Hackwood's Legacy

In the course of the span of two normal careers, Hackwood undoubtedly helped the Wedgwood factory to sustain its not inconsiderable reputation at home as well as abroad. His modeling capabilities brought many individuals to life before the invention of photography to satisfy the curiosity of the buying public. In many respects, this uniquely talented individual was very much the “unsung hero” of the Etruria factory, and we can but echo the founder’s sentiments that even today we wish that we had “half a dozn. More Hackwoods.”

Hackwood’s workshop at Etruria was located in the front line of buildings, facing the Trent and Mersey canal, and was about fifteen yards square. There were reports that the room was locked at the time of his death and reopened in about 1878, but nothing of note was found in it to shed light on the modeller’s work. The Wedgwood Museum was opened at Etruria in May 1906. The museum collection as it stood at the time, if the reports in the daily papers are to be believed, was founded partly because a cache of trials made by Josiah Wedgwood I and a number of models by the celebrated William Hackwood had been discovered in a locked room at the Etruria factory. How much of this statement is true and how much is media hype we will never know. Frederick Rathbone, in his 1909 catalog of the recently opened museum, praised Hackwood in the chapter on Wedgwood’s designers and modellers: “William Hackwood, one of the best portrait modellers of his time, worked during most of his life at Etruria. He made a superb portrait of the Rev. William Willett, who married Wedgwood’s favourite sister: a rare example of this portrait in green jasper is in the museum”.

In the nineteenth century, however, tributes to William Hackwood were few and far between. Neither Llewellynn Jewitt nor Samuel Smiles mention the talented employee. Even Eliza Meteyard makes but passing mention of Hackwood and his prodigious work for the Wedgwood factory. In her Handbook of Wedgwood Ware, published in 1875, Meteyard made a brief reference to a portrait medallion of Hackwood: “. . . the connoisseur will find numerous portraits which cannot now be identified, others which can; but all of which have no place in Wedgwood’s catalogue-lists. Amongst these unrecorded portraits we can name Erasmus Darwin, Honora Sneyd, Anna Seward . . . William Hackwood, the modeller . . . and many others.”

Twentieth-century authors were somewhat kinder. Harry Barnard, artist, designer, lecturer, and ceramic historian and author, observed in his 1924 Chats on Wedgwood Ware, “Wedgwood gave unstinted praise to the original work of William Hackwood, and we cannot think that such a keen critic would have done so had not this been amply justified, which can be verified by the known specimens of Hackwood’s work. We find references to failures in the work of others which have to be made good by Hackwood.”

Much later, it was the pioneering work of Robin Reilly and George Savage which was to extol the virtues of Hackwood and other contemporary modelers. Published in 1973, Wedgwood: the Portrait Medallions painstakingly attributes portrait medallions to individual artists where possible, helping to clarify many questions in this important aspect of Wedgwood’s factory work. The publication clearly shows the excellence of Hackwood’s work, and reaffirms his ranking with other artists of worldwide repute.

Intriguingly, new information continues to come to light. Only weeks ago, while perusing Josiah Wedgwood’s first Commonplace Book, a fascinating reference to Hackwood’s work caught my eye.

Michael Angelo’s Seal – Remarks on Tablet by Hackwood 1779.

Little boy & goat, instead of Satyr and goat – The middle figure, carrying a basket, to be strengthened & raised – and all the others to be made more flat & delicate, - except the sacrificing figure, the mother &c.

The man holding a cup to the horse – too heavy in his limbs, and too bulky for his height –

The mother & the child, & the kneeling figure, pretty well, though rather too heavy a stile, which seems to be the general fault of the piece. –

Priam & Achilles – The figures too bulky, & the faces want expression. The body of Achilles stiff, - which may proceed from too much bending forwards of his body – the two sharp angles at the top & bottom of the trunk, produce this effect. The head is more erect in the gem -.

Boys dancing – Raising them to match the bronze from St. Johns – 1775.

In view of the importance of Hackwood to not one but two generations of Wedgwoods, it is surprising that this individual and his work for the factory have been largely left unexplored. It is our hope that William Hackwood is placed in the justifiable niche of not only unsung hero, but also as modeller supreme.