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Acquisition of Buten Wedgwood Collection Makes Birmingham Museum's Holdings Largest in U.S.
Somnus, Wedgwood (est. 1759), about 1774, mold by Hoskins & Oliver in 1770, black basalt. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; The Buten Wedgwood Collection, gift through the Wedgwood Society of New York.

BIRMINGHAM, AL.- The Birmingham Museum of Art announced today the acquisition of the Buten Wedgwood Collection of more than 8,000 objects made by the Wedgwood factory in England dating from 1759. Combined with the Museum’s existing Dwight and Lucille Beeson Wedgwood Collection of more than 1,400 objects, the recent acquisition establishes the only collection of its kind in the U.S., and the largest and most comprehensive collection of Wedgwood ceramics outside of England. With this acquisition Birmingham will present two and a half centuries of Wedgwood production. The year 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the founding of the company.

"We are thrilled," says Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, PhD, The Marguerite Jones Harbert and John M. Harbert III Curator of Decorative Arts at the Birmingham Museum of Art. "Surprisingly, there is very little overlap between these two important collections. They complement each other in their strengths and together provide the nation with an invaluable resource for the study of what is undoubtedly one of the most important ceramics manufactories in history."

The Birmingham Museum of Art entered into discussions with the Buten family and the Wedgwood Society of New York in 2005. At the time, both the Butens and the Wedgwood Society sought a new, permanent home for the collection, which was then on long-term loan to Nassau County in New York.

"Other esteemed institutions wanted this collection but none could present a suitable venue that would appropriately highlight this national cultural asset," says Jeffrey Tulman, DDS, president of the Wedgwood Society of New York. "The Buten Collection belongs in Birmingham."

"We wanted the collection to be kept together and placed with a public institution that could care for it and insure that it could be seen and enjoyed by all," says Bernie Starr, a director of the Wedgwood Society of New York. "Thanks to the enthusiasm of the Museum staff, the expertise of Anne Forschler-Tarrasch, and the assistance of Museum board member Michael Straus in negotiating terms with Nassau County, we were able to accomplish the location of these very important collections in Birmingham."

The Buten family concurs
"Along with the contagious enthusiasm of its staff, the Birmingham Museum of Art was chosen because of its outstanding and glamorous Beeson Collection, now augmented in a serious way by the 19th and 20th century strengths of Buten," says David Buten, son of collection founders Harry and Nettie Buten, and former Director of the Buten Museum of Wedgwood. "Whereas England’s Wedgwood Museum focuses on very significant pieces, Birmingham’s collection is much more representative of the entire production in terms of stylistic values and vogues from 1759 to current day. This is an enormously important collection."

The Buten Wedgwood Collection
The Buten Wedgwood Collection consists of more than 8,000 ceramic pieces dating from the inception of the Wedgwood Company in 1759 through the mid-20th-century. The collection is comprehensive and includes examples of all types of objects made by the factory, in all media, and with a full range of decorative motifs. In addition, it encompasses an extensive library of literature relating to Wedgwood, archival materials from the Buten Museum of Wedgwood, as well as documents and archives from the factory itself, including photographs, and letters written by Josiah Wedgwood or his contemporaries.

While the collection includes many pieces made during the lifetime of Josiah Wedgwood and during the period of partnership with Thomas Bentley from 1769 to 1780, the bulk of the collection dates from the 19th and 20th centuries. Highlights of the collection include a large basalt figure of Somnus, god of sleep, made about 1774. Only one other example of this figure is known; this second example was made as part of the original decoration for the bedroom of Princess Luise of Anhalt-Dessau in Wörlitz, where it remains today. Another important piece in the collection is a baptismal font in black basalt that was presented by Emma Whitbread to the Melchbourne Church in North Bedfordshire, England, shortly after her marriage in 1780.

Another highlight is a large footed vase known as the "Alexander" vase painted by Emile Lessore (1805-76), a freelance decorator who worked for Wedgwood during the later part of the 19th century. This vase is one of a pair (the second vase is in the collection of the Wedgwood Museum) painted by Lessore in 1863/64 after the painting Alexander at the Tent of Darius, by Charles LeBrun (1619-90). The collection also contains a number of other pieces painted by Lessore.

The collection includes examples of hand-painted and transfer-printed cream ware; Wedgwood’s Etruscan ware; 18th-century jasper vases; several copies of the Portland Vase made by Wedgwood after the original Roman glass vessel in the British Museum; Victoria ware; pieces painted by Thomas Allen and those designed by Harry Barnard in the 19th century; majolica; Fairyland lustre; Arnold Machin figures; John Skeaping animals; tiles; mid-20th-century pieces designed by Norman Wilson; a plate from the Theodore Roosevelt White House service; objects by studio potters Elwyn James, Michael Dillon, and David Puxley; as well as a number of experimental and trial pieces.

Harry M. and Nettie Buten
Harry Buten was a collector: he began collecting as a youth and by the time he was a young man had formed a number of collections. Harry and his wife Nettie collected their first piece of Wedgwood in the summer of 1931—a silver lustre Queen’s ware jug. The Butens continued to collect throughout the next five decades, devoting themselves to searching for the most unique Wedgwood wares. The couple collected locally, mostly in their home base of Philadelphia, but also in New York, Chicago, and occasionally London. They were active in a number of Wedgwood societies and were founding members of the Wedgwood International Seminar, with Harry serving as one of its first presidents.

In 1957, the Butens dedicated their Wedgwood collection, by then numbering more than 4,500 pieces, to the public. On October 31st they opened the Buten Museum of Wedgwood in Merion, PA, with one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of Wedgwood in the world. Outside of the Wedgwood Museum at Barlaston, Buten was the only museum devoted entirely to the products and history of the Wedgwood firm. The Butens were interested in telling the entire Wedgwood story and presenting all types of objects made from the time of the firm’s establishment in 1759 to the present day.

The Museum published several books by Harry Buten and his son David, who succeeded him as Director, and also reprinted many standard, out of print books on Wedgwood. The Buten Museum of Wedgwood was closed in 1988 and the entire collection was placed on long-term loan with the Nassau County Division of Museums at Port Washington, Long Island, New York.

The Dwight and Lucille Beeson Collection
Since the mid-1970s, the Birmingham Museum of Art has been home to the Dwight and Lucille Beeson Wedgwood Collection. Formed over a period of 40 years by Birmingham natives Dwight and Lucille Beeson, who in 1976 pledged their collection to the Museum, the collection includes pieces of all types made prior to the turn of the 19th century and has a strength in pieces made during the partnership of Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley from 1769 to 1780. A catalogue of the collection was published by the Museum in 1992.

The Elizabeth Chellis Wedgwood Library
In 1992, Lucille Beeson purchased for the Museum the largest and most comprehensive library in the U.S. relating to Josiah Wedgwood, English ceramics, and life and culture in the 18th century. The library was assembled by Elizabeth Chellis of Boston beginning in the 1940s and was designed as a working library. Mrs. Chellis wanted to gain a deeper understanding of her small but broad collection of Wedgwood, and her background in English literature led to her determination to build a major Wedgwood library. The Library is a collection of books and manuscripts as wide ranging as Josiah Wedgwood’s interests, including the sciences, literature, technology, and art. The Chellis Library complements the Buten and Beeson Wedgwood Collections and establishes the Birmingham Museum of Art as a center for the research and study of Wedgwood ceramics.

Josiah Wedgwood and his Company
Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730 in Burslem, England, the youngest of 13 children. His formal education ended with the death of his father when he was nine in 1739. At that time he left school to work under his elder brother Thomas, who was master potter at the Churchyard Works, where from 1744 until 1749 he was apprenticed to Thomas. When Wedgwood was 12 years of age he contracted smallpox and was forced to abandon his apprenticeship for a time. When he improved, he continued his apprenticeship, which ended in 1749, and afterwards stayed on with his brother three more years.

Nonetheless, Thomas refused to accept his younger brother as partner, forcing Josiah to leave the family business. Around 1752 he went into partnership with the potters John Harrison and Thomas Alders and the three men continued to produce salt-glazed and other traditional Staffordshire wares. Two years later, Wedgwood entered into another partnership with Thomas Whieldon, a well-known Staffordshire potter, who had built a good business. The partnership was fruitful and during their five-year partnership, Wedgwood was free to pursue his experiments with different clays and glazes.

In 1759, Wedgwood branched out on his own and started a pottery at the Ivy House works in Burslem, a facility outfitted with pottery wheels and kilns owned by his cousins Thomas and John Wedgwood. Another cousin, Thomas Wedgwood, became manager of the company while Josiah continued to pursue his experiments. In 1762 Wedgwood moved his company to larger premises at the Brick House and Works, also in Burslem. Here he continued to manufacture useful wares. In 1764 he married his third cousin Sarah Wedgwood, niece of Thomas and John Wedgwood. The couple had eight children.

In 1766 Wedgwood entered into yet another partnership with his cousin Thomas for the production of domestic wares, distinguished from the "ornamental" wares he manufactured later in partnership with Thomas Bentley. In 1763 Wedgwood had invented a new type of cream ware for the table, covered with new glazes of his own invention. The success of this new ware was striking and led to a dinner service commission by Queen Charlotte herself.

In 1769 Wedgwood began his partnership with Thomas Bentley, a well-educated Liverpool merchant. A site Wedgwood had purchased in 1766 became the location of Wedgwood and Bentley’s new factory named Etruria in honor of the ancient state in Italy, whose pottery was being rediscovered and was a source of inspiration to contemporary artists and craftsmen.

Wedgwood continued to pursue his pottery experiments and in 1768 he developed the clay body he called black basalt. Black basalt is a rich, smooth stoneware body used by the company for large plaques, vases, busts, medallions, as well as useful wares. About 1776 Wedgwood introduced his dense white stoneware jasper. Stained by metal oxides, jasper was made in several shades of blue, green, lilac, yellow, as well as in black and white. His most important contribution to ceramic art, Wedgwood prized jasper above all his other productions.

Wedgwood died at his home, Etruria Hall, on January 3, 1795, at the age of 64 years.

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