A fine example of the very rare Sydney Cove Medallion in its original issue.

"Etruria" Josiah Wedgwood, 1789.

Clay medallion, 57 mm diameter, 2 mm depth; modelled from dark brown unglazed earthenware, with crisply moulded decoration.

The first European artefact to be made from Australian materials. Josiah Wedgwood celebrates the settlement of New South Wales in clay sent back to Joseph Banks by Governor Phillip.

An exceptional survival of an object of great importance: Wedgwood's highly important first casting of Botany Bay clay, in the form of a medallion celebrating art and summoning hope for the future of the new colony while commemorating its beginnings in Sydney Cove.

An exceptional survival of an object of great importance: Wedgwood's highly important first casting of Botany Bay clay, in the form of a medallion celebrating art and summoning hope for the future of the new colony while commemorating its beginnings in Sydney Cove.

Of all historical relics, it is the Sydney Cove Medallion that is most emblematic of the beginnings of European settlement in Australia immediately following the voyage of the First Fleet under the colony's first governor, Arthur Phillip.

The beautiful design commissioned by Josiah Wedgwood from Henry Webber shows, on the obverse, in moulded decoration, the figure of Hope, wearing classical robes and standing on rocks before an anchor, on the shores of a bay with a ship in the distance. She extends her right hand to Peace, Art and Labour; Peace holds an olive branch in her right hand with a horn of plenty at her feet; Art holds a palette; the bearded figure of Labour wears a loin cloth and holds a sledgehammer over his shoulder; the imprint 'ETRURIA / 1789' appears below the scene in raised letters. The reverse side has the impressed legend in classical lettering 'MADE BY / IOSIAH WEDGWOOD / OF CLAY / FROM / SYDNEY COVE'. It was made at Wedgwood's Etruria factory in 1789 from Webber's design by Wedgwood's principal modeller, William Hackwood. The original medallions range in colour from pale biscuit to a dark brown, almost black colour, as represented by the example being offered.

Exhibiting a fineness of detail made possible by the unique qualities of the Sydney Cove clay, the medallion is a superb embodiment of the ingenuity of one of 18th-century Britain's leading industrialists and can be considered as the first work of art connected to the fledging colony. It also represents the colony's earliest export and application of raw materials, which would become a lynchpin of the state's modern economy.

Its contemporary significance was well understood: indeed, it was immediately reproduced as an engraving on the title page of the 1789 Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, the first official account of the new colony to be published. A full-page "Account of the Vignette" explains that 'The elegant vignette in the title-page, was engraved from a medallion which the ingenious Mr. Wedgewood caused to be modelled from a small piece of clay brought from Sydney Cove. The clay proves to be of a fine texture, and will be found very useful for the manufacture of earthern ware. The design is allegorical; it represents Hope encouraging Art and Labour, under the influences of Peace, to pursue the employments necessary to give security and happiness to an infant colony…". On the facing page is a 26-line poem written in its honour by Erasmus Darwin (Charles Darwin's grandfather) "Visit of Hope to Sydney-Cove near Botany Bay", in which he dramatises Wedgwood's emblematic scene with Hope accompanied by Peace Art and Labour.

From raw material to manufacture

In 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip had become the first governor of New South Wales, commissioned by George III to create a penal colony, as a way of dealing with the overcrowding in British prisons and prison ships. Eleven ships – the "First Fleet" – carrying over a thousand people, 850 of them convicts, finally came to anchor at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. We may now often think of the period of first settlement as a rough and unruly time. Yet back in London, a time of remarkable enlightenment, there was energy, hope and excitement for the future of this English settlement on distant shores.

Sir Joseph Banks and Josiah Wedgwood were close friends, and both members of the Royal Society. Arthur Phillip was in regular correspondence with Banks, this forming one of the close-knit circles of learned and influential people (so often centred on Banks) that characterised this imaginative and creative period.

In November of 1788 Phillip wrote to Banks to advise him that he had found minerals and white clay in the area, and sent samples to Banks which he passed on to scientists, sending the clay directly to Wedgwood for the industrialist to investigate its potential for ceramic production. Wedgwood was impressed with its qualities, eventually manufacturing two batches of medallions which he sent back to Banks, noting with the first batch that he sent on 12 March 1789 that 'Of the species of ware which may be produced from [Sydney Cove clay], you will have some idea from the medallions I have sent for your inspection".

As noted above, when John Stockdale published The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay in July 1789, he placed an engraving of the Sydney Cove Medallion on the title-page and devoted two introductory pages of the book to signalling its importance.

Medallions from the first batch were earmarked for despatch to Sydney Cove, for the attention of Governor Phillip, to be distributed at his discretion; they left for the colony on the 'Second Fleet' which finally departed England in January 1790. By the end of 1789, a second batch of medallions had been completed. Wedgwood's friend, the physician and poet Erasmus Darwin, the recipient of one, wrote to Wedgwood: "I have received great pleasure from your excellent medallion of Hope. The figures are all finely beautiful and speak for themselves" (quoted by L. Richard Smith).

Significance to the colony

There was great interest at the time of first European settlement in the commercial and trading possibilities that might accompany the success of the new colony, and especially in the contribution that raw materials and fledgling industry might make to a self-sustaining state.

Josiah Wedgwood wrote to Banks when he delivered the first examples of his work in mid-March 1789 that "I have the pleasure of acquainting you, that the clay from Sydney Cove, which you did me the honour of submitting to my examination, is an excellent material for pottery, and may certainly be made the basis of a valuable manufacture for our infant colony there. Of the species of ware which may be produced from it, you will have some idea from the medallions I have sent for your inspection" (quoted by Robin Reilly).

A month later, on 15 April, Wedgwood presented his findings to the Royal Society of London, noting that the so-called "Terra Australis", "Sydneia" or "Austral Sand", represented a pure species of plumbago, or black-lead, a new genus previously unrecorded. Scientific interest in the clay persisted into the next century.

Emma Butler-Nixon has written that Britain's colonial hopes for New South Wales were quickly tied to Sydney clay, with its potential for pottery manufacture which was seen to offer both industry and a "civilising" influence. The clay was later used not only in the manufacture of ceramic ware, but also in the production of bricks and roofing tiles by early settlers. She also notes of the emblematic design that 'From her elevated position, it is Hope who stands steadfast. Her outstretched arm and anchor at her feet symbolise noble and prophetic wisdom, which was seen to be irrefutably bound with British colonial arrival. To the left of Hope, a ship heralds the new land's discovery and the possibility of trade, and to the right of Labour, settler houses and possibly a church beckon future social and industrial development…'.


It is unknown how many medallions of the original issue were produced. As they would have taken considerable time and skill to make, Richard Smith has suggested that "Wedgwood would have made no more than was necessary for the publicity value. One for Erasmus Darwin; a few for Sir Joseph Banks as President of the Royal Society for his own distribution; perhaps fifteen or twenty for Governor Phillip's distribution. The total production may have been somewhere around two dozen, probably no more."

The whereabouts of twelve other original issue medallions is known to us today. Three are in UK museums (British Museum, Lady Lever Art Gallery, and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent), while the other nine are in Australian collections (National Museum of Australia, Sydney Living Museums Corporation, an eminent private collection, and altogether five examples in the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales).


Provenance: Private collection in UK (owner speculated on a connection with Alexander Turnbull, the New Zealand collector, but no evidence adduced for this to date).

Robin Reilly, Wedgwood, Stockton Press, 1989, vol. 1, p. 127 and passim;. (Emma Butler-Nixon). L. Richard Smith, The Sydney Cove Medallion, Wedgwood Press, Sydney, Third Edition, 1987, p.6

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