Wedgwood: The Empress and the Frog

An anglophile empress, a Finnish frog marsh, and one of the most ambitious ceramic projects of all time – Matthew Sweet tells the story of Wedgwood's greatest triumph.

In the parallel universe where this website went live in the 1770s, you can still click your way to its first front page. On it you’ll see Catherine, Empress of Russia, bestride a great pile of Poussins, Rembrandts and Van Dycks. Beside her is Sir Robert Walpole, weeping over a suitcase of 40,000 used oncers. And scattered all around are 952 pieces of Wedgwood creamware, each emblazoned with a jumping green frog.

Catherine the Great might be all over this page, too – at the heart of another story about art, power and protectionism. 235 years ago, her acquisition of Walpole’s hoard of Old Masters was diagnosed as a symptom of imperial decline, and inspired a doomed battle to block the sale. Today, the Art Fund is campaigning to prevent the dispersal of a comparably important collection, under threat since the Wedgwood Museum Trust became liable for the £134m pensions debt of its insolvent parent company. Among its 80,000 treasures are fragments of a key project of 18th-century English ceramics – a commission from Catherine the Great that gave Wedgwood the greatest PR triumph and tightest profit margin in the firm’s history.

New palace, new plates

“Wedgwood mobilised an army of painters to enliven 952 pieces with 1,244 different views of the British Isles, from Stonehenge to Chatsworth”

The Frog Service was spawned in 1773, when Catherine ordered plates and tureens for a palace she hadn’t yet built – a Gothic pile modelled on Longford Castle in Wiltshire. This was not an official residence, but a turreted service station for treks between St Petersburg and her country retreat of Tsarskoe Selo. The chosen site was called Kekerekeksinsky – a word that requires you to roll your eye back and take a longer run-up. (Done it? Good.) Most sources insist that kekerekeksinsky derives from the Finnish for 'frog-marsh', but, puzzlingly, the word only exists in accounts of the Palace – and anyway, the Finnish word for frog is sammakko. If it was Catherine’s onomatopoeic gag, nobody would have quibbled. She didn’t actually use her own hands to strangle her way to the throne of Russia, but she did chum up briskly with her husband’s assassins and pretend that Peter III had succumbed to a double-whammy of haemorrhoids and colic.

Catherine, an Anglophile whose devotion was never spoiled by a visit to Britain, sent her order to Etruria, Staffordshire, after some unsubtle lobbying by the British ambassador and his wife, who spent years trolling around Moscow festooned with Wedgwood cameos. Josiah whooped that that the commission 'would fully complete our notoriety to the whole Island' – but it was a risky deal. The terms were not generous, and he feared that the Cossack rebellion roaring between the Urals and the Volga might prevent Catherine from living to pay her £2,700 bill. Digging into his own pocket, he mobilised an army of painters to enliven 952 pieces of plain creamware with 1,244 different views of the British Isles: Stonehenge, Fingal’s Cave, Edinburgh Castle, Chatsworth, Plymouth Dockyard, the paper mills at Rickmansworth. A gazetteer of Britain from which 50 people could eat their lunches, and which displayed a subtle bias towards properties owned by Etruria’s favoured clients – who were charged a small fee to view the work at the firm’s Greek Street showrooms.

Lost and found

The ballyhoo in Britain wasn’t quite matched in Russia. The service reached its destination in October 1774, three years before there was a Kekerekeksinsky Palace to put it in. Though soon recovered, 95 pieces were stolen. And evidence that the Wedgwoods ever left the cupboard is sparse. There’s a record of Catherine stopping for an hour at the Palace in May 1779 for a quick cup of coffee – but the service has no cups. It seems to have been used for a couple of banquets and forgotten. It took until 1906 for the scholarly interest of a British art historian, Dr Charles Williamson, to drag it back to the light. Now, after surviving evacuation during one revolution and two world wars, it enjoys an exalted position at the Hermitage Museum. (Though they’re still overconfident about that Finnish word for frog-marsh.)

For the moment, the prototypes and test pieces reside in Staffordshire – works that reveal the processes of Wedgwood’s brilliance. There’s still time to ensure that they remain close to the place they were fired. Time too, to keep them on this website, in a world that actually exists.

The Wedgwood Collection contains more than 80,000 treasures, including the largest collection of pieces from the Frog Service outside of Russia. Donate to help save the Wedgwood Collection from being separated and sold off.

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