From cradle to grave
Nina Morgan celebrates the British ceramics industry
One of the first collections of British ceramics was displayed not in the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London, but in the Museum of Practical Geology, the brainchild of Sir Henry de la Beche [1796–1855]. De la Beche, who was born in London, developed a serious interest in geology after his family moved to Lyme Regis in 1812. He joined the Geological Society in 1817 and was appointed as Director of the Geological Survey of Britain in July 1835.
Soon after his appointment, De la Beche asked for permission for “a room or rooms to house specimens collected by surveyors during their work … [that] were ‘illustrative of the practical application of Geology to the useful purposes of life’ to enable anyone to learn and use knowledge gained from the collection for the ‘ornament or good of their country’.” The resulting Museum of Economic Geology opened in 1839 at Craig’s Court near Charing Cross, London. It was later expanded and moved to purpose-built premises in Jermyn Street, where it was officially opened by Prince Albert in May 1851 and renamed the Museum of Practical Geology (MPG). The MPG no longer exists. In 1901 its ornamental art collection was transferred to the V&A, and the rest of its collection is now in the Earth Galleries in the Natural History Museum in London.
One of the first ornamental ceramic specimens to arrive in the museum was a ‘Model of two Dogs in Biscuit China’ [sic], an exhibit that demonstrated the suitability of Devon clays – including china and ball clays derived from weathered feldspar crystals in granite – for fine ornamental wares. These Devon clays were prized for their whiteness and ability to cope with high temperatures. In 1771, Josiah Wedgwood ordered 1,400 tons of ball clay to provide him with a “secret ingredient” to enable him to fire thinner-walled ceramics. The Wedgwood company, now owned by Fiskars, still manufactures fine china, including items such as tableware and christening mugs.
Another British ceramics success story – of a very different type – was pioneered by the Oxford-based firm Grimsley. Founded by the sculptor and terracotta maker Thomas Grimsley in around 1850, the company specialised in supplying an extensive range of relatively low-cost ‘Patented Terra-Cotta Memorials’ from its yard in St Giles in Oxford.
The memorials, made of moulded white terracotta elements stuck together, featured a mix-and-match choice of Christian symbols. During the 19th century, the company became an important supplier of grave markers in the Oxford area. Although it went bankrupt in the 1890s, the distinctive Grimsley gravestones are still a common sight in many cemeteries in and around Oxford.
But keen as De la Beche was to document the British ceramic industries, he doesn’t seem to have put his own money where his mouth was. There is no record that he purchased Wedgwood christening mugs for his two daughters. And his enthusiasm for the British ceramics industry didn’t extend to his own gravestone. De la Beche is buried in Kensal Green cemetery in London, where he lies beneath a flat slab of hammer-dressed Cornish granite – rather than a Grimsley gravestone!
I thank John Henry for providing information about Henry de la Beche’s gravestone in Kensal Park cemetery, London, and Susan Newell for information about ceramics.
- Newell, S. (2017) The Jermyn Street Collection: an introduction to early ceramics collecting at the Museum of Practical Geology, c. 1835 – 55+. English Ceramic Circle Transactions 28, 127-144.
- Secord, J.A. (2004) Henry De la Beche. Dictionary of National Biography;
- The Purbeck Mining Museum; purbeckminingmuseum.org/clay-history/
- The Ss Mary & John Churchyard;
- Wikipedia, The Geological Museum; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geological_Museum