A sphinx in the Egyptian style: one of a pair

A sphinx in the Egyptian style: one of a pair

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TITLE: Wedgwood black basalt sphinx: one of a pair
MAKER: Wedgwood
PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION: Black basalt stoneware
MEASUREMENTS: 3 11/16 in x 2 3/16 in x 6 1/8 in; 9.36625 cm x 5.55625 cm x 15.5575 cm
OBJECT NAME: Sphinx: one of a pair
PLACE MADE: Wedgwood Manufactory, Etruria, England
DATE MADE: 1770s
Domestic Furnishing
Industry and Manufacturing
CREDIT LINE: Marion Lacey Rau Bequest
ID NUMBER: 1991.0692.09AB
COLLECTOR/ DONOR: Marion Lacey Rau
MARKS: WEDGWOOD (impressed).
The sphinx is made from Wedgwood basalt, a black vitrified stoneware made from refined ball clay, ironstone slag and ochre, which when mixed together with manganese colored the clay to a dense black. Josiah Wedgwood’s basalt, developed in the late 1760s, was of higher quality than previous black stonewares made in Staffordshire known as “Egyptian black”, made from a local clay mixed with iron oxide from the nearby coal mines, a substance known as “carr.” Wedgwood’s black basalt was particularly successful for the manufacture of pieces with finely modeled detail in relief, like his series of medallions, for engine-turned vessels, vases with encaustic decoration (the so-called “Etruscan vases”), and for small scale sculptures like the sphinxes seen here.
In his partner Thomas Bentley (1731-1780), a successful Liverpool merchant, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) found a colleague with exceptional marketing skills attuned to the intellectual and fashionable preoccupations of mid-to-late eighteenth-century England, the continent of Europe, and North America. Unlike Wedgwood, Bentley had a classical education and traveled widely in Europe on the customary young English gentlemen’s Grand Tour. When in partnership with Wedgwood he applied his knowledge of the classical world to the large number of subjects derived from mythological and historical antiquity. In Volume II of the 1777 Catalogue of Cameos: Intaglios, medals, Busts, small Statues & Bas –Reliefs…
"the Black Composition, having the Appearance of antique Bronze, and so nearly agreeing in Properties with the Basaltes of the Egyptians, no Substance can be better than this for Busts, Sphinxes, small Statues &c. and it seems to us to be of great Consequence to preserve as many fine Works of Antiquity and of the present Age as we can, in this Composition."
On page 76 of the catalogue are listed “Egyptian Sphinxes, a Pair, 6 inches long. The vast majority of items listed in the catalogue were based on classical subjects of Greek and Roman antiquity, and Egyptian subjects were few by comparison. In the late eighteenth century the interest in ancient Egypt was mediated largely through the written and illustrated works of men who had lately traveled to Egypt and rediscovered the ancient sites. The so-called Egyptian Revival manifested in architecture and design was a response to the surge in interest created by these fresh discoveries and the accounts of travelers to Egypt. This quiet revival became vivid in the early nineteenth century when French artists, engineers, and surveyors undertook extensive investigations of ancient Egyptian sites during Napoleon’s unsuccessful military campaign to oust the Mamluk rulers from the country.
Yet more spectacular remains of ancient Egypt were revealed, documented in precise detail, and published, followed in the 1820s by the breakthrough in understanding Egyptian heiroglyphs through the languages represented on the Rosetta Stone: sacred heiroglyphics, the quotidian demotic language of the Egyptians, and Greek. These discoveries led to the scholarly branch of archaeology, Egyptology, that increases our knowledge and enlivens our interest to this day. It also initiated the imaginative, fanciful, and lively movement known as Egyptomania that found expression in popular literature of the nineteenth century, continuing into the movies and consumer culture of the twentieth century.
These sphinxes were modeled with the distinctive nemes head dress associated with the Egyptian pharoahs and cannot be confused with other versions of the sphinx in Mediterranean and Near Eastern cultures. The sphinxes were most likely placed in a library, study, or reception room to display the owner’s interest in, and knowledge of, ancient Egypt. Late eighteenth-century consumers of affluence were aware that their choice of material culture had power to signify and enhance their status in a highly class-conscious society.
For more examples of Wedgwood and Bentley black basalt go to https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18349593/ where you can see vessels in which the decoration was achieved by turning the pieces on an ornamental engine lathe when the clay body was dry enough to hold its shape (leather-hard), but still soft enough for a tool to mark the surface using an eccentric cam to create the pattern.
James Stevens Curl, Egyptomania. The Egyptian Revival: A Recurring Theme in the History of Taste, (MUP, 1994).
Frank L. Wood, 2014, The World of British Stoneware: Its History, Manufacture and Wares.
Bob Brier, 2013, Egyptomania: Our Three Thousand Year Obsesson with the Land of the Pharoahs.
Wedgwood & Bentley, 1777, Volume II, 4th edition, Catalogue of Cameos: Intaglios, medals, Busts, small Statues & Bas–Reliefs; with a general Account of Vases and other Ornaments after the Antique, made by Wedgwood and Bentley; and sold at their Rooms in Greek Street, Soho, London.
Currently not on view
Object Name
date made
Physical Description
ceramic (overall material)
stoneware (overall material)
black (overall color)
molded (overall production method/technique)
average spatial: 3 3/4 in x 2 1/8 in x 6 1/16 in; 9.525 cm x 5.3848 cm x 15.3924 cm
overall: 3 11/16 in x 2 3/16 in x 6 1/8 in; 9.36625 cm x 5.55625 cm x 15.5575 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Henry Rau Collection
See more items in
Cultural and Community Life: Ceramics and Glass
Industry & Manufacturing
Domestic Furnishings
Data Source
National Museum of American History
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