The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood by Tristram Hunt

During the 18th century, as the empire expanded and the economy boomed, Britons devoured tobacco, spices, coffee, sugar and tea on a grand scale. Samuel Johnson declared himself a “hardened and shameless tea drinker”, and he was not alone. Around 1700 the East India Company imported $18,500 worth of tea from China; by mid-century that sum was $1.3 million and rising.

“Taking tea” required a paraphernalia of pots, cups and saucers, the production of which China had long excelled at, producing translucent “porcelain” for export. British potters had advanced little beyond rough and ready earthenware, but Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) would change all that through ceaseless innovation, and surpass the Chinese in quality.

Tristram Hunt, in this brisk and highly readable biography, compares Wedgwood to Steve Jobs “in his interdisciplinary thinking, aesthetic control, production oversight and relentlessly experimental frame of mind”.

Hunt, the director of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, has a posh public demeanor that he — admirably — does little to disguise, but he is a historian of radicalism and he places Wedgwood in a dissenting tradition that goes back to the civil wars.

The mindset of this “radical potter” was characterised by an “innate scepticism about agreed truths” and a desire to see the divine in the “patterns and processes of the natural world”. It was this questioning curiosity that drove Wedgwood to turn the cottage industries of North Staffordshire into a global powerhouse.

Origin Story

Beneath the “uneventful terrain” of what is now Stoke-on-Trent — Hunt was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central — are beds of clay and seams of coal: the material and the power for a pottery industry.

Josiah was one of a long line of potters who after his father’s death became an apprentice to his elder brother; “the lowest round of the ladder”, as Josiah put it. His job was to prepare the clay, an activity he was to write about with “almost mystic reverence”.

Then tragedy struck the 12-year-old as smallpox swept through the Potteries in 1742. His right knee was damaged by infection, which meant that he could never operate the pedal of the potter’s wheel. But it would prove the “occasion of his subsequent excellence”, as an admiring WE Gladstone put it. Design, innovation and business became Wedgwood’s focus.

He found an open-minded boss in Thomas Whieldon and it was in his works that Wedgwood developed a range of colored glazes, an innovation typical, Hunt argues, of the “micro-inventions and skilled alterations” that characterised Britain’s industrial revolution. One of the results, illustrated in this book, is a cauliflower-shaped teapot, lurid in yellow and green, which proved popular.

By 1759 Wedgwood was in a position to set up on his own, “master and workman in one person”. Wedgwood the company was born and it remained in his family’s hands until it merged with Waterford Crystal in 1986.

Design, innovation and business became Wedgwood’s focus.

His enterprise was further boosted when this roundhead found his cavalier. Thomas Bentley, who was conversant with the classics and the Continent, was the salesman and fashionista to Wedgwood, the manufacturer. He also pioneered, with the help of the engineer James Brindley and aristocratic money, the inland navigation canals that brought, in the words of one contemporary politician, “fresh vigour” to “old manufactures”. Burton ales, Cheshire cheeses, Birmingham metalware, as well as Stoke ceramics, were among the beneficiaries.

Only Wedgwood’s wife, Sally, herself a trend spotter, rivalled Bentley in the potter’s affections and it was they who comforted him on the day in 1768 when his leg, peppered with abscesses and beyond rescue, was amputated. With an absence of self-pity, he referred to the anniversary as “Saint Amputation Day”; his workers knew him as “owd wooden leg”.

It was no hindrance to success. Bentley targeted aristocrats such as Countess Spencer to buy and therefore endorse the Wedgwood wares, but it was the summit of Britain’s hierarchy that was courted with especial fervor: George III and Queen Charlotte became alpha clients.

This was the gregarious era in London of Handel concerts, pleasure gardens and the coffee house, and if the potential of his business was to be fulfilled, Wedgwood needed an outlet in the capital. Bentley acquired a shop located between well-heeled Mayfair and artisanal Soho. They pioneered trademarks and the production of illustrated catalogues. Centuries before Apple, Wedgwood protected his brand: “Low prices must beget a low quality in the manufacture,” he wrote, “which will beget contempt, neglect, & disuse, and there is an end of trade.”

During the 1770s, prompted by Bentley, Wedgwood’s designs moved towards a more refined neoclassicism, influenced by the collection of the ambassador to Naples, William Hamilton. Wedgwood created Etruria, named after these neoclassical “Etruscan” creations, a paternalist industrial community in the Potteries.

There another Wedgwood emerged, obsessed by an ideal of “constant employment”, where workers were kept in line, as the Marxist historian EP Thompson noted, by “the time sheet, the time-keeper, the informers and the fine”.

George III and Queen Charlotte became alpha Wedgwood clients.

Wedgwood, the radical potter, was a mass of contradictions. A supporter of free trade, he argued for restrictions on Chinese porcelain and Irish ceramics. A supporter of the French Revolution, he was happy to furnish the despotic Catherine the Great with the Frog Service, a 944-piece dinner set, each marked with a green amphibian, that presented a panorama of Britain to the Anglophile empress.

His opposition to the slave trade, the sin behind Britain’s ascent, was sincere and sustained, although Hunt makes a charge of hypocrisy. Wedgwood had exported his goods to the plantations of the West Indies and supplied the traders of Liverpool and Bristol with their sugar bowls. The verse of the evangelical poet William Cowper must have stung his conscience: “Think how many backs have smarted, for the sweets your cane affords.” Wedgwood was convinced of the evils of the Atlantic trade and sought its end, “even if our commerce was likely to suffer”.

Wedgwood befriended the campaigner Olaudah Equiano, the author of The Interesting Narrative (1789), a memoir of his time as a slave. He held shares in the Sierra Leone Company for the creation of a colony for freed slaves in West Africa. And he provided the abolitionist movement with its defining symbol: producing Henry Webber’s relief of a chained male slave, half-kneeling in profile, with the inscription: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” It is an image, Hunt points out, that for all its good intentions is “entirely generic”, the figure “helpless, unthreatening and submissive”, his liberation to be “appropriated as another chapter in England’s glorious progress of ever advancing liberty”.

Despite his political engagement, Wedgwood remained a potter to the end, developing jasperware, the culmination of his ceaseless experimentation and his enduring legacy. These dextrous, austere designs of blue and white were perfected by John Flaxman, whom Wedgwood had talent-spotted. Wedgwood regarded his Jony Ive as the “first artist of the age”.

A supporter of the French Revolution, Wedgwood was happy to furnish the despotic Catherine the Great with the Frog Service, a 944-piece dinner set.

Wedgwood bowed out professionally in 1789 with the exquisite Portland Vase, just 10in by 7in, a copy of an ancient classical masterpiece, but very much his own creation: the “apex of his calling as a potter”. But its mythological scenes dealt with the transience of life, and little more than five years later Wedgwood succumbed to an agonising death as cancer of the jaw spread.

In 1863 Gladstone, who was obsessed with him, would eulogize the man “who found his country dependent upon others for its supplies of all the finer earthenware, but who, by his single strength, reversed the inclination of the scales”. It is a timely tale.

Paul Lay is the editor of History Today