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

Wedgwood and Egypt

  • by Alistair Guy

Intaglio Mould of Cleopatra

Theme

When discussing Egypt where better to start than with its iconic Queen, Cleopatra. This Wedgwood and Bentley intaglio mould of Cleopatra (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.) being bitten by the Asp. Produced in Biscuit ware, this would have been used to manufacture the corresponding intaglio. If you look closely you can see the red remains of the wax mould that has been taken. The '211' that can be seen on the front of the mould refers to the subject number of Antique Subjects listed in the 1774 catalogue.

This piece is one of the earliest examples of Wedgwood’s interest in Ancient Egypt. In the early  1770s Wedgwood and Bentley began using representative themes for decoration on Black Basalt. In these early days of Egyptology many Artists and Scholars were confused by the hybrid results of the marriage of the Egyptian and Roman civilisations. As far more was known about ancient Rome than Egypt it is understandable that their art was confused, especially when temples to Egyptian deities were found in Rome with a melding of the two styles. Egypt became a Roman province in 30 B.C and therefore absorbed some of its culture into its own.

In Josiah I’s time only a few young aristocrats incorporated Egypt into their personalised ‘Grand Tours’.  Rome was a far more popular choice, as there were existing travel routes and it was already heavily Europeanised. Little did the ‘Grand Tourer’s’ realise that whilst visiting Rome, that they were frequently viewing Egyptian antiquities. When Egypt became part of the powerful Roman Empire, Italy began to import Egyptian religion and cults, artists, and even ancient artefacts such as obelisks. The first obelisk was removed by sea to Rome under the rule of Augustus and was erected in the Circus Maximus.

Many of the Egyptians who settled in Rome lived in the Egyptian quarter of the city which was known as the Campus Martius. Here they built large temples to Isis and Serapis. During Renaissance time the ruins of the former temple shrines to these Romanised Egyptian gods began to yield strange statues of, for example, sphinxes, baboons and lions.

When these ‘hybrids’ had been further reinterpreted by European artists the resultant ‘Aegyptiana’ was, to say the least, a little strange. Between 1769 – 1780 Wedgwood & Bentley produced canopic vases, statues of Egyptian ‘lions’ and a number of cameos and intaglios of named subjects, such as this piece.  It is a good example of the merging of Roman and Egyptian styles with Cleopatra’s hair and attire moulded in a distinctly Roman style.

Several of Wedgwood & Bentley's depictions of Egyptian subjects do not pretend to be Egyptian in style, since they are based on Roman versions of Nilotic subjects. Such are several cameos, intaglios, and reliefs of Cleopatra and Isis. Wedgwood did not attempt to make Cleopatra look Egyptian in costume or style of modelling. This reminds us that the eighteenth century thought of Cleopatra as a classical figure (probably because of her association with Mark Anthony). It is significant that the famous Roman statue of the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican was throughout the eighteenth century called the dying Cleopatra, and Wedgwood listed Cleopatra among the “Illustrious Romans”.

Wedgwood’s several representations of Isis are, like his Cleopatras, copies of classical Roman versions and are Egyptian only in subject, not in design.

Catalogue

Wedgwood and Bentley intaglio mould of Cleopatra (69 B.C. - 30 B.C.) being bitten by the Asp. Produced in Biscuit ware, this would have been used to produce the intaglio.