Wedgwood Museum to close

09-06-2012

'Am I not a Man and a Brother?', cameo released by Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. Image copyright: British Museum.

In 1787, Josiah Wedgwood released a small cameo, roughly 3cm in length, made of white, hard paste porcelain. At its centre kneels a relief-carved figure of a semi-naked slave modelled in Wedgwood's innovative black basalt clay, his clasped hands tied to his ankles with long, heavy chains. The question 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?' is embossed in capital letters over the figure's head, and the whole framed by a simple gold wire mount, twisted by a half turn at the top in order to form a loop to which a chain could be attached.

The cameo's simplicity - hard outlines, black against white, angular lettering - belies the profundity of its meaning. It was released as an Abolitionist medal, a campaign for everyone, regardless of colour, to enjoy the same liberties, rights, and privileges that we in the West prided ourselves on having, under our own short-sighted and self-interested 'democracies'.

The figure's chains are sculpted from the same piece of clay as his body, their colour equal to that of his skin. The image conflates materials, crude cast iron melded inextricably with the black of the salve's skin. It served, like much of the imagery from the period, to subsume actual individuals into a wider picture of the African continent's torture, depicting mass and number over any one person's identity so as to speak for an entire people at once.

The message, and the image, of Wedgwood's cameo, probably designed by William Hackwood or Henry Webber, became so popular that it quickly became adopted as a fashion accessory. In 1792, Thomas Clarkson, a pro-Abolitionist campaigner and friend of Josiah Wedgwood, stated that 'the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.' The cameo spread virally, becoming a symbol of the modern British politico and serving, as fashion does today, to effect the wearer's individuality. Yet few survive, and they are now amongst the most sought-after of Wedgwood's creations.

This small cameo thus witnessed a complete elision between past and future, a shift from dominance and suppression to a new and globalised understanding of humanity and equality. Its image actively took part in a movement spearheaded by artists and craftsmen, making emblems as powerful as any speech or Act.

It is distressing therefore, that we at Reindeer Antiques have recently heard of the decision to sell off the Wedgwood Museum in Stoke-on-Trent to pay a £134m pension deficit. The museum is a central repository for Wedgwood porcelain, the only one of its kind in the country. It also has a fine collection of paintings, by Reynolds and other British painters, as well as an archive of over 100,000 documents charting the development of the company from its very beginnings in 1759 to its bankruptcy in 2009 (itself a cruel and unfortunate way of marking 250 years of production). The mould for 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?' is held in the museum's collection. Where and to whom will this piece of our heritage, this emblem of the modern world, go? It is surely shameful that a decision over cold, hard cash can be allowed to jeopardise an integral and irreplaceable part of the nation's, and the world's, history.

If you would like to join the petition to save the Wedgwood Museum, please go to this link.

 

 

Matthew Reeves

Author: Matthew Reeves