NatWest & Wedgwood?

Somersetshire Buildings, Baldwin 1781-83
Somersetshire Buildings, Baldwin 1781-83

Next time you are walking down Milsom Street in Bath, pop into the NatWest Bank at number 39 and admire the ceiling. I am sure they won’t mind.

Any fan of Wedgwood ceramics will see how it’s inspired by Josiah’s famous Jasperware pottery – both in style and colour – and the Company did have a shop nearby – so is it a Wedgwood ceiling?

Detail of ceiling plasterwork
Detail of ceiling plasterwork

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) came from a family of Staffordshire potters and stamped his mark very quickly on Georgian society.

In 1764 he introduced a superior inexpensive clear-glazed creamware pottery which was quickly re-named Queen’s ware after George the Third’s wife Charlotte ordered a tea-set! Possible the world’s first celebrity marketing campaign?

Jasperware was though his greatest creation. A cameo patterned pottery with the tranluscence and total qualities of porcelain which arrived in 1775. That was just three years after Josiah opened a showroom in Bath’s Westgate Buildings.

Now back to that ceiling in Milsom Street. Walter Ison in his seminal The Georgian Buildings of Bath – first published in 1948 – includes a black and white photograph of the overhead decoration at number 39 which he describes as adorning a ground floor front room c 1782.

Closer view of the central features of this palace facade.
Closer view of the central features of this palace facade.

Remember this was not built as a bank but formed part of Somersetshire Buildings – erected by Thomas Baldwin in 1782 – on the site of the Poor House. It’s another of those architectural illusions where – this time – five separate dwellings are brought together into a palatial whole. They were domestic dwellings until being altered for commercial use.

Ison says: ‘the ground-floor front room in the central house, now occupied by the Westminster Bank, contains an elaborately decorated ceiling’ and – in an index – goes into greater detail.

There is no mention of colour – probably because the book contained no colour photographs – much too expensive for 1948 publications!

Ison says: ‘This is probably the finest ceiling of its period in Bath, and proves (Thomas) Baldwin to have been a master of interior decoration. Although it has a distinct affinity with the circular panels in the Guildhall Banqueting Room, this ceiling is treated with greater delicacy and freedom.’

No mention of Wedgwood colours at all. So l sent an image to the Wedgwood Museum at Stoke on Trent and got the following reply from Ben Miller who is a museum assistant there.

‘The ceiling will have nothing to do with the Wedgwood company other than it is painted in the style of jasper ware (white on blue in this instance).

Shugborough Hall in South Staffordshire has a number of stucco ceilings within the mansion house dating to the 18th century which simply follow the prevailing trend for neo-classical design with pastel colours.’wedgwood ceiling

It’s still worth noting how Thomas Baldwin must have been inspired by a new range of pottery the chattering Georgian classes ¬†spending their time in Bath were raving about and no doubt buying in vast quantities from the Wedgwood shop in Westgate Buildings.

It pays to look up and down. You never know what you might be missing!