1769 Important Wedgwood Portrait Medallion - Modelled from Life - while Franklin was in England
1769 Benjamin Franklin early Wedgwood large black basalt portrait medallion.
Large size with intrinsic frame measures 3 3/8" X 2 5/8"
This is very likely the earliest known sculptural portrait, and possibly the earliest medallic illustration of Benjamin Franklin in existence. The well-known profile portrait seen on this medallion is commonly referred to as the Franklin "Sèvres" portrait - but this particular historic artifact proves that in fact the portrait was accomplished by William Hackwood at Wedgwood, and not the Sèvres potteries as the name implies. Further, the black basalt composition and marking on this portrait medallion, as well as the history of Wedgwood's operations all prove that this was manufactured at Wedgwood in 1769.
Wedgwood had began developing black stoneware in 1766, and had perfected the process and began manufacturing pieces from this new material beginning in 1768. Wedgwood named his creation "black basalts"; a name which is still in wide use today. The early rudimentary small case "wedgwood" hallmark seen on the reverse has the telltale unevenly spaced and poorly lined-up characteristics of only the earliest mark used by Wedgwood from 1759-1769. Beginning in late 1769, Wedgwood's partnership with Thomas Bentley began, and thereafter, they used the familiar "Wedgwood & Bentley" marks until Bentley's death in 1780. This portrait medallion therefore must have been manufactured from 1768-1769 after the 1768 use of black basalt by Wedgwood, and before the 1769 partnership with Bentley.
This portrait medallion is the Holy Grail in solving a 250 year old mystery!
This profile portrait of Benjamin Franklin was widely used beginning in the 18th century and is referred to as the "Sèvres bust". The name is derived from the fact that the Sèvres potteries in France extensively used this portrait of Franklin on their wares beginning in 1778. The origin of the Sèvres portrait has long been unknown. Charles Coleman Sellers wrote about the mystery surrounding this portrait in Benjamin Franklin in Portraiture (page 365): “A prolonged search . . . has failed to produce any explicit record of the origin of the Sèvres portraits of Franklin”.
The use of the name Sévres to describe this portrait is a misnomer, as here you have that same portrait, seen on a black basalt medallion by Wedwood dated 1768-1769 - at least 8 years prior to it's first use by the Sèvres potteries in the late 1770's. This is without question the first use of the familiar profile bust of Benjamin Franklin. With the early hallmark it becomes clear that this is in fact a Wedgwood portrait - not a Sévres portrait!
So who was the artist? William Hackwood was a sculptor/modeler who began working at Wedgwood in 1769. Hackwood is well known for his profile portrait of his employer, Josiah Wedgwood, which was done from life. As you can see below, Hackwood's profile of Josiah Wedgwood so closely matches the style of this profile of Benjamin Franklin - that Josiah Wedgwood's bust could be confused with the profile portrait of Benjamin Franklin seen on the medallion offered here.
Josiah Wedgwood by William Hackwood in Black Basalt (British Museum)
Ultimately, this Wedgwood black basalt medallion with the early Wedgwood mark can be dated precisely to 1769, and also proves that the mysterious Sèvres portrait is not a Sèvres portrait at all - but in fact the creation of William Hackwood of the Wedgwood Studios. It is also an earlier, younger portrait of Franklin, likely accomplished from life in 1769 while Franklin was in England.
Franklin was well respected throughout Europe and England, and was awarded the Copley Medal from the Royal Society of London in 1753 for his work on electricity.
In 1764, Franklin was again sent to England on behalf of Pennsylvania to petition the King to make Pennsylvania a Royal colony rather than a proprietary province. Franklin remained in London until 1775, and during this period became a close friend and associate with Josiah Wedgwood. Together, Franklin and Wedgwood created the Lunar Circle which later became the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a close-knit and secretive fraternal organization. Along with Franklin and Wedgwood, the group included which included the greatest minds of the Age of Enlightenment, including Matthew Boulton, Joseph Priestly, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, Jonathan Stokes, and many others.
Given their close relationship, and the fact that Franklin was in England at the time that this bust was designed in 1769, it only makes sense that this important image of Franklin was accomplished from life.
We know of no earlier sculptural representation of Franklin. The Franklin LLD medals showing an earlier bust of Franklin (circa 1766) attributed to Gosset were considered to be the earliest, but they match in design and execution later (circa 1800) pieces created by Marchant and Pingo, and are likely from the later period.
This is an extremely rare portrait medallion of Benjamin Franklin in this size of the early 1769 date of manufacture. We are aware of only three examples of this black basalt medallion. One of those examples in a Midwest collection has a later Wedgwood & Bentley hallmark. The third is in a private collection and the backmark is unknown.