• Break the seal of the Pharaoh's Tomb and discover the fascinating links between Wedgwood and Egypt.

Wedgwood and Egypt

  • by Alistair Guy

Biscuit Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte

Theme

You may wonder what the eighteenth century ‘Emperor’ who tried to conquer Europe has to do with Egypt. If it weren’t for Napoleons exploits the wonders of ancient Egypt would not have been discovered by the west until much later. Napoleon invaded Egypt as the first step in a campaign against British India, with the ultimate goal of driving Britain out of the French Revolutionary Wars. As well as military personnel, his expedition included scientists, mathematicians, naturalists and chemists. Amongst the discoveries made was the Rosetta Stone and their work was published in the Description del l’Egypte in 1809.  He was thwarted in his first step in August 1798 by Admiral Nelson at the Battle of the Nile.

However his initial campaign led to a huge serge of interest in Europe in all things Egyptian. It was now that the term ‘Egyptomania’ was first coined and it spread in the nineteenth century, inspiring the Opera Aida (1871) by Gieuseppe Verdi, which was premiered in Cairo. It tells the tale of Aida, an Ethiopian Princess who is sold into slavery in Egypt. A military commander, Radames, struggles to choose between his love for her and his loyalty to the Pharaoh. To add a twist to the tale Radames is loved by the Pharaoh's daughter Amneris, although he does not return her feelings. In1881, the portrait of The Death of Cleopatra by Juan Luna became a Victorian sensation. Aristocrats like Byron had their portraits painted whilst wearing traditional Egyptian dress and cities imported great obelisks drawing huge crowds. Whilst the acquisition of the biggest and best statues were competed for by Europe’s leading National Museums.

Wedgwood’s connection with Napoleon goes beyond this bust. There is an ivy border known as ‘Napoleon Ivy’ though no documentary or written evidence has been found to identify the exact nature of the wares supplied to Napoleon during his imprisonment on St. Helena. However it is unlikely that ‘Napoleon Ivy’ would have been supplied to him on earthenware, like other ivy borders. Somebody with the title of ‘Emperor’ would have used nothing but bone china. The only written evidence is a note dated 24th October 1816:-

“The Prince Regent ordered every requisite for his (that is Napoleon’s) establishment at St. Helena … amongst the rest was a Breakfast service of Wedgwood’s most beautiful pale blue composition, with a white cameo device in relief, modelled by Flaxman in the best style; the dinner service is white and gold, the centre of each plate, dish etc. containing an elegantly executed landscape of British scenery”.

A later memo dated Friday 1st December 1815, details:-

 

“Mr. Bullock (the Prince Regents representatives) was here yesterday and made some trifleing alterationsin the assortment for St. Helena and has also made a few additions among which he has taken the two tea & coffee sets china embossed Vineleaf at 5Gs..”

 

A final memorandum, dated the, 18th October 1815 detailed the other items requested, including ‘Cane embossed Tea & Coffee sets, Jasper tea ware, some ornamental articles, a few enamelled Table & Desserts sets, Kitchen crates, a quantity of plain articles, also some sick chamber sets’.

Catalogue

Bust of Napoleon Bonaparte, c.1800. This was a high fired biscuit factory model produced in Wedgwood's Etruria factory. As such it was a permanent record that could be reproduced from. It stands approximately 10 inches from the ground.