The name Wedgwood has been associated with finer things in life for centuries. The iconic blue stoneware emblazoned with the white porcelain cameos is one of the most recognizable of Josiah Wedgwood’s creations, but the scope of work created over the centuries at the factory he established is diverse in both materials and design. Thanks to the efforts of the staff at the Ruthmere Museums, the beauty and artistry originated by Josiah Wedgwood in the mid-1700s and continuing to today is showcased in a one-of-a-kind exhibit at the Havilah Beardsley House in Elkhart.
There are common links between Wedgwood (1730 – 1795) and Beardsley, says Curator Jennifer Johns, which makes the Havilah Beardsley house the ideal venue for the Beyond Wedgwood Blue exhibit.
“They were both visionaries and followed through to make things happen,” Johns says. “Josiah was very focused with his trade and being able to expand the business worldwide was important to him. Whereas Havilah used his wealth to acquire and develop property in an area that wasn’t heavily settled yet. Work ethics for both men was strong.”
Beyond Wedgwood Blue opened in July and continues through Sept. 30. More than a dozen display cases are used to guide guests through Wedgwood’s legacy, from the Jasperware to the lusterware adorned with fairytale characters, dragons and hummingbirds. The exhibit encompasses Wedgwood’s early work as well as more modern pieces that are still made to the rigorous standards set by the company’s founder.
“Wedgwood was a remarkable person,” says Andrea Barbour, who researched and compiled the exhibit narrative. “It took him over 5,000 experiments to develop Jasperware, and all of that science was entirely self-taught.”
Wedgwood was taken out of school as a young child to work in pottery factories. Despite the lack of formal education, he excelled at his trade, earning a reputation as a precise craftsman and an inventor. One of his inventions, the pyrometer is still used today.
“On top of it all, he was an advocate for social change, promoting the anti-slavery movement and backing America during the Revolutionary War,” Barbour explains. “It’s astounding to me how one person can do so much in such a short lifetime.”
The exhibit is a first for the Ruthmere museums, which are comprised of the 1874-renovated Italianate house of the founder of Elkhart, Dr. Havilah Beardsley and the 1908 house of A.R and Elizabeth Beardsley, designed in the Beaux Arts style.
“Over the past 40-plus years Ruthmere has hosted a number of smaller traveling exhibits and even developed a few in-house ‘one-room’ special exhibits in the past, but nothing close to the scale and complexity of Beyond Wedgwood Blue,” says executive director Bill Firstenberger. “Our goal is to develop a new in-house major special exhibition every two years and to bring in a significant national traveling exhibition during the years in between.”
The exhibit used pieces that were already in the Ruthmere collection. Added to these were pieces borrowed from museums, including The Birmingham (Alabama) Museum of Art and the Art Fund, Inc., the Minnetrista in Muncie and The History Museum in South Bend, Indiana. To complete the exhibit, the Ruthmere Foundation’s Collection Committee also purchased several pieces which will be auctioned off in November.
Firstenberger explains that purchasing items for a temporary exhibit and then selling the items after the exhibit closes is a way for visitors to the exhibition to “take home a piece of Beyond Wedgwood Blue for themselves.” The proceeds from these “Special Temporary Collection” pieces will go back into the budget for the next exhibit in about two years.
Beyond Wedgwood Blue is the type of exhibit that appeals to fine art collectors and the newcomers, Barbour says.
“Having gone from a person who had never even heard of Wedgwood, I’ve come a long way – I even collect Wedgwood myself, now, and have a small collection of Jasperware trinket boxes in five different colors and shapes so far,” she says. “It’s kind of powerful, in a way. Once you find a relatively cheap piece, it’s hard to turn it down.”
Beyond Wedgwood Blue at the Havilah Beardsley House is open for tours on the hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It is also open on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. The house museum is located at 102 W. Beardsley Ave, Elkhart. For more information, visit ruthmere.org.
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