The Visual Collections Department have recently rehoused some of the Wesley ceramics and sculpture that the Library holds. These figures have been moved from cupboards behind the scenes into storage in the Crawford Room and are arousing quite a lot of curiosity with members of the public. So, although they are in a public area of the building they haven’t been placed for display or exhibition, but to utilize space.
Most of these portraits are of John Wesley (1703-91). He was a Church of England clergyman and the religious leader that founded Methodism. These portraits date from the 1780s to the early 20th century. Ceramics are objects that are made from clay that has been shaped while wet and then hardened by ‘firing’ at high temperatures. Fired clay is used to create both functional and decorative objects. Most of these portraits are earthenware, which is fired at relatively low temperatures. The clay particles are only partly fused together and there are pores between them. Earthenware is particularly prone to staining, because liquids can penetrate the body of the object through the pores. Some of the portraits of Wesley have been left unglazed after the initial ‘biscuit firing’ and appear red-brown. Most of these have been embellished with polychromatic glazes.
These were made in Staffordshire, the centre of the Potteries. Staffordshire figures were generally considered to be ornaments. They were made to commemorate people and events such as military campaigns, royal births, politicians and theatrical characters. They were often produced at very little cost, sometimes children were paid as little as 10 Pence a day to create them and so people could acquire them cheaply from street markets and country fairs.
Today, looking at Staffordshire figures can tell us about the characters that were popular, as well as the people and events that were important to ordinary people in the 19th century. They reflected people’s allegiances, in this case their Methodist affiliations. The two figures that garner the most fascination are the ones created from the cervical vertebrae of a horse, as seen above, which are then painted to depict Wesley preaching. Their function is ambiguous – on the one hand, demand for images of Wesley was so great that it outstripped supply so devotees were compelled to use their ingenuity. On the other hand, it is possible that effigies like these were made by Wesley’s detractors and were put in pubs where they were soaked in ale in defiance of his calls for temperance.