In 1774, the first Josiah Wedgwood wrote: 'I have often wish'd I had saved a single specimen of all the new articles I have made, and would now give 20 times the original value for such a collection. For 10 years past I have omitted doing this, because I did not begin it ten years sooner. I am now, from thinking, and talking a little more upon this subject... resolv'd to make a beginning.'
It was a comment that sowed the seeds for an extraordinary collection, of 10,000 pieces and over 100,000 documents and manuscripts relating to Josiah Wedgwood, his family, and the company he created - which went on to be placed on UNESCO's list of the top 20 items representing the outstanding heritage of the UK. Though in actual fact the collection wasn't officially established until 1906 - despite members of the Wedgwood clan reserving particular wares before that time. It was then packed away at the outbreak of World War Two, and not shown again to the public until 1952. A new visitor centre was introduced in 1975, including an art gallery, museum galleries, a cinema and a demonstration hall - and then in 2008 the present, and (it has to be said) rather wonderful £10.5 million Wedgwood Museum was opened, winning the prestigious Art Fund Prize for Museums and Galleries the following year.
I mention all this history because the collection is currently threatened with being broken up and sold to fill a £134 million hole in the Waterford Wedgwood Potteries pension fund. Ironically, legislation introduced with the best of intentions, to protect innocent investors, could now (it sadly seems) be the tool used to destroy this vital part of the nation's heritage.
Speaking to Reuters, the museum's director Gaye Blake Roberts said she was 'determined to do absolutely anything' to save the collection. Tristram Hunt, historian and MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, meanwhile stated starkly in the Telegraph that 'for Stoke, the dispersal of the Wedgwood collection would be an act of cultural vandalism. Its demise would be to strike at the very meaning of the Potteries.' At a time when the city is working hard to retain its history and revitalise its industry, the future of the collection remains very much in the balance. Attorney General Dominic Grieve recently confirmed that it can be sold to meet pension liabilities. Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey visited the museum at the end of March and the matter has been raised in Parliament. A large group of academics, many working in business schools, wrote a letter to the Guardian in the middle of the month arguing the case for saving the collection.
Here at the Crafts Council it remains our fervent hope that a solution can be found to keep the entire collection intact and on permanent public display. After all, this isn't just a wonderful collection of ceramics. Josiah Wedgwood successfully combined craft, science, innovation and business. In every sense of the word he was (to use contemporary parlance) a 'game-changer' - and proved that craft is capable of spilling over into other sectors, and that the combination of creativity and material expertise can bring huge value to industry. The collection provides a portrait of one of the nation's most important figures, and it's simply too valuable for us to lose. To show your support, sign up to the Save Wedgwood Twitter campaign, @SaveWedgwood or visit www.savewedgwood.org
On to rather brighter matters - the Crafts Council's COLLECT 2012 is about to open at London's Saatchi Gallery from 11 to 14 May. As well as first-rate work from leading makers displayed by some of the world's greatest galleries, it also promises to contain a plethora of features including the Project Space allows independent makers the chance to create experimental installations, and the launch of a new Crafts Council touring exhibition Raw Craft. COLLECT opens on 11 May and, frankly, I can hardly wait.
This blog post is also in the May/June 2012 issue of Crafts Magazine
Follow Rosy Greenlees on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CraftsCouncilUK