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By John Helmer, Moscow

When China was an empire in 1792, the emperor Ch’ieng Lung told the British ambassador to take his gifts and bribes back to London, along with this message for the British king: “we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures. You, O King, ought, looking upwards, to carry out our wishes, and for ever obey our edict, so that we both enjoy the blessings of peace…Do not say you have not been forewarned.”

When Russia was an empire in 1773, the empress Catherine the Great was persuaded by bribes to purchase from Wedgwood & Bentley, the Staffordshire porcelain manufacturer, the largest order of dinner and table plates in the history of British pottery.  After haggling over the price for the 944 pieces, the tsarina paid Wedgwood’s invoice at today’s equivalent of £4 million – the largest price ever charged and paid for such things until that time. Wedgwood lost money on the deal, though. That was because the bribery and costs of production and delivery turned out to be greater than Catherine’s payment. The way the bribes worked, Wedgwood told the British ambassador in St Petersburg and his wife to make gifts of expensive samples he had sent them, keeping some for themselves as commission. The ambassador’s wife wrote back: “Her Imperial Majesty has kept all the Vases and the Dejeuné [sic — luncheon plates] you sent me, as samples, and they were very much liked.”

There are political lessons in this – especially if you read them while eating your dinner off a paper plate or out of a cardboard box.

The first lesson is that the Russian success of the British scheme pissed off the French. The second lesson is the British still think that whatever it costs them, bribing the same type of Russian is still worth the price in French chagrin.

The French ambassador to Catherine’s court reported to Paris there was “a deep layer of English principles at the bottom of [Catherine’s] heart and mind such as only time can erase.” He was right about the timing; he wasn’t counting three hundred years. Today Russian oligarchs, powerful state officials, and the Navalny group continue displaying their mental thrall and heartfelt obligation to London.  The present war has erased them thoroughly for the General Staff, less so in the Kremlin.

In her time the empress Catherine employed a British doctor to vaccinate her and her son (against smallpox). She sent one of her lovers to gather intelligence on the gardens of the British aristocracy before hiring their gardeners to remake the grounds of her palace at Tsarskoe Selo.

Left: serpentine paths, herbaceous borders, Dutch tulips – the English garden today at Tsarskoe Selo, near St. Petersburg. Right, the tsarina’s frog on each piece of the Wedgwood service she commissioned.

After Josiah Wedgwood’s payola was handed over, the empress came up with the idea of putting a green frog from the English pond in her garden on the rims of her dishes, plus views of British aristo palaces in the middle of the plates. Wedgwood bribed the aristos for use of their designs by his pot and plate painters. He even included his own house, garden and factory on the dishes.  It’s recorded that Catherine laid her table with the Frog Service five times in eight years; it isn’t known what she thought of Wedgwood’s house and garden.

In a history just published of the Wedgwood business,  Catherine’s Frog Service, as it came to be known, turned out to be “one of the most technically accomplished dinner services ever designed and manufactured in the  history of ceramics”. That is an exaggeration which the Chinese didn’t share in the 18th century, nor now. Neither does the market in antique porcelain pieces: the present premium for the Chinese is several magnitudes and thousands of pounds more than Wedgwood fetches.

The conclusion of the Wedgwood history is also political propaganda. The Frog Service, according to this history,  “was a cultural manifesto as much as a dinner service…it was the law-abiding, wealth-creating, well-governed Britain, with its civic-minded elite and industrious entrepreneurs, its history rooted in classical liberty which Catherine the Great wanted her polices to emulate and her Court to admire.”

Josiah Wedgwood, the eponymous proprietor, declared his Frog Service to be ideologically compelling. “Arts, ingenuity, industry, and commerce, ever have migrated, and ever will, from oppression & restraint to liberty…By them Great Britain has risen to importance envied by all Europe”.

Russians today can read such a history with irony. They can also view the Frog Service in an out-of-the-way room in the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg.

The Frog Service on exhibition at the Hermitage in 2014

Tristram Hunt is the author of this history book; he lacks irony.

A Labour Party member of parliament who once represented the Staffordshire pottery constituency, Hunt is now director of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) in London.  This also makes him chief guardian of Rooms 136 to 146 on the fourth floor of the old museum building; there Wedgwood can be compared to the ancient Chinese, Persian, and Greco-Roman paragons Wedgwood copied, as well as to the Italian, Portuguese and Spanish Renaissance techniques which he studied; the comparison recommends much more modesty than Wedgwood had of himself, or Hunt expresses for him now.

Hunt’s title is also a misnomer. Wedgwood’s human rights radicalism lasted only so long as it didn’t get in the way of marketing his pottery, first to the royal court in London, then to the  country house aristocracy, and finally to the commercial and professional classes below whom Wedgwood encouraged to ape their betters, at least on their dining tables and mantelpieces. According to his account books, the anti-slavery conviction of the special medallion he struck, for example, was swiftly outsold by his sugar bowls which depended on the slave plantations of the Caribbean. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the plantation slaving, rapine of India, and larceny from China there would have been no market in sugar bowls and tea cups for Wedgwood to profit from.

In this enterprise, Wedgwood also profited from a commercial bribery scheme agreed with Sir William Hamilton; he was the British Ambassador to Naples and a thief of Greco-Roman and Etruscan relics between 1764 and 1800;   he set the standard for rapacity which Lord Elgin followed in the ancient Greek Parthenon of Athens a few years later.  “Puffing”, Wedgwood called his deal to turn Hamilton’s collection into a style setter for household crockery, urns and flower pots; “the true way of copying” Hamilton called what Wedgwood did with the originals, according to Hunt’s recounting.  

Thus did the most famous British cuckold of that century – Hamilton’s wife Emma was Admiral Horatio Nelson’s lover while he was pissing on the French – add lustre to his reputation, and money in Wedgwood the copyist’s till.

But the Wedgwood till was far from overflowing. According to Hunt, by the time Catherine paid her bill, the Wedgwood firm was close to bankruptcy. In the following decade, Wedgwood himself had to break strikes by his workmen as he introduced power machinery and a highly specialized division of labour to cut his costs.  After Karl Marx called out this well-known process, Hunt calls Marx’s version a “caricature” but he acknowledges  it “was not far from the truth”.

With roughly 80% of Wedgwood’s sales going for export, mostly to the American colonies, Wedgwood professed himself in favour of free trade for his exports, and tariffs to protect his domestic sales against imported porcelain from China and Ireland.  His support of the American revolution of 1776 reflected his hope in an improvement of demand for his goods after independence. To help that along, in 1790 he put a portrait of George Washington on a tea caddy to sell to his supporters for their kitchens (right). 

Josiah died in January 1795. Hunt has left out of his history book the balance-sheets of his subject, so it isn’t clear how swiftly Wedgwood’s pursuit of the market in fashionableness had dwindled before his death.  In the hundred years that followed, one of his descendants has admitted, “there is little evidence that the firm made any money.”

Room 135, one of the porcelain rooms at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The multi-room collection of world pottery and porcelain is one of the seven wonders of London. For the catalogue of Russian porcelain and manufacturer designs at the V&A, click to open

And so to the third and final lesson of Hunt’s booster bio for British power in pots and plates: if Russians only knew how much looting of ancient Greece and Rome, stealing their art, bribery, pissing on the French, arse-licking the aristocracy, and cuckolding themselves with tarts  the British have carried on in the past, operations like Novichok today would never be attempted or believable; Baron Sedwill of the Cabinet Office and Sir Alex Younger of MI6 wouldn’t have dared to hatch it; Baroness Hallett wouldn’t be taking money to cover it up still.

Re-read the performance of the British judiciary in the Skripal case,  and you will see what I mean. Then be sure to point your percy at the porcelain to show you understand.

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