thomas Rowlandson caricatured men as beasts, but also he drew pleasant landscapes, and he amused several generations with his Tours of Dr. Syntax.Paul Sandby and Edmund Dayer developed water color to almost finished excellence.
Britons returning from the grand tour brought back prints, engravings, paintings, and other works of art. The appreciation of art spread; artists multiplied, raised their heads, their fees, and their status; some were knighted. The Society for the Encouragement of Art, Manufacture, and Commerce (1754) gave good sums in prizes to native artists, and presented exhibitions. The British Museum opened its collections in 1759. In 1761 a separate Society of Arts began annual displays. Soon it divided into conservatives and innovators. The conservatives formed the Royal Academy of London, with a charter and £ 5,000 from George III, and made Joshua Reynolds its president for twenty-three years. The great age of English painting began.