Sample 2

The Wedgwood Society of Washington DC hosted a talk on black basalts recently.

I was always curious why some old black basalts are very polished and shiny, and others dull and flat.

I haven’t found much in the literature about polishing other than lathe polishing. However, the polish I was curious about is not structural: it is added after firing and mechanical polishing because it washes off.

The speaker, Brian Gallagher, said that there are only a couple of references written by Josiah about polishing like this kind. He also said it’s a contentious topic amongst collectors. One method includes using leather in the bisque state before firing. That kind of polishing is structural and wouldn’t be affected by washing. It also would most likely be impossible to do on uneven services like vase handles or sculptural items like figures, which are often highly polished. The other method mentioned by Wedgwood is unspecified, Brian said.

Twentieth century methods recommended shoe polish, he said. I thought I’d try some polishes out on an old piece of black basalt.

The first is mink oil, a common shoe polish.

This produced a good gloss with good depth. Fingerprints weren’t very obvious.

The second was a softened beeswax with lanolin, mostly used to waterproof shoes. Lanolin is derived from sheep, colloquially known as “wool fat.”

This produced a similar effect but with a less iridescent quality seen in the mink oil.

The third was a propriety polish from Filson, and I’m not sure what’s in it.

It produced a matte polish. This is not the effect I was hoping to emulate.

Finally, I tried pure beeswax.

This was difficult to apply in solid form, and required polishing with a chamois.

It produced a polish most similar to old black basalt with good depth and glow.

However, it dulls quickly and “scratches” easily.

It also required a lot of force to apply, so I imagine it is impractical and even dangerous to polish anything with a complex surface because of the pressure needed.

Overall, I think the mink oil polish or beeswax-mixed polishes provide the best effect, though more research is needed.

Wedgwood in the Wild

Wheatley, The Saithwaite Family

In the corner of this painting is an unmistakable Wedgwood & Bentley black basalt vase with upturned handles. I have not located the exact form, but there are similar ones listed below. The painting dates from 1785.

However, the Metropolitan Museum states that “[a]t first glance, the vase on the mantelpiece seems to be a piece of “Black Basalt” (also called “Egyptian black” or “Etruscan ware”), a refined stoneware colored with cobalt and manganese oxides, invented by Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) in 1768; however, the painting’s vase seems to have no exact match among ceramics of the period and may, instead, be made of wood, a less expensive alternative to stoneware but one that would nevertheless have served to indicate the owners’ sophisticated, classicizing taste.”

Recently as of 2020, I have located a Wedgwood vase so strikingly similar to the one in the painting that it must be a form produced at the time. What is interesting about material culture is that the facts and knowledge constantly shift as we uncover more and more objects lurking all over the world.

Wedgwood bentley vase
  1. Wedgwood Black Basalt Vase with Upturned Handles
  2. Wedgwood & Bentley Black Basalt Vase with Upturned Handles
  3. Wedgwood & Bentley Black Basalt Vase and Cover
  4. Wedgwood & Bentley Porphyry Vase and Cover
  5. Various Wedgwood Vases with Upturned Handles
  6. Vase in Black Basalt, Wedgwood & Bentley, circa 1773
  7. Vase in Black Basalt, Wedgwood & Bentley, circa 1773
  8. Wedgwood & Bentley Black Basalt Urn
  9. Wedgwood & Bentley Black Basalt Vase with a Cover
  10. Wedgwood & Bentley Black Basalt Vase and Cover

Ottoman Iznik Blue and White Pottery Dish
İznik blue and white dish (c. 1480–1500) sold by Christie’s to the Detroit Institue of Arts.