When Wedgwood Showed a Wilder Side

Makeig-Jones herself was an anomaly, as revolutionaries often are. The art-school trained daughter of a provincial doctor, she came to Wedgwood in 1909 at age 27, via family connections. Hired as an apprentice painter, she joined the mostly female artisans in the vast workrooms. She was promoted to designer a couple of years later, eventually outgunning not merely her male colleagues, but the renowned outside artists Wedgwood had always relied on.

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Left: founder Josiah Wedgwood had a lifelong obsession with shells. Here, a set of iridescent dessert plates from the 1860s. Right: a ‘‘Bird in a Hoop’’ Wedgwood Flame Fairyland Lustre bowl by Daisy Makeig-Jones, circa 1925.

Credit
Courtesy of 1stdibs.com. Left: Jill Fenichell, Inc., jillfenichellinc.com. Right: KRB, krbnyc.com

Her arrival was fortuitous: Wedgwood was in a slump. As often happens to companies in crisis, creative risk — even if it meant a woman taking the lead — seemed suddenly necessary. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Wedgwood had managed to navigate the brutal competition among British pottery companies, including ­Minton and Spode, by innovating with glazes and new patterns, some quite forward-­looking for their time — a foreshadowing of what Makeig-Jones would imagine — including scallop shell-shaped dishes, both in iridescent pink and with abstract splotches, and riotously colored majolica. But by the early 1900s, Wedgwood had lost creative momentum. Today, we consider china to be a genteel acquisition, handed down through the generations: Some of its charm, and much of its perceived value, derives from how dated and out-of-style it looks. But then, dishware was one of the few major purchases entirely controlled by women, and they wanted something fashionable, not old.

Makeig-Jones’s fancies may not have killed jasperware — then and now, still Wedgwood’s best seller — but she made its innocent take on Neo-Classicism feel dated. On the other hand, Fairyland Lustre, and its companion series, Flame Fairyland Lustre, both based on Makeig-Jones’s increasingly unhinged watercolors and made with transfer print techniques, heavy underglazing and lots of gilt, yoked the decorative energy of late Art Nouveau to the dark current of emerging Modernism. As Europe entered World War I, it was just the sort of sophisticated aesthetic diversion people were…

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