Wedgwood at 260: The man and his company that changed the face of British ceramics

  • Wed,12 Jun 2019 09:32:45 AM

You need only visit Stoke’s football ground to see the importance of ceramics to the city. The team is nicknamed ‘the Potters’, their stadium ‘the Potteries’, and their local rivalry with Port Vale is known as ‘the Potteries derby’.

A host of different people and companies have contributed to making Stoke a Mecca for potters. But it is one Josiah Wedgwood whose statue greets you when you arrive by train – the founding father of the eponymous company, which turns 260 this year.

A very English potter
Even now, the spectral figure of Josiah Wedgwood looms large over the company he founded. A man of prodigious talent and boundless charisma, he would reportedly stalk the factory floor smashing items that did not meet his high standards, with the line “this will not do for Josiah Wedgwood!”

Josiah Wedgwood, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds (Wedgwood/PA)

His strength of character came, as it so often does, from adversity. The third generation of potters in his family, he was born in 1730, the youngest of 12 children. He walked six miles a day to attend school, but still did not receive the classical education expected of a gentleman.

He was struck by a severe case of smallpox as a teenager that permanently damaged his right knee, destroying his ability to use the potter’s wheel – and so he turned his attention to mastering the scientific and economic aspects of his trade.

In the family
Wedgwood entered work with a seven-year apprenticeship in the family business, and his clan would quietly go on to become one of the most significant in the land.

His eldest son, John Wedgwood, co-founded the Royal Horticultural Society, while youngest son Tom became the first to fix photographic images.

The Duke of York inspecting pottery
Th Duke of York inspects some pottery during a visit to Stoke-on-Trent (Credit/PA)

Eldest daughter Suzannah married the third son of Erasmus Darwin, becoming the mother of Charles Darwin. (Darwin then complicated the situation by marrying his cousin Emma Wedgwood, daughter of Josiah II – we’ll leave you to work out the family tree.)

Josiah’s background made him a potter, but it was his first employer, Thomas Whieldon, that inspired him to become something more. “If Josiah was the father of English potters,” says Gaye Blake-Roberts, curator of The Wedgwood Museum, “then Thomas Whieldon was the grandfather. He made Josiah a partner at age 24, and taught him how to run a factory and manage a workforce.”

Engine turning at Wedgwood
Engine turning at the today’s Barleston factory (Wedgwood/PA)

“Perhaps more importantly, Whieldon was probably the first potter in Staffordshire to provide housing for his workforce, which Wedgwood emulated.” When Josiah, already an ardent abolitionist, opened his hallmark factory in Etruria, he constructed 42 houses for his workers, including bakehouses, and even a pub.

A scientist and a salesman
There was no Companies House or National Insurance in those days, so when Wedgwood set up shop he simply leased a factory from his uncles and started potting. Over the following years, he would develop into a master craftsman, a pioneering businessman, and one the first genuine tycoons.

His success was rooted in technological advancement, and a scientific understanding of his materials. “His invention of jasper was a pivotal moment,” says Blake-Roberts, “a stoneware material that would take mineral oxide throughout its body. That meant you could add cobalt for blue, copper oxide for green, manganese for black… It was used in furniture, ornamentation, and for tea sets. Say Wedgwood anywhere in the world, and it’s blue and white jasper they think of.”

Jasper trials
Josiah’s jasper trials from the 1770s (Wedgwood/PA)

His unique glazes got him off the ground, but it was canny branding that sent him into the stratosphere. He pioneered modern marketing methods such as the ‘travelling salesman’ and the ‘money-back guarantee’, and seized on every opportunity for self-promotion.

When the royal household put out an open invitation for Staffordshire potters to make a tea set for Queen Charlotte, Wedgwood pounced, promptly styling the set “the Queen’s Wares”, and himself, “Potter to Her Majesty”. When he created something new – jasper, green glaze, black basalt – he would initially show only a select few, fashioning a veneer of exclusivity.

Thomas Bentley
Thomas Bentley, painted by JF Rigaud (Wedgwood/PA)

No less important was his business partner, Thomas Bentley. “Bentley was everything Wedgwood wasn’t,” says Blake-Roberts. “He was a merchant with a classical education, who’d trained in Manchester and opened his own warehouse in Liverpool. It was Bentley who was accepted at court, who knew the architects of his day, and could introduce Wedgwood to this different sphere.”

The pair originally met by accident: When Wedgwood was travelling to Liverpool to organise overseas trade, he fell from his horse and damaged his already mutilated knee. He was introduced to Bentley by his surgeon, and the two became fast friends.

A ceramic legacy
Wedgwood’s legacy lies mostly in his methods, but he also produced specific pieces that have more than stood the test of time.

Perhaps his greatest technical achievement was his meticulously-crafted copy of the Portland Vase – an Alexandrian masterpiece dating from 1st century AD. Wedgwood spent four years painstakingly recreating the antique with his own black and white stoneware.

Portland Vase copy
Wedgwood’s copy of the Portland Vase (Wedgwood/PA)

It was, says Blake-Roberts, “considered to be the pinnacle of ceramic excellence at the time”. Wedgwood cashed in on the hype with an exclusive private view, a public show in London, and then a mini-tour of Europe. The original piece made it’s way to the British Museum, but was then smashed by a drunk Irishman in 1845.

If the Portland Vase was his Mona Lisa, the Frog Service was Wedgwood’s Water Lilies – a sprawling set that, when first shown in public, filled five rooms. It was commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia, an Anglophile with a deep interest in European decorative arts – the second of two Wedgwood services commissioned by the Empress.

Frog Service
A piece from Catherine the Great’s Frog Service (Wedgwood/PA)

“She wanted a dinner and dessert service for 50 people that comprised 952 pieces, hand-painted with 1,244 English country scenes,” says Blake-Roberts. Over 800 of the pieces survive, now housed in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.

A changing landscape
Josiah Wedgwood died in 1795 aged 64, and a long line of Wedgwoods – many also named Josiah – followed him.

The ceramics industry is known for its ups and downs, and the mid-19th century marked a nadir. “The second generation had been brought up as gentlemen and didn’t really want to be involved in industry,” says Blake-Roberts. “In 1844, the factory was actually put up for sale. Thankfully for the company history, the family pulled it back.”

The Second World War brought more intrigue for the Wedgwoods. Josiah Wedgwood V purchased an estate at Barlaston and built the first all-electric ceramics factory. Unfortunately he started building in 1938 – not the most auspicious time for a grand debut.

Elizabeth II visits Barleston
Queen Elizabeth II on a visit to the Barlaston factory (PA)

“They ran Barlaston and Etruria through the 1940s,” says Blake-Roberts, “doing decorated works for the American market, plain-ware for prisoner of war camps and the army, and ceramic parts of aircraft engines.”

As the 20th century wore on, fortunes began to fade, as big beasts like IKEA moved in and dining trends shifted away from the formal. The company was acquired by Waterford Glass in 1986, which in turn acquired historic china-maker Royal Doulton in 2005. In 2015, the Waterford Wedgwood conglomerate was bought by Finnish consumer goods company Fiskars.

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