Britannia Triumphant

James, one of our youngest volunteers, provides a brief history of Britannia Triumphant, one of the highlights of our 19th Century gallery.

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When I was first looking around the museum for something to research, the Britannia Triumphant (1798) immediately caught my eye.

The piece is incredibly detailed and intricate with many hidden meanings which inspire many questions: Who made it? What does it mean? What was it made for and when? To answer some of these questions I had to delve deep into the Wedgwood Museum library and archives.

Britannia was made to celebrate British victories over the French in the Napoleonic wars. The figure was modelled by William Hackwood who was a modeller for Wedgwood from 1769 to 1832. The design was heavily influenced by the candlestick depicting Minerva the roman goddess of war by Henry Webber, also a modeller for Wedgwood from 1782 to 1806.

The symbol of Britannia itself dates back to Roman times but when the Romans left in AD410 it was not seen again until James VI of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the British Isles under a single monarch. However it was not until the Act of Union in 1707 that it became a universal symbol of Great Britain.

The actual figure of Britannia Triumphant wears a helmet topped with feathers, a silk gown and a metal breast plate. In her right hand she holds a trident and in her left she holds a medallion of King George III. Her feet stamp on the fallen figure of France; surrounding her are a triumphant lion, a spilled cornucopia, a shield decorated with the Union Jack, a boat, a helmet and other military icons.

In the Ackerman engraving of the Wedgwood and Byerley showrooms in York Street, London, Britannia Triumphant is shown in her full glory. The figure sits on a jasper cylinder drum and is encased in a temple dome with outer pillars. Originally made of jasper, the absence of moulds meant that the example in the museum had to be completed with wood and was modelled as closely as possible from the one visible in the engraving.

The drum is a cylinder connecting the base of the figure to the base of the temple. Also modelled by William Hackwood, it is decorated with four medallions of British naval heroes: Admirals Howe, St Vincent, Duncan and Nelson modelled by John De Vaere who was a modeller of portrait medallions for Wedgwood between 1787 until 1810. The drum also has two niches but it is not clear from the engraving whether they were intended to hold figures.

As the original figure is now at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama, the piece in the museum is a superb replica reconstructed from the original moulds retained in the factory.

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