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

Wedgwood and Egypt

  • by Alistair Guy

Factory model of a Canopic jar and cover


In ancient Egypt the function of the canopic jar was to hold the viscera or internal organs of the deceased. After being treated with boiling bitumen, the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines were wrapped, and then sealed in four canopic jars of clay, limestone, alabaster or other stones or metal depending on the social standing of the deceased (usually male). The heads depicted on each jar – one human, one a jackal, one a hawk, and one a baboon symbolized the four attendant spirits of the dead. The jars were placed together in a single container near the Mummy. It is believed that this ritual, started in the town of canopus in the Nile Delta. Here vases of a similar form representing Osiris, god of the underworld (represented by the jackal) were produced. This gave rise to the widespread but incorrect term ‘canopic’ for all such vases.

Wedgwood’s design of the canopus jar or ‘vase’ was loosely based on engravings from Montfaucon, Volume II, part 2. This relationship is typical as so few Egyptian antiquities existed outside of Rome, it is not surprising that almost all of Wedgwood’s designs appear to have been made from prints. Montfaucon’s L’ Antiquite Expliquee was a copiously illustrated, fifteen volume encyclopaedia and an attempt to compile everything that European scholars knew of ancient art in the 1720s. Montfaucon drew his illustrations from many sources, underlining the idea that pieces based on ancient Egypt were actually a blend of the entire classical ancient world. It is impossible to tell whether Wedgwood’s designers consulted the illustrations in the books of Montfaucon, or copied Montfaucon’s generally accurate copies themselves because Wedgwood & Bentley owned not only Montfaucon but also the sources he consulted when producing the drawings.

Like nearly all of Wedgwood’s Egyptian ware almost all the motifs could have been taken from Montfaucon’s Volume II, Part 2, which deals with Egypt. In the case of the 1790 Canopic Vase (accession number 4900) Montfaucon credits his print to La Chausse, an author known to Wedgwood & Bentley, and there is an almost identical version of the same four views of this Canopus in one of the tomes of the seventeenth century “Egyptologist” Athanasius Kircher.

As there is already a more than adequate description and explanation of the black basalt vase in Collections Online, I have chosen to highlight a lesser known but no less an interesting piece. The piece above was produced in 1823 and is a biscuit ware factory model, and would have been used as a reference piece for the crafts people on the factory floor.  The original production piece would have been created in Jasper and after 1860 also in majolica. This particular piece has been decorated with ornamental hieroglyphics and zodiac signs. Wedgwood was originally supplied with the signs of the Zodiac by Mrs. Mary Landré in 1774. They were modelled by Hackwood and were used as a frieze on some fine black basalts vases of the Wedgwood & Bentley period, and were then reduced in size for use as cameo borders.  There origin is Greek, derived from the word zodion meaning the sculptured figure of an animal.


A factory model in Wedgwood biscuit ware for a canopic jar. Decorated with ornamented hieroglyphics and zodiac signs. The production piece would have been in Jasper and after 1860 in majolica. This reference item was produced around 1805.