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

Wedgwood and Egypt

  • by Alistair Guy

Egyptian Headdress mould for a pen tray


Amongst Wedgwood’s earliest productions was the ‘Eqyptian Lion’ and the Sphinx. Wedgwood specifically mentions in a letter written in September 1769. ‘I have sent Boot to Etruria to day to begin upon Terra Cotta figures, but I have only a Sphynx , Lyon, & a Triton for him to begin with’. Sphinx forms mentioned in Wedgwood’s early correspondence are not readily discernible. For example on the 20 September 1769 Wedgwood referred to the fact that ‘Boot is making Ritond & Sphinx’s, & does them very well, better than I expected. Over three centuries Wedgwood has produced a number of sphinx types and these can be divided into Greek and Egyptian sphinxes. The Greek sphinx was a lioness, usually seated, with the head and breasts of a woman and the wings of an eagle. There are two examples of Greek sphinx’s on ‘Collections Online’, (accession number: 492 & 481) they are both intaglio moulds and date from 1760. The Egyptian sphinx differs from the Greek, in that they are depicted as male and either prone, known as ‘couchant’ or seated known as upright. Both types show the ancient Egyptian ‘Nemes’ head dress as standard. The depiction of a human head attached to a lion’s body simultaneously symbolised strength and power.  

The word sphinx is probably derived from two Egyptian words meaning ‘living image’. Both Greek and Egyptian varieties were embellished with the addition of wings, or even crowned with a lotus form nozzle to serve as a candle holder. Both the upright sphinx and the couchant sphinx, have been produced at intervals from the eighteenth century through to recent times in a variety of ceramic bodies including Black basalt, Rosso Antico, caneware and Jasper. In the early days of production of such exotic items Wedgwood was obviously experiencing problems with some of the models. He wrote to Bentley on 2nd January 1770 – ‘We have made but one Tryton, & a few Sphynx’s there is so very much labour with them, our moulds being so very bad, & unfit for our methods of working’.  

Wedgwood appears to have modelled its sitting sphinx’s with wings, but the wings vary in size and detail depending on the purpose of the piece. In one impressive piece known as the Brainstone Vase (acc. No 1136), produced in the mid 1770’s the sphinx’s sit back to back on a plinth with their wings holding a stately bowl. Its lid has a raised pattern which resembles a brain and gives the piece its unusual name. This, like other Egyptian inspired pieces produced by Wedgwood features a Greek Key decoration, along the base. This is another example of how the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome could not be distinguished from each other by eighteenth century Scholars and by those who went on the Grand Tour.

The piece shown above is the original biscuit model for the decoration of an ink tray, produced around 1769. As you can see it is a single Egyptian male with the Nemes headdress, associated with Egyptian Sphinxes. Even though it has been discoloured by age and wear, the detail is still extraordinary, with the eye orbs and ears still clearly visable from the obverse, and the back of the headdress from the reverse.   The pen tray itself is simple in appearance, partitioned and bearing the head decoration on the side furthest away from the user. On the base appears a unique incised ‘Wedgwood & Bentley’ mark. It may have been produced for some personal significance in the Wedgwood & Bentley partnership years of 1769-80.  The ink tray ornament has a round disk on the top of its head. This was believed to be part of restoration work, however its existence on the original mould may suggest it was always designed this way.  Although a number of ancient Egyptian sphinxes were known in Rome and elsewhere in Europe before Wedgwood’s time, no Wedgwood sphinx resembles them enough to suggest direct copying.



Wedgwood & Bentley original biscuit model for the decoration of an ink tray, produced around 1769. As you can see it is a single Egyptian male with the Nemes headdress, associated with Egyptian Sphinxes.