Hampshire Cultural Trust

A Wedgwood dessert plate and the father of evolution

This year, which in February saw the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and which in November sees the 150th anniversary of his On the Origin of Species, is also a good time to look at an item from the decorative art collections and explore its link to our most famous natural scientist.

In April we were very pleased indeed to receive the dessert plate pictured here, and which is now on display at the Allen Gallery in Alton. It was given by a member of one of the special interest groups which regularly come to see the ceramics shown at the Allen Gallery in Alton. With a helpful awareness of how collections are formed, he donated it after recognising that it matched a teapot already on display; both were made by Wedgwood in about 1815-1825 and decorated with a so-called Japan pattern.

Wedgewood dessert plate

Wedgwood were capitalising on an early 19th century burst of interest in Japanese design. The country had been in self-imposed isolation since 1633 under the policy of Sakoku (‘locked country’’), but allowed limited trade with China and the Dutch through Nagasaki. By this route the West received porcelain with distinctive decoration from kilns in Hizen Province. These imports created waves of interest in Britain after our own porcelain industry got under way in the mid-18th century, and culminated in a vogue for all things Japanese within a few years of the restrictions finally being lifted in the 1850s.

Judging by the number of Japanese-inspired patterns produced by Wedgwood at the same time as this plate (including eight variations on the Japan pattern alone), they must have sold well. If so they were a rare commercial success in the midst of a long period of stagnation for the company. In the thirty years following the death of the founder, Josiah Wedgwood in 1795, the firm was run variously by Thomas Byerley (his nephew), John Wedgwood (his eldest son), Josiah Wedgwood II (his second surviving son, known as ‘Jos’) and Josiah Wedgwood III (son of Jos, known as ‘Joe’).

None of the men in charge in the first quarter of the 19th century had the business acumen or technical curiosity found in the first Josiah Wedgwood. Byerley was a poor manager at best, and although John stepped in to save the company from further decline around 1804 and Jos kept it ticking over after him, neither had a lifelong interest or passion for the industry. For the most part they lived away from the Potteries, living the life of gentlemen. Joe took even less interest in the business, and it was left to his brother Frank to begin to restore some prestige to the company that had been the model for the British pottery industry in the previous century.

But what of the connection with Darwin? In 1796 Susannah Wedgwood, the founder’s first child, married a doctor with a practice in Shrewsbury, Robert Waring Darwin. They had six children, of whom the fifth, Charles Robert, was born on 12 February 1809. At the middle of the period ascribed to our plate, say 1820, he was a child of eleven. His mother had died a couple of years before, and he was boarding at Shrewsbury School with his brother, Erasmus. Already interested in plants and animals, he wrote much later of the pleasure of being on a beach aged ten and a half ‘and seeing the gulls and cormorants wending their way home in a wild and irregular course’. However, he appears to have been far from academically gifted, and not a child destined one day to formulate a unified scientific theory that would affect every branch of biology and markedly conflict with the story of creation as told in the Bible.

At sixteen he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine. Entry was not a major academic hurdle to a young man of his class at this time. But it did not suit him. Amongst other things, he found surgery performed without anaesthetic unbearable to witness. He stayed for two years, but neglected his studies in favour of taxidermy and research into invertebrates. Doctor Darwin then sent his son to Cambridge intending him eventually to take holy orders. This went better, though again he was distracted - this time by collecting beetles and by informal studies with the Professor of Botany, John Stevens Henslow.

Despite his preoccupation with biology, Darwin would no doubt have joined the church if in 1831 the invitation had not reached him, via John Henslow, to apply for the post of unpaid naturalist on board HMS Beagle. The main aim of the voyage was to chart the coast of South America and then to sail on west, landing on the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia and Africa, before returning in approximately two years (in the event it was nearly five).

Darwin’s father was reluctant to let him take up what amounted to an open offer to travel around the world and study life on three continents. Darwin himself seems to have been ready to concede to his wishes when a Wedgwood relation performed a small action that would have a colossal effect on his life and an even bigger one on history. Darwin’s uncle Jos, the somewhat disinterested part-owner of the Wedgwood factory, first persuaded him to put more arguments to his father, and then accompanied Charles to see Dr Darwin to try and change his mind. Of course he was successful.

With Henslow’s help, the reports and specimens shipped back by Darwin during the voyage would make him into a fully-fledged biologist and finally put paid to a career in the church. As everyone knows, another outcome was the theory of evolution through natural selection, which eventually resulted from his observations at this time. Less well known is the part Jos Wedgwood played in getting him on board the Beagle to begin with. It was, in a way, the second great benefit to come to him from the Wedgwoods, accepting that the first might have been the enterprising, inquisitive genes of his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood I. Still, these gifts might not have been enough to bring about the Origin of Species without a third advantage – the financial security resulting from the Wedgwood company’s early success, which gave Darwin the freedom to shape and refine his theory over a period of more than twenty years before publication.

The final link between Darwin and the Wedgwoods was forged in 1839 when he married his cousin, Emma Wedgwood, daughter of his uncle Jos. In this he was following his sister Caroline’s lead, who married Joe Wedgwood, Emma’s brother, in 1837. Such an interconnectedness of families is perhaps indicative of quite a small and specific circle requiring both wealth and intellect to enter, despite which the Darwin marriage was unusually happy and produced ten children, the longest surviving being Leonard who died in 1943 aged 93.

To return to our dessert plate. It may not have been used by him at school or been heaped with the raisins that sometimes were the only thing the seasick naturalist could eat on board the Beagle, but it is not too fanciful to say that it and Darwin were both products of Wedgwood. If not literally in Darwin’s case, then by his mother’s influence and his uncle’s intervention.