Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Dwight, John
DWIGHT, JOHN (fl. 1671–1698), potter, is said to have been a native of Oxfordshire; to have proceeded B.C.L. from Christ Church, Oxford, 17 Dec. 1661; and to have been secretary to Bryan Walton, Henry Ferne, and George Hall, successively bishops of Chester. But if the statement be true that ‘he succeeded as early as 1640 in making a few pieces of imperfect porcelain’ (Meteyard, Life of Wedgwood, i. 188), he must have soon begun his experiments in ceramics. The first date in his history of which we can be certain is 13 April 1671, when Charles II granted him his first patent; the next is the death of his daughter Lydia, 3 March 1673. In 1684 a new patent was granted him on the expiration of his first, and from entries in a pocket-book (one of two now in the possession of the present proprietor of the pottery founded by him at Fulham) he is proved to have been alive in 1698. If he began to experiment in pottery before 1640, he must have been an old man by the close of the century, and the suggestion that he died in 1737 is clearly indefensible. In this year died Dr. Samuel Dwight [q. v.] of Fulham, who was possibly the son of Dwight. Dwight is sometimes styled Dr. John Dwight, but this is probably an error, as he is called simply John Dwight, gentleman, in both his patents, and is not dubbed doctor by any contemporary.
Both the patents are printed in extenso in Jewitt's ‘Ceramic Art in Great Britain.’ The first was granted on the strength of the statement in Dwight's petition that ‘John Dwight, Gentl. had discovered The Mistery of Transparent Earthenware, comonly knowne by the Names of Porcelaine or China, and Persian Ware, as also the Misterie of the Stone Ware vulgarly called Cologne Ware; and that he designed to introduce a Manufacture of the said Wares into our Kingdome of England, where they have not hitherto been wrought or made.’
Although his claim to make what would now be called porcelain is discredited, and it is thought by some experts that stoneware had been made before in England, there is no reason to doubt the bona fides of the statements in Dwight's petition, and it is certain that at the date of it he had made long and patient investigations and experiments, and had brought, or was on the eve of bringing, the manufacture of stoneware to a perfection unknown before in England or perhaps elsewhere. So much is proved by a dated piece of great beauty and importance now in the South Kensington Museum. It is a half-length effigy of his daughter Lydia, lying with head raised upon a pillow as she appeared after death, and is inscribed on the back ‘Lydia Dwight, dyd March 3, 1673.’ It is also certain that he made a substance which might have appeared to him to have been porcelain, for Professor A. H. Church says: ‘Dwight did nearly approach success in the making of a hard translucent ware similar to hard oriental porcelain. The applied ornaments on his grey stoneware jugs and flasks, and even the substance of some of his statuettes, were distinctly porcellanous.’
Six years after the grant of his first patent we find evidence not only of his fame as a potter, but also of the commercial success of the Fulham works. In the ‘History of Oxfordshire’ (published 1677) by Dr. Plot, the antiquary and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, there occurs the following passage: ‘The ingenious John Dwight, formerly M.A. of Christ Church College, Oxon., hath discovered the mystery of the stone or Cologne wares (such as d'Alva bottles, jugs, noggins), heretofore made only in Germany, and by the Dutch brought over into England in great quantities; and hath set up a manufacture of the same, which (by methods and contrivances of his own, altogether unlike those used by the Germans), in three or four years' time, he has brought it to greater perfection than it has attained where it hath been used for many ages, insomuch that the Company of Glass-sellers of London, who are the dealers for that commodity, have contracted with the inventor to buy only of his English manufacture, and refuse the foreign.’
The same writer notes among Dwight's other discoveries ‘the mystery of the Hessian wares and vessels for reteining the penetrating salts and spirits of the chymists,’ and ‘ways to make an earth white and transparent as porcellane,’ and states that ‘to this earth he hath added the colours that are usual in the coloured china ware, and divers others not seen before,’ and that ‘he hath also caused to be modelled statues or figures of the said transparent earth (a thing not done elsewhere, for China affords us only imperfect mouldings), which he hath diversified with great variety of colours, making them of the colour of iron, copper, brass, and party-coloured as some Achat-stones,’ and again: ‘In short, he has so advanced the Art Plastic that 'tis dubious whether any man since Prometheus have excelled him, not excepting the famous Damophilus and Gorgasus of Pliny (Nat. Hist. lib. xxxv. c. 12).’
That this panegyric was scarcely excessive we have the testimony of one of the greatest living authorities. M. L. Solon, in ‘The Art of the Old English Potter,’ says of Dwight: ‘To him must be attributed the foundation of an important industry; by his unremitting researches, and their practical application, he not only found the means of supplying in large quantities the daily wants of the people with an article superior to anything that had ever been known before, but besides, by the exercise of his refined taste and uncommon skill, he raised his craft to a high level; nothing among the masterpieces of Ceramic art of all other countries can excel the beauty of Dwight's brown stoneware figures, either for design, modelling, or fineness of material.’
Two of the finest of these figures (Mars and Meleager) are now in the British Museum. In the same collection, recently enriched from those of Mr. A. W. Franks and Mr. H. Willett, are a magnificent life-sized bust of Prince Rupert, and several other busts and statuettes in white stoneware. At the South Kensington Museum are a beautifully executed little bust of James II and a statuette of a child with a skull at her feet, supposed to represent his daughter Lydia, and here also is the undoubted effigy of Lydia before mentioned. What has been conjectured to be a third memento of this child is a hand apparently cast from life, which is in the British Museum. Both museums contain specimens of his useful ware-mugs, noggins, bellarmines, and the like, a number of which were discovered some years ago in a bricked-up cellar at the Fulham works. Other specimens of Dwight's ware are in private hands, but the identification of any of the more artistic pieces of Dwight's manufacture would have been difficult now if it had not been for the preservation by his descendants at the Fulham works of a few capital and authentic specimens, which were bought by Mr. Baylis of Prior Park in 1862. From him they were acquired by Mr. C. W. Reynolds, and are now generally known as the Reynolds' Collection, which was dispersed by auction in 1871. It is from this source that most of the finer specimens in the South Kensington and British Museum came.
Whether Dwight himself modelled any of the statuettes and busts that were produced at his works is not known. He is said to have employed Italian workmen, and it is difficult to believe that such masterpieces of plastic art as the Meleager, the bust of Prince Rupert, and several other pieces of the same stamp, could have been the work of any but a thoroughly trained sculptor. There is, however, no doubt that he was a man of rare artistic taste, and some of the statuettes, and even the effigy of Lydia, are not beyond the range of a skilled amateur. M. Solon seems to be inclined to give him the credit of all, and writes of the effigy: ‘We fancy we can trace the loving care of a bereaved father in the reproduction of the features, and the minute perfection with which the accessories, such as flowers and lace, are treated.’
Though successful with the ordinary useful ware of commerce, Dwight's more artistic productions do not seem to have attracted their due share of attention, and he is said to have buried his models and tools in disgust. The only trait of his character except his affection for Lydia, of which we have evidence, is his love of hiding. One of his pocket-books contains memoranda of money (often considerable sums) stowed away in different holes and corners of his ovens and kitchen.
Altogether few men at once so important and so long-lived have left so few records of their lives and themselves, and the little we know of him has been obscured and confused by those who have written about him. Even about his daughter Lydia conjecture has not been happy. Her effigy is clearly that of little more than an infant, and contradicts the supposition (founded by the late Mr. Jewitt on an entry in one of the pocket-books already mentioned) that this Lydia Dwight was fifteen years old when she died. The statuette in the South Kensington Museum which is supposed to represent Lydia Dwight has long hair, and is evidently of a girl older than the original of the effigy. The hand in the British Museum is also too old for the effigy, and too young for a girl of fifteen. As the other entries in the same books begin in 1691, there is another reason for thinking that the Lydia Dwight who wrote her name in it was not the same as she who died in 1673, and it seems on the whole probable that, having lost his first Lydia in infancy, he called a later daughter by the same name. That he had at least one child who grew to maturity is more than probable, for in 1737 the pottery belonged to a Margaret Dwight who married a Mr. White, and the works were in the possession of her descendants till 1864. If Lydia Dwight was fifteen when she died in 1673, this Margaret could not have been her sister by the same mother, but if Lydia died in infancy it is at least possible that she was.[Jewitt's Ceramic Art in Great Britain; Church's English Earthenware; Solon's Art of the Old English Potter; Plot's Hist. of Oxfordshire; Lysons's Environs, ii. 399, 400; Gent. Mag. 1737; Chaffers's Marks and Monograms; Art Journal, October 1862; Meteyard's Life of Wedgwood.]