THE RADICAL POTTER: JOSIAH WEDGWOOD AND BRITAIN’S TRANSFORMATION
by means of Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane £25,352 pp)
You could hear him coming, with his cut bone. Josiah Wedgwood’s brisk gait was the sound of purpose and unquenchable curiosity: a man determined to cram as much into his life as possible and leave the world a better place, refusing to be stopped by the amputation caused by a traffic accident and aggravated by persistent childhood smallpox infections.
“In the miraculous way of providence,” wrote William Gladstone, “that illness probably gave rise to Wedgwood’s later excellence.”
Wedgwood, the 12th child of a Staffordshire pottery family who may have been potters for a lifetime, was unable to operate the potter’s wheel pedal due to his disability.
Tristram Hunt, V&A director, former Labor MP and shadow cabinet minister, has written a biography on Josiah Wedgwood (pictured)
As Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, former Labor MP and shadow cabinet minister, writes in this brilliant biography: ‘It sent his mind in; it drove him to meditate on the laws and secrets of his art.’
Not only did Wedgwood spend countless hours experimenting with different mixtures of clay to perfect his ceramic art, keeping coded notes in his Experiment Book; he also discovered an innate genius for business.
He was “the Steve Jobs of the 18th century,” some said, and that’s a good comparison. Both men, in their various ages, were above all eager to please their customers and knew that the best way to do this was to spark the consumer’s imagination.
Both men developed their products in secret and then released them with major public launches. The 1768 hype surrounding Wedgwood’s new Etruscan Collection vases was a precursor to the 2010 hype surrounding the iPad. Tell the audience what they want and need, and they will really want and need it.
If, like me, you’ve devoured AN Wilson’s charming 2012 novel about Josiah Wedgwood, The Potter’s Hand, you’ll love meeting him again in this delightful non-fiction account. The entrepreneurial genius on his feet, happily married to his third cousin Sally, squeezed every drop of pleasure and knowledge from life every day and night.
I don’t think he wasted half an hour: he was enthusiastic, grateful, positive, affectionate, loyal, effective, intellectually curious, and excited by scientific progress. Hunt vividly portrays the perseverance and patience with which Wedgwood worked for years to create the perfect recipe for the material we most remember him for, the signature lilac, blue, white, yellow and sea green of his Jasperware.
Though he couldn’t resist the temptation to congratulate his own anger and call himself Vase Maker General to the Universe, as rich as the coal seam that ignited the potteries, poured through him, a layer of real humanity.
Josiah Wedgwood spent years working on the perfect recipe for the material for the signature lilac, blue, white, yellow and sea green of his Jasperware (pictured)
‘Etruria’, built on his huge success with those copies of Etruscan vases, was his unique vision, consisting of a new ‘work’ with a village attached to it, communal bakehouses and pump rooms, as well as his own ‘handsome chair’, Etruria Hall , with landscaped gardens with 900 trees. There was even an organ for music and dance evenings. But that century, of course, reeked of the slave trade, and Hunt does not shy away from the question. Many of Wedgwood’s top clients had earned much of their disposable income from the slave trade. Harewood House, one of the illustrations for the beautiful 944-piece set he made for Catherine the Great, was built with money from 27,000 acres of sugar cane plantations worked by slaves. Wedgwood’s great friend Matthew Boulton made slave chains at his factory in Birmingham. It was rare in those days that a successful businessman was not up to his neck, directly or indirectly.
But please let’s not cancel Wedgwood. He became a staunch abolitionist. One of his most successful creations was his abolitionist medallion, depicting a half-kneeling chained slave with the words “Am I not a man and a brother?” around the edge. Hunt calls this “one of the most radical symbols in modern history.” It made it cool to be an abolitionist.
THE RADICAL POTTER: JOSIAH WEDGWOOD AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF GREAT BRITAIN by Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane £25, 352pp)
Hunt also doesn’t escape the fact that Wedgwood put production efficiency at the top of his agenda later in life, sometimes at the cost of his renowned kindness to the workers. A workaholic, he was driven mad by lazy workers. He couldn’t do nothing or tolerate his workers’ habit of not working on Mondays because they were so hungover from Sunday.
When cash flow faltered, he audited to find inefficiencies, then set up a ceramic production line that, as Hunt puts it, “consciously tried to take away the human dimension,” with each worker just a cog. in the wheel of production.
Was this ongoing initiative the first stage in the dehumanization of British factory life that would lead to the depravity of the Industrial Revolution?
Hunt tells us that for Marx and Engels, who wrote about it later, “this new type of industrialized production marked the first de-skill of the labor force,” leading to proletarianization. So, deeply human, yes, but also a smart, money-making businessman.
This carefully researched, comprehensive but never tedious book made me admire both Tristram Hunt and Josiah Wedgwood.
What’s more, when the Wedgwood Collection was about to be sold in 2013 by a ruthless and philistine private equity firm that was plucking the carcass of the collapsed firm of Waterford Wedgwood plc, Hunt, who was then a Member of Parliament for Stoke- on-Trent Central, successfully raised funds to preserve the collection for the nation forever.
We can now marvel at works made by the hand of the master himself when we visit the V&A in Barlaston near Stoke-on-Trent. I am gone!