The Wedgwood Collection isn’t just one of the largest and most complete collections of ceramic in the world with more than 8,000 pieces from Josiah Wedgwood I’s early experiments on materials and glazes to examples of every design manufactured from 1950 through the present. It’s a vast archive of art, industrial design, business records, pattern books, photographs, correspondence, more than 80,000 documents that cover the history of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the English Enlightenment, the anti-slavery movement, commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, trade, politics, science, and so much more. It’s no wonder the collection was inscribed on UNESCO’s UK Memory of the World Register in 2011.
Josiah Wedgwood himself, founder of the pottery company that would become the first industrially manufactured ceramic producer in the world, started the collection in 1774. He wrote his business partner Thomas Bentley:
“I have often wish’d I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this because I did not begin it 10 years sooner. I am now, from thinking and talking a little more upon this subject … resolv’d to make a beginning.”
And so he did, going far beyond just saving examples of his ceramics ensuring that his already impressive legacy would include one of the most important industrial archives the world has ever known. In 1906, collection was put on permanent public display at Etruria, the Staffordshire estate that had served as both Wedgwood family home and factory site since Josiah bought it in 1766. It was moved in 1940 to keep it safe during the war, and reopened in a new gallery in 1952. Since then it has expanded into a vast purpose-built museum complex with picture gallery to display the Wedgwood family’s extensive collection of paintings, a ceramics gallery, screening room and visitors center. It has a great website too, with a searchable database of objects complete with nice big pictures.
Although the Wedgwood family planned to completely separate the Wedgwood Museum Trust from the company in 1961, for some reason they never were fully severed. This oversight became a catastrophe when Waterford Wedgwood went into administration in January of 2009. The company carried a £134 million ($218,000,000) pensions liability which was transferred to the solvent museum because five of its employees participated in the shared pension plan. Even the trust going into administration could not stop its assets from being targeted to repay the pension fund debt. A 2011 High Court ruling held that the Wedgwood Collection was an asset of the Wedgwood Museum and therefore could be sold to repay the pension fund. In 2012 the attorney general upheld the decision.
To prevent the breakup of this historic and irreplaceable collection and its piecemeal sale to the highest bidder, the Art Fund determined that it must raise the money to acquire the entire Wedgwood Collection to keep it intact and on display. The price tag is a whopping £15.75 million ($25,617,000), an impressive £13.1 million of which has already been raised thanks to contributions from the Art Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and other private trusts and foundations.
The outstanding £2.74 million has to be raised by the end of November or the Wedgwood Collection will be sold off. The Art Fund has started a campaign asking for donations from the public to cover this last bit of ground. You can donate online here. That page also has information for donations by mail, text or phone. Every donation will be matched by private donors, so whatever you can give is worth double. To find out more about the collection and keep up with campaign news, bookmark the Art Fund’s Save the Wedgwood Collection website.
If the money is raised on time, the Art Fund will gift the collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum. The V&A will then return it to the Wedgwood Museum on permanent long-term loan. Nary a vase will be moved from its current location. The transfer will be a legal one, not a physical one, and it will ensure that the entire Wedgwood Collection is safe and sound in public hands and on public display in perpetuity.