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Saturday, Jan. 6, 2001


Gentility of famed Wedgwood

Despite fears that England is increasingly becoming an unpleasant and vulgar country with an antisocial yob culture, internationally it is still blessed with an image of civilized gentility.

The current exhibition at the Yokohama Sogo Museum, showing the achievements of the world-famous Wedgwood brand of ceramics, is guaranteed to uphold this positive image in Japanese minds for a few more years.

Focusing on the life of the founder, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), but also representing the subsequent history of the company up to the modern day, the exhibition includes hundreds of exhibits and covers a wide range of styles.

There are pieces of the exotic "Cauliflower Ware," one of Wedgwood's forgotten early styles, and countless examples of Neoclassical influence in Black Basalt and Jasperware.

There is even a bamboo-style tea kettle from 1871, revealing the vogue for Japonisme in the latter half of the 19th century.

The items on display indicate that tea culture in England, as in Japan, played an important civilizing role. Whenever people meet socially there are invariably tensions, creating a need for some sort of social lubricant.

Tea, especially as it was formerly drunk in England, was perfect in this respect as not only is it a relaxing, nonalcoholic drink, but the ritual of preparing the tea also gave the participants much to do with their hands -- a boon for the socially nervous.

As for the tongue-tied, the quality of the ceramics as well as the interesting motifs and designs provided an additional subject of tea-time conversation. Many of the pieces on display depict legends and allegorical figures.

An example is the exquisite "Sugar Basin in White Jasper with Black Dip" (1785-90) with the design "Sportive Love" showing Cupid being treated for a bee sting, symbolizing the dangers of such love.

With its importation of teas from China, the West also received some of the gentleness of the Orient. The popularity of tea-drinking saw the eclipse of the bawdy, drunken socializing of Shakespearean and Stuart England by the more reserved Georgian and Victorian social environment that allowed women greater participation.

It is no exaggeration to say that tea culture, by domesticating the social scene, helped prepare the way for greater sexual equality.

Chinaware was an intimate part of this process. The first items arrived from China packed around the tea to protect it from the ill effects of salt water on the long voyages.

These delicate Oriental ceramics became highly prized both for their utility and beauty, and soon European potters were striving to emulate and surpass them. Josiah Wedgwood, the son of a humble Staffordshire potter, was to prove the most successful both for his artistic vision and entrepreneurial skills.

His first great success was in 1762 when he produced a highly durable cream-colored earthenware that so pleased Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, that she allowed him to call it Queen's Ware.

Naturally this boosted sales among the public and led to further royal patronage from the likes of Catherine the Great of Russia, as well as Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Dessau, the Anglophile prince of a tiny German state, whose recently rediscovered collection of Black Basalt Ware is among the most impressive elements of the exhibition.

Working with the artist John Flaxman, Wedgwood's work reflected the growing popularity of Neoclassicism, best exemplified by the blue and white cameo works he produced in Jasperware.

Tea drinking not only improved the position of women in European society but raised their tastes to the forefront of fashion: Black Basalt Ware certainly suited the Neoclassicism of the age, but perhaps more pertinent to its success and popularity was the simple fact that its black color showed off the white hands of the ladies to good effect.

"The Father of English Potters: Josiah Wedgwood," until March 12 at Yokohama Sogo department store 6F gallery, (045) 465-2361. Open 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Closed Feb. 6. Admission 1,000 yen, students 800 yen and children 500 yen.

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