The unmistakable profile of the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) was modelled in 1813. In fact he was not then a Duke, but ‘General The Most Hon. The Marquess of Wellington, KG, KB, PC’, and had only progressed about half-way through the list of honours and appointments he was eventually to amass. The Dukedom came in 1814 after the defeat of Napoleon in France. It was, of course, the next year, 1815, when a resurgent Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo by allied armies under Wellington, that he reached the height of his popularity, though not necessarily of his fame.
Wedgwood obtained the original artwork for this medallion from the sculptor John Henning in the form of a portrait carved in wax. At the same time Henning supplied profiles of five other illustrious men for reproduction in ‘jasper-ware’, Wedgwood’s most distinctive product, developed in the 1770s.
Inexplicably, around 1813 production of jasper was declining – not from choice, but because the company had lost the ability to make it successfully. This has never been adequately explained. Theories include the temporary loss of papers describing the manufacturing process, or simply the retirement of key employees during the period in question.
At any rate, production of jasper eventually halted and only re-started, after much research, in 1844. By this time Wellington, though still a public figure, had lost some of the public’s approval. As Tory Prime Minister from 1828 to 1830 he opposed reforms that would have widened the vote. As a result his home, Apsley House, was attacked on more than one occasion.
Nevertheless, on Saturday, 13 November 1852 Wellington was afforded the rare honour of a state funeral and was buried in St Paul’s cathedral. The medallion may date to around then, thirty-nine years after Wedgwood obtained the original model; during which time the company learned that technological progress can slip into reverse, and Wellington went from national hero, to having to put up shutters to stop his windows being broken, to national hero again in death.