Fairies Brought Life to Wedgwood
July 12, 2010
Garden fairies; the tooth fairy; goblins, gnomes and elves: all very real in the minds of true believers. But even non-believers would have to take notice of certain fairies that saved a venerable English ceramics producer from almost sure financial collapse, assured the continuance of a centuries-old tradition, and charmed a good many collectors in the meanwhile. For in the end, it was Fairyland Lustre, a magically magnificent line of artwares developed in war-torn Britain, that ushered Wedgwood into the 20th century. And it was all brought about by a woman known as Daisy, a unique woman who happened to believe in fairies.
The Wedgwood family had a long and honored tradition in the making of ceramics. Early records show that Gilbert Wedgwood produced an array of stoneware in1612; nearly 100 years later, a puzzle jug, inscribed "John Wedgwood, 1691," became the earliest known dated and signed piece by a member of the family that would later dominate the industry. In 1760, Josiah Wedgwood, of the fifth generation in the line of Staffordshire potters, founded the firm which would come to define the British ceramics industry. The company grew and flourished in large part because of his genius; he was blessed with both artistic ability and business acumen. For some 150 years, beginning in the mid-18th century, Wedgwood was the benchmark in pottery, specializing most notably in Jasperware and Queensware. But all of this was about to change, and survival of the company would seem doubtful.
With the dawning of the 20th century came a universal wave of change. Attitudes and beliefs, as well as cultural tastes in art, literature, and music, shifted. Although such a movement might appear to be a sudden and isolated occurrence, an overnight sensation, this new sensibility was, in fact, the culmination of a number of events. The world, it would seem, was ready for a new century, and anything that hinted of another era, a previous time, was now considered old-fashioned and out of date.
And so it was that the wares of Wedgwood were no longer considered desirable. The hallmark of Wedgwood's designs had long been an application of Classical design over the years. With nothing new to offer, the company continued to produce only predictable wares in muted, "safe" colors. Suddenly, the buying public was not interested in offerings that were deemed stodgy. Anything that smacked of Imperialism was now rejected. Wedgwood as a company had gone stale. So serious was the situation that the Wedgwood pottery found itself facing bankruptcy.
Enter Daisy Makeig-Jones.
Susannah Margaretta "Daisy" Makeig-Jones was born in Rotherham, England, in the final moments of the last day of the year 1881. The daughter of a physician, young Daisy moved with her family to Torquay, where she studied at the local School of Art. Showing artistic promise, she continued her studies in London for a short time before being introduced to Cecil Wedgwood, then managing director of his family's business and Daisy's brothers' father-in-law. In 1909, Cecil agreed to hire the young woman as a designer; family ties were no doubt responsible for this business decision.
Daisy might not have been the most talented of artists at Wedgwood, but she had a vivid imagination as well as a keen eye for design. She also loved fairies and she loved fairy tales. She was not alone in this pursuit, as such an interest was of increasing appeal to many living in England at the time. As a result of her artistic foresight, she quickly moved up in the ranks of Wedgwood. Her interest in fanciful subjects was always apparent and culminated in 1915 with a new line of Wedgwood ceramics, dubbed "Fairyland Lustre." These decorative pieces had a distinctive look that was a far cry from the Jasperware lines that had become synonymous with the firm over the years. Wildly extravagant in decoration and color and in no way traditional or boring, the vibrant porcelain pieces were trimmed in 24-karat gold.
Best of all, Daisy formulated narrative descriptions for each scene depicted on the wares.
Daisy herself was loved by some and jeered by others at the same time. By all accounts, she had an artist's temperament. She knew what she had in mind, and she was determined that those charged with the actual task of making the ware would interpret her vision as she saw it. She was a perfectionist, a quality that assured that only the finest work would be turned out, but one that made her seem difficult in the eyes of fellow Wedgwood employees. Consequently, those working beneath her sometimes saw her as a tyrant, as she ruled her studio with an iron fist, even though she was also capable of showing a softer, more generous side to those working for her.
Today, she is viewed as a champion of young women. Although nepotism undoubtedly played a major part in her being hired, the fact remains that, because of her ability, she rose to prominence in both the company and the field of ceramics at large. Indeed, during a time when many occupations were not open to women, the world of ceramics employed them and gave them an opportunity to express themselves in an artistic manner. For Daisy, this meant heading her own studio, a position of considerable importance.
Fairyland Lustre proved to be a blending of the old and the new. So innovative was the line that, according to Bill Rau, "This was the very first expression of modern art in ceramics. It was shocking to some, but it proved to be very popular." Rau is president of M.S. Rau, an acclaimed family-owned business dealing in jewelry, art, and fine antiques since 1912. The New Orleans company has recently acquired more than two dozen examples of Fairyland Lustre for sale. Fairyland Lustre was the perfect antidote for war-weary Englishmen with money to spend on beautiful things. "It was light and fun, pretty and different," said Rau. "People were not interested in something somber. They wanted to feel good about something." Daisy's visions of modernism were just the thing. A commercial success, Fairyland Lustre was popular in America as well as in England.
At the same time, Fairyland Lustre marked the "last hurrah" for English porcelain. "Everything was painted the old way," a fact that meant the wares were not affordable to the average person, according to Rau. And indeed, these were not utilitarian wares. Fairyland Lustre was meant to be displayed and appreciated. Bowls and vases, urns and plaques, as well as display cups and saucers, were the most commonly produced shapes. On each piece were multiple scenes. As a result, the combination of various decorations on a variety of bodies made for some one-of-a-kind pieces. Many examples were marked, but all were distinctive, the outgrowth of Daisy's fertile imagination.
And then the demand for such things died. The line was discontinued in 1929; Daisy left the firm three years later. The circumstances of her termination point to her being fired. She died in 1945, at a time when interest in her work was dormant. It would be years later, in the 1970s, when collectors would once again treasure the pieces. Rau considers the renewal a "chicken and the egg" sort of thing: was it the writing of a definitive book in praise of Daisy's creations, as well as several important exhibitions (most notably at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1990) that relit the spark, or were these stimuli a result of the increased public interest in the whimsical pieces themselves? Whatever the case, interest in Fairyland Lustre has only strengthened since its late 20th century revival.
By the time Daisy and Wedgwood parted company, Wedgwood was off the financial ropes, thanks to the enigmatic woman and her fairies. A new chapter in the history of Wedgwood - the mass production of dinnerware - was made possible as a result of the fantastical creations of one woman.
Collecting Fairyland Lustre
For a serious collector, Fairyland Lustre holds great appeal on a number of levels."This is not for the person looking to spend under $1,000," Rau was quick to point out, but it is still possible to buy an example of this extraordinary porcelain in fine condition for under $10,000. "All but the greatest examples can be purchased for under $30,000." All the same, Fairyland Lustre is proving to be a good investment. Noting that the pieces were far underpriced in the 1970s, Rau said that this is one collecting field that has not fallen off in value with the recent economic downturn; in fact, prices have continued to escalate.
Over the years, there were not a lot of pieces issued; Rau's "educated guess" puts the number at probably less than a thousand known pieces. Making collecting even more "challenging" is the fact that a good number of examples are held by major museums, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This further cuts into the number of available pieces in circulation. Furthermore, for the most part, Fairyland Lustre collectors tend to hold onto their collections, and so there are generally not that many pieces on the market at any given time. Taking this into consideration, M.S. Rau's recent acquisition of the full collection of a Georgia enthusiast is an extraordinary opportunity. Anytime 26 pieces become available on the market is noteworthy, he said.
But the fact that Fairyland Lustre is "hard to get" makes it even more attractive to some. Rau related the tale of a customer who once collected the porcelain wares but later decided to look instead for inexpensive watches. It was not long before the man changed his mind, according to the gallery owner. "Collecting something that is easy just isn't as satisfying."
In light of the cost of these high-end pieces, Rau conceded that there are a number of ceramics collectors who are pleased to own even one example. "But if you have four or five pieces in a display case, they just jump out at you."
Desirability is determined by a number of factors, according to Rau. The rarity of shape of the piece in conjunction with the rarity of patterns, as well as the vividness of colors, all drive the price up. Each piece has at least two patterns; if a rare teaming of patterns is found on a shape that does not normally bear this decoration, collectors are all the more anxious to own it. Because of the permutations of design possible, there do exist one-of-a-kind examples. Anything bearing the "Ghostly Woods" pattern seems to sell for more, he added. "Not only is this pattern the most rare, but in addition to the appeal of fairies, there is the ghost motif."
Those seeking to buy Fairyland Lustre should consider the condition of a piece before making a purchase, he continued. The lavish trim is of 24-karat gold, which rubs off with handling; as a result, pieces with slight wear are not considered to be inferior. A "miniscule nick" on the bottom where it cannot be seen is also deemed to be acceptable, but if a chip is in a prominent position, Rau said that the value is greatly affected. All the same, there are those who are willing to buy a compromised piece for less money.
The "great majority" of original examples of Fairyland Lustre were signed. There have been reproductions made over the years, including attempts contemporaneous to its production and again by Wedgwood in the latter part of the 20th century. These factors prove little problem to the serious collector, though; the distinctive quality exhibited under Makeig-Jones' watchful eye has never been duplicated. "It's obvious."
Finally, as with any purchase, a person should "buy a piece that gives you pleasure, something that you like," Rau concluded.
The definitive book about Daisy Makeig-Jones and Fairyland Lustre is Wedgwood Fairyland Lustre by Una des Fontaines, published in 1975.
For more information about M.S. Rau, go to www.rauantiques.com.