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  • The Cyclops in the Vale: Mythological and Fantastic Representations of Industry

In August of 1776, the Pennsylvanian Quaker Jabez Maude Fisher toured the Western Midlands and likened a night scene at Coalbrookdale1 to an “immense Theatre,” “present[ing] all the horrors that Pandemonium could shew.”2 He compared the active furnaces and burning “Mountains of Ore” to “Etnas and Vesuvius’s [sic],” declaring the “Prospect [to be] awful and magnificent.”3 Fisher’s views had been constructed for him. The British Grand Tour at the end of the eighteenth century included travel to mills, furnaces, manufactories, and mines, where visitors were encouraged to enjoy the spectacle of industry. Between 1782 and 1792, the Quaker industrialist Richard Reynolds created Sabbath or Workmen’s Walks in the woods surrounding Coalbrookdale, complete with a viewing Rotunda and a Doric Temple for workers and visitors to admire scenic views of the industrial region and the Ironbridge Gorge.4 According to Stephen Daniels, “The rugged grandeur of the Severn gorge and the fiery nature of iron-making made Coalbrookdale a dramatic spectacle. … Those with a taste for the horrible could be winched down mine-shafts, taken into tar tunnels, or ride, helter-skelter, down inclined planes.”5 One contemporary tourist described herself as “completely satiated with subterranean scenery.”6 Not surprisingly, visitors expressing a general sense of awe when visiting the [End Page 53] region turned to the discourses of Milton, Virgil, and classical mythology. Perhaps, more surprising is the ease with which the rhetoric of natural history and technology meshed with mythology, and how the mythological was incorporated into the modernized practices of industry.

On 2 July 1767, Erasmus Darwin, medical doctor and naturalist, wrote to Josiah Wedgwood, Staffordshire potter and fellow Lunar Society member: “I have lately travel’d two-days journey into the bowels of the earth, with three most able philosophers, and have seen the Goddess of Minerals naked, as she lay in her inmost bowers, and have made such drawings and measurements of her Divinity-ship, as would much amuse.” Later that month, Darwin wrote to industrialist and Lunar Society member Matthew Boulton about his travels “into the Bowels of Old Mother Earth,” where he had “seen Wonders and learnt much curious Knowledge in the Regions of Darkness”; he also promised to use the materials gathered “to make innumerable Experiments on aqueous, sulphureous, metallic, and saline Vapours.”7 Jenny Uglow characterizes the Wedgwood letter as an instance of Darwin’s “tumbling style:” in his excitement he moves from “quasi-biblical cliché” to “semi-mystical classicism” to the “philosophical” (taking “drawings and measurement”).8 But I have found Darwin’s coupling of the mythological with the technical or scientific to be familiar practice in the writings of the period. Darwin depends upon familiar tropes, highlighted by Carolyn Merchant in the Death of Nature, that feminized the Earth as Mother goddess and provider and were exploited by Baconian descendants striving towards “domination and control of nature.”9 Rosalind Williams offers a revision of Merchant’s trailblazing work that sheds light upon the mindset of the Lunar men: “Early students of the earth may indeed have intended to follow a rational Baconian program, throwing out old myths and organic analogies in favor of direct observation and experiment,” and consulting “not books but the rocks themselves.” However, as Williams argues compellingly, “investigators went deeper and deeper below the surface of the earth, and as they went deeper they discovered a world far older and far stranger than Bacon or his immediate disciples ever imagined. Excavation sought a rational past and uncovered a quasi-mythological one.”10

Arthur Young used the sublime to mitigate a similar tension between natural beauty and technical progress during his 1776 visit: “Colebrook Dale itself is a very romantic spot,…Indeed too beautiful to be much in unison with that variety of horrors as art has spread at the bottom: the noise of the forges, mills, &c. with all their vast machinery, the flames bursting from the furnaces with the burning of the coal and the smoak of the lime kilns, are altogether sublime.”11 During a late-eighteenth-century visit, the artist Samuel Ireland, explicitly cited Young’s pronouncement that the region [End Page 54] is “altogether horribly sublime,” and described the “peculiar features” of Coalbrookdale as “forcibly remind[ing] [him] of the fabled stories respecting his satanic majesty”:

Proceeding along the vale, a succession of volcanic eruptions seemed to flash upon the sight in every direction, from the furnaces which are incessantly employed in smelting iron ore. These eruptions—these flaming apertures, projecting huge columns of intermingled fire and smoke into a dense atmosphere, with here and there a group of gaunt, sooty labourers, like demons of a lower world—produced an effect the most wild, unearthly, and appalling that can be imagined. Perhaps no association of terrene objects could impress upon the mind so vivid an idea of those realms where ‘hope never comes’ as the iron-works at Coalbrook Dale, thus witnessed at midnight.

Ireland ended his description with two closely paraphrased passages from the beginning of Book 2 of Milton’s Paradise Lost: “‘What if the breath that kindled those grim fires, / Awak’d, should blow them into sev’nfold rage, / And plunge us in the flames?’ Or what if ‘—this firmament / Of hell should spout her cataracts of fire, / Impendent horrors, threat’ning hideous fall / One day upon our heads?’”12 In these quotations, Ireland imagined himself not as a voyeur for whom the sublime horror was mitigated but as a participant sharing the potential danger of the demon laborers.

As illustrated here and in many other contemporary accounts, representations of industry in the period borrowed heavily from discourses of the sublime, but they also alluded regularly to the topography and lore of Italy and Greece.13 The theatricality of the prospects that Fisher aptly characterized harkens back to a classical past. The travel writer Henry Skrine made this connection explicit in his description of Coalbrookdale: “[B]y night the numerous fires arising from the works on the opposite hills, and along the several channels of the two valleys, aided by the clangour of forges in every direction, affect the mind of one unpractised in such scenes with an indescribable sensation of wonder, and transport in fancy the classic observer to the workshop of Vulcan, or an epitome of the infernal regions” [emphasis added].14 In his Observations on a Tour through almost the whole of England and a Considerable Part of Scotland in a series of letters (1801–1802), the actor Charles Dibdin elaborated upon this metaphor: “Coalbrookdale wants nothing but Cerberus to give you an idea of the heathen hell. The Severn may pass for the Styx, with this difference, that Charon, turned turnpike man, ushers you over the bridge instead of rowing in his crazy boat; the men and women might easily be mistaken for devils [End Page 55] and furies, and the entrance of any one of these blazing caverns where they polish the cylinders for Tartarus.”15 When Italian visitor Carlo Castone della Torre di Renzionico Comasco visited England and the Midlands in 1787, he recognized the “approach to Coalbrookdale” as “a veritable descent to the infernal regions.” Describing the “bridge constructed entirely of iron” as “a gate of mystery” and the “stream of white hot liquid iron” as the “lava of Vesuvius,” Comasco declared that, as night fell, the “impressiveness of the scene” “could only be compared to the regions so powerfully described by Virgil.”16

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century texts from the Western Midlands representing industrialization sought to mediate these strange and sometimes violent modes of production. Authors and entrepreneurs relied heavily upon classical mythology and fantasy as they wrangled with the methods of this brave new world, where the mysteries of the subterranean world vied with those of the surface. The dales of the Midlands became peopled not only with tourists but also with nymphs, gnomes and gods, as British writers, artists, and industrialists sought to enhance the appeal of a world filled with new technologies via classical mythologies. As the British explored their subterranean lands and harvested earth’s bounty, they located in the carefully mapped and catalogued strata valuable minerals and the lure of the classical past just beneath the crust.

Artists joined with contemporary writers in representing the industrial scene as aesthetically attractive. Ireland’s and Fisher’s accounts of “flames bursting” and “volcanic eruptions” accord closely with Phillip James de Loutherbourg’s famous 1801 image of Coalbrookdale by Night (fig. 1). Loutherbourg toured England and Wales in 1786 and 1800, attending to industrial workings. This painting shows a view at the Bedlam Furnaces in Madeley Dale, Shropshire, downstream from the Ironbridge beside the River Severn. Although the painting by the former theatrical set designer is quite dramatic, the laboring figures attending the draft horses and cart in the foreground remind us that it represents daily labor as well as horrific conflagration.17 The woman and child just to the left of the massive discarded pipes in the foreground, nearly invisible as our eyes track toward the open coke hearths, represent inhabitants rather than tourists: this is their familiar environment. Artists and authors, however, consistently converted daily labor in the Industrial Midlands into sublime action. Barrie Trinder remarks that the landscape paintings of the “mining and manufacturing districts” employed “heroic” tropes: “The paintings of the Ironbridge Gorge by Philip De Loutherbourg or J.S. Cotman bear a close resemblance to the representations of the eruption of Vesuvius by Joseph Wright of Derby” (a scene Wright painted repeatedly after his return from Italy). “Artists decorated their [End Page 56] industrial landscapes with ruined buildings, blasted trees or rugged crags, just as they adorned their representations of classical landscapes.”18 These classical tropes are pervasive in both narrative and visual representations of industrial wonder.

Figure 1. Coalbrookdale by Night. Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. 1801. Oil on canvas; 68×106.7cm.
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Figure 1.

Coalbrookdale by Night. Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. 1801. Oil on canvas; 68×106.7cm.

© Science and Society Picture Library.

In an extended essay reviewing Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature (1998), Mary Blaine Campbell comments on the Enlightenment treatment of wonders: “The Enlightenment in the imperializing nations of England, France and Holland was skeptical, secular, bureaucratic, and elitist rather than fully aristocratic: like imperial Roman culture it abounded in material feats of engineering, architecture, military and political organization and jurisprudence. … To colonize in the manner of empire, though the authors do not make this point, is eventually and necessarily to transform exotic wonders and anomalies into commodities and the monoculture of plantations, and to turn the naked savages of Eden or Hell into cheap labor on earth.”19 The strange and wonderful environment of the Western Midlands became a space for the British to “colonize” and commodify. Feats of engineering like the Ironbridge or the transformation of raw minerals into utilitarian forms were wonders always indebted to the “cheap labor” of the native people. [End Page 57]

In narratives, this mortal presence seemed at odds with the noise, the dissonance, and the power continually on display in Coalbrookdale. This world of infernal eruptions and constant conflagration seemed scarcely inhabitable by humans, so the laborers became something other than human. In the Ireland passage above, the scene peopled with “a group of gaunt, sooty labourers, like demons of a lower world—produced an effect the most wild, unearthly, and appalling that can be imagined.” Dibdin thought the “men and women might easily be mistaken for devils and furies.” John Dalton penned a 1755 poem titled “Addressed to Two Ladies, at Their Return from Viewing the Mines, near Whitehaven,” complete with extensive notes on mining, in which he described the “sulphurous coal” and “Infernal Darkness” of the mine, as well as the ladies’ liberation at emerging from their depths. Dalton evoked Orpheus in his opening stanza and wrote hauntingly of the underworld:

loftier chambers of the deep,Whose jetty pillars seem to groanBeneath a ponderous roof of stone.Then with increasing wonder gazeThe dark inextricable maze,Where cavern crossing cavern meets

(City of subterraneous streets!).

Dalton’s “sooty collier stands, / His Ethiopian teeth the while / ‘Grin horrible a ghastly smile.’”20 In this racially charged description, the collier’s descent has made him black but also horrible and ghastly. A poem in the 1751 Birmingham Gazette spoke of Mulciber’s (another name for Vulcan) minions: “Thousands of his Slaves, with glaring Eyes, / Around him wait, or near him do reside / In subterraneous Caverns, deep and wide; / Where, by the Chief’s Command, they sap like Moles, / Supplying every Smithy Hearth with Coals.”21

The workers, I would argue, become something Other because they traverse the passage between the surface and the underworld—a passage that for mortals should have no return—with seeming impunity. Thus, observers repeatedly described such mortals as marked by this impossible, often daily journey to the underworld, this exposure to the unimaginable heat and fire. The industrial underworld seemed not to open to the depths of England but to other fantastic worlds. Readily available Roman and Grecian narratives for these worlds make a passage such as this one in which the classical worlds are separated from Britain only by a thin transom, a brickwork arch at the mouth of a tunnel or iron bridge that “appear[s] as a gate of mystery;” every mine shaft becomes a portal to another world. In her recent study, An Empire [End Page 58] of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, Siobhan Carroll argues that in the eighteenth century, the “subterranean space” was poised to overturn the “accepted historical record of the planet” because it had the “capacity to serve as a repository of histories that evade, challenge, or subvert the narratives of the world above;” “caves and other subterranean spaces were notorious for challenging early geologists’ conceptions of the earth during this period, presenting excavators with fossil evidence that seemed incompatible with biblical history.”22 Carroll adds that the atopian environment of “human-forged mines” was “associated with dangerous exploration of other environments.”23

Such exploration need not require even the depth of a mine. In October 1767, the potter Josiah Wedgwood wrote to his business partner Thomas Bentley regarding the findings unearthed in building the canals:

Have I ever told you of the wonderfull & surprising curiositys we find in our Navigation! [sic] sometime last month was found under a bed of Clay, at the depth of five yards from the surface a prodigious rib, with the vertebrae of the backbone of a monstrous sized Fish, thought by some connissieurs [sic] to belong to the identical Whale that was so long ago swallowed by [sic] Jonah!—Another bone found near the same place in a stratum of Gravel, under a bed of Clay of a very considerable thickness, is of so singular a construction that though I have shewn it to several able anatomists, they cannot decide whether it is the first, or last of the vertebrae of some monstrous animal, not whether that animal was an inhabitant of the Sea, or Land.…These with many other curious Phenomena are met with on the south side of Harecastle.24

Such marvelous curiosities, found many miles from the ocean, undoubtedly contributed to challenging historical narratives, as Carroll suggests, but they also contributed to an elision of the boundary between the “real” and the fantastic. It is no wonder that fantasy and mythology were welcome discourses in a world that was shifting (sometimes literally) underfoot as a result of new technologies and discoveries.

In Erasmus Darwin’s poem The Botanic Garden, Part I, The Economy of Vegetation (1791), “UNCONQUER’D STEAM,” with its potential capacity to “Drag the slow barge, or drive the rapid car; / Or on wide-waving wings expanded bear / The flying-chariot through fields of air” is equated with Hercules’ labors, his “unmeasured strength with early art combined, / Awed, served, protected, and amazed mankind” (31). Darwin’s subterranean laborers are Gnomes, who, as they pass “beneath the labouring soil,” unearth “ductile Clays,” “calcines,” and “Ka-o-lins,” which will become the pottery [End Page 59] of Josiah Wedgwood’s new Etruria.25 Darwin’s Gnomes both guard and harvest the precious metals of the earth. For Darwin, the harvesting and harnessing of the Earth’s resources were worthy and valorized projects.

Critiques of industrial mining also turned to mythological discourse to render critical arguments. In Anna Seward’s “Colebrook Dale” (c. 1790; pub. 1810), Plutus and Cyclops displaced wood-nymphs and Naiads and polluted the “sylvan” woods in search of the “large stores” of “metallic veins:”

their silent reignUsurpt by Cyclops;—hear, in mingled tones,Shout their throng’d barge, their ponderous engines clangThrough thy coy dales; while red the countless fires,With umber’d flames, bicker on all thy hills,Dark’ning the Summer’s sun with columns largeOf thick, sulphureous smoke, which spread like palls,That screen the dead, upon the sylvan robeOf thy aspiring rocks; pollute thy gales,And stain thy glassy waters.”26

According to David Wheeler, “Like Enlightenment philosophers and prospect-poem poets, Seward thus confronts the present, historical Coalbrookdale; at the same time, however, she displaces it, appropriating it to her poetic realm, and rendering it, in mythological terms, infernal.”27 Seward’s ecocritical cautionary tale clashed with her mentor Darwin’s tribute to progress in The Botanic Garden, and was at odds with many contemporary mythological poems and many visitors’ accounts written in support of industry. Seward’s poem accords with Merchant’s argument of a feminized nature raped by technology. Nevertheless, something akin to national pride enters the poem when Seward mentions the work of innovators Boulton, James Watt, and James Keir, calling them the “fam’d Triumvirate”:

“Science there / Leads her enlighten’d sons, to guide the hand / Of the prompt artist, and with great design / Plan the vast engine, whose extended arms, / Heavy and huge, on the soft-seeming breath / Of the hot steam, rise slowly.”28

One of the few contemporary accounts to accord with Seward’s sense of the environmental harm of industry followed her poem by almost two generations, suggesting Seward’s prescience. In 1830, James Nasmyth, Scottish engineer and co-inventor of the steam hammer, walked through the Black Country, observing an almost other-worldly spectacle where the Earth had been rent and topographically altered: [End Page 60]

The Black Country is anything but picturesque. The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder-heaps and mounds of scoriae.…Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forge-hammers.… The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphurous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray—the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect. Vulcan had driven out Ceres.29

Nasmyth was evoking the tension between the agricultural or pastoral and the industrial, as well as that between the surface and the subterranean. In this case, the harvesting of ores and metals from below the surface has blighted the productivity of nature. Nasymth echoed the argument put forth by Anna Seward in the late-eighteenth century. Both writers calculated the cost of industrial prosperity to the environment.

While Seward and Nasmyth vilified the Cyclops, the Cyclops enjoyed a general revitalization of character in the period. Wedgwood produced a black basalt plaque of “Vulcan forging the Armour for Achilles at the request of Venus” (fig. 2). Here the accompanying Cyclops appear powerful and graceful rather than monstrous. Eighteenth-century writings from the Midlands treated the Cyclops as skilled workers, contributing to Britain’s wealth and security. A 1738 poem from the Gentleman’s Magazine, “The Cyclops. Addressed to the Birmingham Artisans,” signed Polypheme, begins, “Disdain not, Muse, thy pure celestial aid, / I chaunt the Honours of the Cyclops’ trade.” In this poem, the Cyclops produces “various implements” essential to “the builder’s and the mechanic’s art:” “for fight the shining arms we gain, / From hence the anchor needful on the main; / And tools that serve the farmer’s rural care.”30 In James Bisset’s “Ramble of the Gods through Birmingham” (1800), “Old Vulcan” and the Cyclops, previously subterraneous dwellers in Mt. Aetna, are permanent and productive residents of the town. Vulcan serves as tour guide for Apollo, Mercury, and Bacchus, as they admiringly visit various manufactories—the button works, the gun works, the coin press (and the pub)—“Whilst sturdy Cyclops, anvils ’rang’d around, / With thundering hammers,—made the air resound.” At Matthew Boulton’s Soho works,

The Gods, with rapture fraught, the whole survey’d;Their Names they wrote, and saw, with great surprise,Fac Similes that moment, strike their eyes;Whilst at the Mint, th’ invention of the Mill,Seem’d as if Coin was form’d by magic skill.31 [End Page 61]

Here Bisset inverted the standard pattern of shock and awe by representing the gods as awestruck by the inventions of man. As he did throughout the poem, Bisset included notes on the manufactories and inventions, noting the Patent Copying Machine and lauding the speed of the Coining Mill for being capable of “striking from seventy to eighty-four pieces per minute, the size of a guinea; which is equal to between 30,000 and 40,000 per hour [output of all coining machines].”32 Vulcan functioned particularly well as a patron god for Industry. In addition to his status as skilled craftsman, he was the cast off god, the lame god, the cuckolded god, and the laboring god. He was the god you could meet at a pub; importantly, like industrial laborers, his power empowered others.

Figure 2. Vulcan forging the Armour for Achilles at the Request of Venus. Josiah Wedgwood. 1790–1800. Black basalt. 16.5 × 25.7 × 1 cm. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dwight M. Beeson. Photo Credit: Sean Pathasema.
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Figure 2.

Vulcan forging the Armour for Achilles at the Request of Venus. Josiah Wedgwood. 1790–1800. Black basalt. 16.5 × 25.7 × 1 cm. Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Dwight M. Beeson. Photo Credit: Sean Pathasema.

Vulcan and the Cyclops did not reserve their visits to the Midlands for literature only. Matthew Boulton, founder of the Soho Ironworks, celebrated his son’s coming of age with a pageant of workers, including a “corps of fifty Engineers, headed by Perrine, in the character of Vulcan, bearing a working Fire Engine on his head, followed by the Cyclops, with huge hammers on their shoulders, and closed by one of them carrying a Copying Machine.”33 In January 1796, at the Rearing Feast for the Soho Foundry (where Watt’s steam engine would be produced), “Two fat sheep (the first fruits of the [End Page 62] newly-cultivated land at Soho) were sacrificed at the Altar of Vulcan, and eaten by the Cyclops in the Great-hall of the Temple.” After dinner Boulton “consecrated” the Foundry by sprinkling wine on the walls “in the name of Vulcan and all the Gods and Goddesses of Fire and Water,” ending somewhat ironically with “Amen.” Boulton came “as THE FATHER OF SOHO, to consecrate this place,” to express his “regard for all good honest, and faithful workmen, whom I have always considered classed with my best friends,” and to give his “benediction.” He further advised his workers: “As the smith cannot do without his striker, so neither can the master do without his workmen. Let each perform his task well, and do their duty in that state which it hath pleased God to call them, and this they will find to be the true rational ground of equality.” Boulton concluded with “grateful thanks to the Divine Protector of all things” because the foundry was completed “without the loss of one life, or any material accident.”34 Clearly mindful of labor strikes in the manufacturing districts, Boulton enfolded his laborers with a rhetoric of valor and divinely sanctioned duty.

Although Boulton’s conflation of pagan and Christian worship with technological success seems unexpected, Pat Munday has traced the religious cults connected to the mining industry and argues that contemporary Mary cults find their origin in the Aphrodite cults formed in Cyprus. Munday grounds his work in Merchant’s argument in The Death of Nature (1990) that “[d]uring the construction of modernism, coincident with the scientific revolution, beliefs about the organic connectedness and sacredness of the earth came into conflict with modernist assumptions about a clockwork universe and nature as an exploitative commodity.”35 Munday finds that this sense of the sacredness of the earth survived the early modern period: “To perform their work, miners crossed a sacred threshold, entered the vagina of the earth, and dug out the veins from the mother of all.”36 On the Isle of Cyprus the rise of the worship of Aphrodite as the Great Mother coincided with the development of ancient copper mining there; “metallurgical activities at Aphrodite shrines” in Cyprus and “at other mining districts in the Mediterranean” became the norm. Worship of Aphrodite, sometimes paired with Hephaistos, was thought to protect miners from danger. With the rise of Christianity, the “cult of Mary gradually replaced the worship of Aphrodite and other earth goddesses.” There was no Christian equivalent for the Hephaistos figure, so he generally dropped out of the Christian practice. In England, where a cult of the Virgin was less acceptable than in Catholic Europe, Boulton, self-fashioned as a sort of priest in his “Temple,” and thereby he revived Vulcan as the patron of industry and metal working.

Boulton aligned his Soho Manufactory closely with the benediction of the gods. In some editions, the rules of the Soho Insurance Society produced [End Page 63] in 1792 were juxtaposed with an engraving (fig. 3) and “accompanied by an explanation of some of [the engraving’s] allegorical content.”37 These explanations identified the mortal “Member of the Society” with his arm in a sling, as well as the allegorical Art, Prudence, and Industry standing beside him. The mythological Minerva floated above the Soho Manufactory, and several young boys engaged in studying the Arts and design. Val Loggie suggests that the “explanatory text” helped workers “decode” the iconography and accrued goodwill to Boulton from customers and laborers, by presenting him as a purveyor of fine goods and as a trustworthy employer.38 I would argue that studying this image alongside the two narratives of Soho pageantry reveals that Boulton evoked the gods as part of the regular discourse and iconography for his thriving manufactory. In the engraving, Minerva presided over the injured worker and studious boys, and, in some printings, over a series of rules for behavior for members of the Soho Insurance Society. This mortal-immortal juxtaposition again suggests the gods as arbiters of moral practice.

Figure 3. “From Art, Industry, and Society, Great Blessings Flow.” Engraved poster for the Soho Insurance Society, 1792.
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Figure 3.

“From Art, Industry, and Society, Great Blessings Flow.” Engraved poster for the Soho Insurance Society, 1792.

Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham. MS 3147/8/47.

Boulton’s fellow entrepreneur Wedgwood also cultivated connections with a classical past in his aesthetic and commercial philosophies. In a [End Page 64] maneuver that elided both geographical and temporal distance from the artifacts he reproduced, he named his Staffordshire estate, which also encompassed his factory and its workers’ village, Etruria. He also referred to himself and his partner Thomas Bentley as “Etruscans.” To celebrate the opening of the Etruria works, Wedgwood threw six Etruscan-style vases in black basalt with encaustic painting. The vases were inscribed “Artes Etruriae Renascuntur”—The Arts of Etruria are Reborn. In 1791, Benjamin West paid tribute to Wedgwood’s successful reinvention of the Industrial Midlands as classical craft space in the series of images he created to bedeck the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, entitled Genius calling forth the Fine Arts to adorn Manufactures and Commerce. The one surviving sketch from the series, “Etruria, or British Manufactory,” features Wedgwood’s copy of the Portland Vase, held by a winged figure, in the front center, conflating the fine arts with the trade crafts that Wedgwood had invested in throughout his career. In this image, produced in the final years of Wedgwood’s life, West demonstrated the success of Wedgwood’s campaign to reinvent the Industrial Midlands as classical craft space and to align modern invention with classical mythology.

From 1773–1774, in close consultation with his partner in ornamental works, Thomas Bentley, and with the help of thirty artists, Wedgwood designed and created the 944-piece dinner and dessert service in his famous cream-colored Queen’s Ware, painted with 1,222 separate views of Britain (from the Royal Stables at Windsor to the glassworks at Prescot) for the Empress Catherine II of Russia. At the outset, Wedgwood questioned whether the skills of their laborers in the ornamental works were up to this massive task, writing Bentley on 9 April 1773:

Dare you undertake to paint the most embelished views, the most beautifull [sic] Landskips, with Gothique Ruins, Grecian Temples, & the most Elegant Buildings with hands who never attempted anything [ illegible] beyond Huts and Windmills, upon Dutch Tile at three halfpence a doz!—And this too for the first Empress in the World?—Well if you dare attempt & can succeed in this, tell me no more of your Alexanders, no nor of your Prometheus’s neither for surely it is more to make Artists than mere men.39

Wedgwood’s comparison of their own work to that of Prometheus is striking because he knew the creation myth in which Prometheus forms man from clay and Minerva animates that clay. Among his more than one thousand classical cameos, intaglios and tablets, Wedgwood and his modelers produced two cameos of the subject: No. 818, “Prometheus forming a head” (cameo, [End Page 65] first listed in the catalogue in 1773) and No. 198, “Prometheus forming a man” (intaglio).40 Wedgwood undoubtedly felt an artistic kinship with the god who produced his masterwork in clay and bestowed sacred fire upon the mortals. In Thomas Morrell’s contemporary translation of Æschylus’s Prometheus in Chains (1773), Prometheus explains his contributions to forming human kind to a Chorus of Sea-Nymphs thusly:

I’ll speak of mortals; wretched as they were,All rude, and ignorant, till inspir’d by me,With wisdom, and the rules of civil life.

* * *

They knew not yet, by studious art, to buildOr mud-wall’d cottage, or well-timber’d house;But, ever buried like the ant, they liv’dIn subterraneous caverns.41

Prometheus, very much the patron of industry, also claims responsibility for the advent of mining, “I counsell’d them, / To ransack the deep bowels of the earth, / And thence extract brass, iron, silver, gold.”42 The exiled god Prometheus, with his civilizing mission, would have had particular appeal for the provincial inventors. In March 1765 Wedgwood wrote to his brother John in London regarding an evening that John had spent with the “Geniuses” “assembled” at Turnham Green. Wedgwood lamented that he had missed the event, and suggested that he “must be content with fashioning my clay at an humble distance from such compy. & live, breathe, & dye, amongst animals but one remove above the Earth they are teazeing.”43 Elissa Marder characterizes Prometheus’s interventions as “inaugurat[ing] the series of events that culminate in the becoming human of man,”44 a project in which industrialists Wedgwood and Boulton believed themselves involved as they brought their new technologies and material goods to the people.

Although the Prometheus allusion positions Wedgwood and Bentley as gods forming unskilled laborers into artists, Wedgwood was himself capable of industrial awe, for instance when he visited the canal locks at Runcorn in June 1773. He wrote to Bentley:

I was quite astonish’d at the Vastness of the plan, & the greatness of Stile in the execution. The Walls of the Locks are truly admirable, both for strength, & beauty of workmanship—… compos’d of vast stones from 1 to 12 Tons weight,…to behold ten of these Locks, all at one view, with their Gates, Aqueducts, Cisterns, sluices, bridges, &c &c the whole seems to be the work of Titans, rather than a production of our Pigmy race of beings.45 [End Page 66]

Constructed by the Duke of Bridgewater, master canal engineer James Brindley, Wedgwood and others, the British canal system in the Midlands moved earth and water, and included tunnels and aqueducts lined with clay where canal boats seemed to take flight over impeding rivers (the Barton aqueduct, opened in 1761, crossed the River Irwell). This canal system changed the topography of Britain and connected the Industrial Midlands more closely to the rest of the globe, sending what Seward calls in “Colebrook Dale” “the large stores of thy metallic veins” across Europe, the Atlantic, and the rest of the world. Titans must have seemed the only beings capable of such feats of engineering.

For the people of the Western Midlands, when Wedgwood and Boulton evoked Vulcan, Minerva, Prometheus, and the Titans, the gods did indeed seem to walk among them to inspire and bless their labors, as they used fire to transform earth and rocks into useful and ornamental wares. In a 1766 letter to Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin referred to his “mechanical Friend, Mr. Edgeworth,” the inventor, as the “greatest Conjuror I ever saw,” marveling that Edgeworth “has the principles of Nature in his Palm and moulds them as He pleases.” He was referring here to Edgeworth’s power to “take away Polarity or give it to the Needle.” After claiming that Edgeworth could also “see through two solid Oak Boards without Glasses,” Darwin closes with, “wonderful! astonishing! diabolical!!!46 Similarly, Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s cautionary “Inscription for an Ice-House” (c. 1795), cited “man, the great magician, who controuls / Fire, earth and air, and genii of the storm, / And bends the most remote and opposite things / To do him service and perform his will.”47 As natural philosophers and inventors reached for (and often gained) ever more control over the natural world, they also struggled to humanize the unfamiliar and inhuman industrial scene. For the writers and artists of the period, the noise, the horror, the grandeur of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century was a commotion worthy of the discourses of the gods.

Susan Egenolf

Susan Egenolf is associate professor in the English Department at Texas A&M University. Her areas of specialization include British and Irish literature and culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the novel, and women writers. She is author of The Art of Political Fiction in Hamilton, Edgeworth, and Owenson (Ashgate, 2009) and editor of the Wives and Mothers and Extended Families in the volumes British Family Life, 1780–1914 collection (Pickering and Chatto/Routledge, 2012). She is currently working on a monograph, “Josiah Wedgwood and the Shaping of British Art and Empire.”


I wish to thank the anonymous readers for SECC for their thoughtful, detailed, and helpful comments.

1. In the eighteenth century, several spellings for Coalbrookdale, such as Colebrook Dale, were in use; I will use the modern spelling except when a variant appears in a quotation.

2. Jabez Maud Fisher, An American Quaker in the British Isles: The Travel Journals of Jabez Maude Fisher, 1775–1779, ed. Kenneth Morgan (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, for the British Academy, 1992), 264. Fisher’s use of “Pandemonium” here likely alludes to Milton’s Pandæmonium, the capital of Hell in his Paradise Lost.

3. Severn Gorge Countryside Trust. The Sabbath Walks Trail. Leaflet. n.d.

4. Stephen Daniels, “Loutherbourg’s Chemical Theatre: Coalbrookdale by Night,” in Painting and the Politics of Culture: New Essays on British Art, 1700–1850, ed. John Barrell (Oxford and New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 204.

5. Esther Moir, The Discovery of Britain: The English Tourists, 1540 to 1840 (New York: Routledge and K. Paul, 1964), 95.

6. The Lunar Society was a group of like-minded, philosophers, scientists, naturalists and inventors, mostly residing in the Western Midlands. They met on nights of the full moon. See Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002).

7. Erasmus Darwin, The Letters of Erasmus Darwin, ed. Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 43; 44–45.

8. Uglow, Lunar Men, 143.

9. Carolyn Merchant, “The Scientific Revolution and The Death of Nature,” Isis 97 (2006): 513. In this article, Merchant revisits the 1980 publication of The Death of Nature, where she “presented a view of the Scientific Revolution that challenged the hegemony of mechanistic science as a marker of progress. [Her book] argued that seventeenth-century science could be implicated in the ecological crisis, the domination of nature, and the devaluation of women in the production of scientific knowledge” (513).

10. Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Underground: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination, new edition (Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2008), 27.

11. Arthur Young, Tours in England and Wales, Selected from The Annals of Agriculture (London: London School of Economics and Political Science, rpt. series, 1932), 152.

12. Samuel Ireland [illustrator and contributor], Thomas Harral, Picturesque Views of the Severn, with Historical and Topographical Illustrations, 2 vols. (London: Whittaker, 1824), 2:228–9.

13. See Barrie Trinder, ed., “The Most Extraordinary District in the World: Ironbridge & Coalbrookdale, 3rd edition (Chichester: Phillimore, 2005), for a compilation of excerpts of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century visitors’ responses to the Coalbrookdale region.

14. Henry Skrine, Two Successive Tours Throughout the Whole of Wales, with Several of the Adjacent English Counties (London: Elmsley and Bremner, 1798), 170.

15. Charles Dibdin, Observations on a Tour through almost the whole of England and a Considerable Part of Scotland in a series of letters, 2 vols. (London: G. Goulding, [1801–02]), 2:311–12.

16. Carlo Castone della Torre di Renzionico Comasco, Viaggio in Einhilterra di Carlo Castone della Torre di Renzionico Comasco (Venice, 1824); Coalbrookdale section translated and reprinted in Salopian Shreds and Patches, A Garland of Shropshire Specialties (Shrewsbury: Eddowes’s Shrewsbury Journal, 1889–1890 [1891]), 9:337. David Morse includes an identical translated passage, labeled “Italian visitor, 1787, ‘Wolverhampton Chronicle,’” on his website: Accessed 21 August 2016, indicating that Comasco’s description was known in the Midlands in the eighteenth century.

17. Daniels, “Loutherbourg’s Chemical,” 198.

18. Barrie Trinder, The Making of the Industrial Landscape (Gloucester: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1982), 96.

19. Mary Blaine Campbell, “Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150–1750 (Book),” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 8, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 301.

20. John Dalton, A Descriptive Poem, Addressed to Two Ladies, At Their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven. To which are added some thoughts on Building and Planting (London: J. and J. Rivington, 1755), lines 89; 94; 78–84; 65–68. Dalton borrows from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Death / Grinn’d horribly a ghastly smile” (Book II, lines 845–6) for his description of the collier.

21. “A Letter to a Mechanick in the busy Town of Birmingham, to Mr. Stayner, a Carver, Statuary, and Architect, in the sleepy Corporation of Warwick,” A Century of Birmingham Life: or, a Chronicle of Local Events from 1741 to 1841, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Birmingham: W.G. Moore & Co., 1870), 1:41–2. The headnote indicates that this poem, “wrote in 1733,” appeared in the Birmingham Gazette in 1751.

22. Siobhan Carroll, An Empire of Air and Water: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750–1850 (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 150–51; 158.

23. Carroll, Empire, 152.

24. Josiah Wedgwood to Thomas Bentley, likely October 1767; V&A/Wedgwood Collection, MS No. E25–18188. Presented by the Artfund with major support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, private donations and a public appeal (this attribution applies as well to the three additional references from the V&A/Wedgwood Collection).

25. Erasmus Darwin, The botanic garden; a poem, in two parts. Part I. Containing the economy of vegetation. Part II. The loves of the plants. With philosophical notes (London: J. Johnson, 1791), Part I, Canto I, lines 289–92; 300–301; Part I, Canto II, lines 271; 277; 298; 300.

26. Anna Seward, “Colebrook Dale,” The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, with Extracts from her Literary Correspondence, 3 vols., ed. Walter Scott, Esq. (Edinburgh: John Ballantyne and Co., 1810), 2:315.

27. David Wheeler, “Placing Anna Seward: The ‘Genius of Place,’ Coalbrookdale, and ‘Colebrook Dale’.” XVIII: New Perspectives On The Eighteenth Century 5, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 35. Wheeler adds, “Seward’s infernal imagery, however, is not unique,” quoting from Comasco’s description in the Wolverhampton Chronicle and referencing Loutherbourg’s Coalbrookdale at Night, 39n.19.

28. Seward, “Colebrook Dale,” 2:316.

29. James Nasymth, James Nasmyth Engineer, an Autobiography, ed. Samuel Smiles, 1885 (rpt. London: John Murray, 1897), 163. Although Nasmyth presents a scathing critique of industry here, in 1836, he and a business partner opened the Bridgewater Foundry, resulting in a new fondness for Vulcan. When Nasmyth traveled to Italy around 1842, he describes a pilgrimage to Vesuvius: “On leaving this horrible pit edge, I tied the card of the Bridgewater Foundry to a bit of lava and threw it in, as token of respectful civility to Vulcan, the head of our craft” (263).

30. Polypheme, “The Cyclops. Addressed to the Birmingham Artisans,” Gentleman’s Magazine 8 (March 1738): 159, lines 1–2; 31–35.

31. James Bisset, “Ramble of the Gods through Birmingham. A Tale,” A poetic survey round Birmingham; with a brief description of the different curiosities and manufactories of the place. Intended as a guide to strangers…. Accompanied by a magnificent directory; with the names, professions, &c. superbly engraved in emblematic plates, ed. James Bisset ([Birmingham]: Printed for the author; by Swinney and Hawkins, [1800]), 34; 30.

32. Bisset, “Ramble,” 30n.5.

33. “Holiday at Soho Manufactory,” A Century of Birmingham Life, 2:148.

34. “Soho Foundry,” Chester Courant (9 February 1796): 3. Similar versions of this article appeared in the Birmingham Gazette and the Leeds Intelligencer.

35. Pat Munday, “Mining Cultures and Mary Cults: Where the Sacred and Profane Meet,” Technology and Culture 57, no. 1 (Jan. 2016): 3.

36. Munday, “Mining Cultures,” 5.

37. Rules for the Soho Manufactory Insurance Society (1792) as quoted in Val Loggie, “Picturing Soho: Images of Matthew Boulton’s Manufactory,” Matthew Boulton: Selling What All the World Desires, ed. Shena Mason (New Haven and London: Birmingham City Council and Yale Univ. Press, 2009), 26.

38. Loggie, “Picturing Soho,” 26.

39. J. Wedgwood to T. Bentley, 9 April 1773, V&A/Wedgwood Collection, MS No. E25–18455.

40. Robin Reilly, Wedgwood, 2 vols. (New York: Stockton Press, 1989), 2: 668 and 2: 673.

41. Æschylus, Prometheus in Chains, translated from the Greek by Thomas Morell (London: T. Longman, 1773), 15–16.

42. Æschylus, Prometheus, 16.

43. J. Wedgwood to John Wedgwood, 11 March, 1765; V&A/Wedgwood Collection, MS No. E25–18071.

44. Elissa Marder, “Pandora’s Fireworks; or, Questions Concerning Femininity, Technology, and the Limits of the Human,” Philosophy and Rhetoric 47, no. 4 (2014): 386.

45. J. Wedgwood to T. Bentley, 21 June 1773, V&A/Wedgwood Collection, MS No. E25–18474. I am grateful to Lucy Lead, archivist at the Wedgwood Archive, Barlaston, for bringing this passage to my attention.

46. Darwin, Letters, 40.

47. Anna Laetitia Barbauld, The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld, with a Memoir by Lucy Aikin, 2 vols. (London: Longman, 1825), 1:188–89.

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