Master Potter Wedgwood Wows the World

Josiah Wedgwood and a collection of the beautiful, sought-after pottery that he created
Josiah Wedgwood and a collection of the beautiful, sought-after pottery that he created

by Ray Setterfield


January 3, 1795 — When Josiah Wedgwood died on this day he left a thriving business and a fortune to his children. That’s because the pottery that he created was sought after across the world not only in palaces but also in humble homes.

It was also because Wedgwood stood out as a potter of genius, a remarkable businessman and extraordinarily innovative salesman.

Techniques often used today — direct mail, money-back guarantees, travelling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one, get one free, illustrated catalogues — all came from Josiah Wedgwood.

Born in 1730, he was the youngest of Mary and Thomas Wedgwood’s twelve children. Thomas was a potter, as had been members of the family since the 17th century. It was Josiah's great-grandfather who started the family pottery business in 1656.

Early setbacks proved to be the making of Josiah. At the age of nine his father died and he had to abandon his formal school education to work in the family business.

He soon became an expert operator of the potter’s wheel, but contracted smallpox which caused a knee infection. It meant he was unable to work the wheel’s foot pedal.

Later in life the condition became so painful that Josiah had his right leg amputated just below the knee. At a time when there were no anaesthetics or even antiseptics, this was a brave decision by the budding entrepreneur, who obviously remained lame for the rest of his days.

But his enforced physical inactivity had given him the time him to read, research, and experiment in the craft of pottery.

As well as turning his attention to design, he set himself the task of producing a perfect glazed white body. Working tirelessly and refusing to be beaten, he finally succeeded after more than 400 experiments.

According to the Wedgwood website: “His interest in the properties of clays meant samples were sent to him from all over the world: Cherokee clay from America, Chinese kaolin and other rock from Canton, specimens from Australia, and others collected in the British Isles.”

His Jasperware, usually described as stoneware, has an unglazed matte "biscuit" finish and is produced in a number of different colours, of which the most common and best known is a pale blue that has become known as Wedgwood Blue.

After a time Josiah formed a partnership with Thomas Bentley, a former Liverpool merchant, and almost bursting with enthusiasm, Wedgwood wrote to him about his secret experiments:

"I am still going on with with my tryals, & want much to shew you some of them, but I can neither send them in a letter, nor say so much about them to you as I could like, for Letters are liable to Accidents and therefore I must, though brim full, contain myself ’til I see you.”

The Wedgwood website goes on to give an insight into this remarkable man’s industry and determination: “Alongside these clay and mineral samples, Josiah's workbench would have held the objects which inspired him: antique vases and busts, waxes taken from ancient reliefs, half-finished pots, casts, biscuit ware and trial pieces.

“Josiah was indefatigable, developing new ceramic bodies, enlarging his factory, experimenting, expanding trade and nurturing his family. The letters he wrote, and the recording of his trials, experiments and ceramic work, was necessarily done, by candlelight, late at night or before dawn.”

In the end it all paid off. “Wedgwood’s enduring appeal among the world's royal families and heads of state began with Queen Charlotte [the wife of King George III], who ordered a set of cream-coloured earthernware. It pleased her so much that Josiah Wedgwood was granted permission to style himself 'Potter to Her Majesty' and call his innovative cream ware 'Queen's Ware’."

A few years later the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia ordered a service in Queen's Ware for 50 people. It consisted of 952 hand-painted pieces of gardens, English scenery and stately homes and is on display today in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

While such expensive pottery was in much demand in high circles, Josiah made copies so that cheaper sets could be marketed to the rest of society. Before Catherine’s order was dispatched, for example, canny Josiah exhibited it in his showroom and, naturally, duplicate pieces were available for visitors to purchase.

Wedgwood was used on the banqueting tables at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and a 1,282 piece dinner service graced President Roosevelt’s White House.

The success of his pottery enabled Josiah Wedgwood to build a new factory in 1768 equipped with tools and ovens of his own design which would allow mass production.

A philanthropist, Josiah built a village called Etruria for his workers next to the factory and improved roads, canals, schools and general living conditions. He named the complex after the Italian district of Etruria, home of the Etruscan people who were renowned for artistic products. The Wedgwood factory is now in Barlaston, a village about six miles to the south of the disused Etruria site.

* When Thomas Bentley died in 1780 Wedgwood turned to a friend, Erasmus Darwin, for help in running the business.

Darwin's son would later marry Josiah’s daughter Susannah, and they would become the parents of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution. Eventually, Charles would himself, in turn, marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood.

Published: December 27, 2019

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