Josiah Wedgwood

By Robert Chambers

This is an excerpt from Chambers’ work The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character, Volume 2. (1864). This book and its excerpt are in the public domain. We have added some annotations, links, and images and performed some slight editing.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). Portrait by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Died on this day, January 3, 1795: Josiah Wedgwood.

Josiah Wedgwood, celebrated for his valuable improvements in the manufacture of earthenware, was born July 12th 1730, at Burslem, in Staffordshire, where his father and others of the family had for many years been employed in the potteries. At the early age of eleven years, his father being then dead, he worked as a thrower in a pottery belonging to his elder brother; and he continued to be thus employed till disease in his right leg compelled him to relinquish the potter’s wheel and ultimately to have the limb cut off below the knee. [1]

He then began to occupy himself in making imitations of agates, jaspers, and other coloured stones, by combining metallic oxides with different clays, which he formed into knife-handles, small boxes, and ornaments for the mantelpiece. After various movements in business, he finally settled in a pottery of his own, at Burslem, where he continued for a time to make the small ornamental articles which had first brought him into notice, but by degrees began to manufacture fine earthenware for the table. He was successful, and took a second manufactory, where he made white stoneware; and then a third, where he produced a delicate cream-coloured ware, of which he presented some articles to Queen Charlotte [2], who was so well pleased with them and with a complete service which he executed by order, that she appointed him her potter.

Left to Right, Top to Bottom: (1) Am I Not a Man and a Brother antislavery medallion ca. 1786, (2) Medallion of the Marquis de Lafayette ca. 1770-1800, (3) Blue and White Jasperware Scent Bottle, late 18th century, (4) Wedgwood and Bentley Agateware Vase with Cover ca. 1770 (Images: Wikimedia (1), Metropolitan Museum of Art (2-4)

The new kind of earthenware, under the name of Queen’s Ware, became fashionable, and orders from the nobility and gentry flowed in upon him. He took into partnership Mr. Bentley, son of the celebrated Dr. Bentley, and opened a warehouse in London, where the goods were exhibited and sold. Mr. Bentley, who was a man of learning and taste, and had a large circle of acquaintance among men of rank and science, superintended the business in the metropolis. Wedgwood’s operations in earthenware and stoneware included the production of various articles of ornament for the cabinet, the drawing-room, and the boudoir. To facilitate the conveyance of his goods, as well as of materials required for the manufacture, he contributed a large sum towards the formation of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which was completed in 1770. On the bank of this canal, while it was in progress, he erected, near Stoke, a large manufactory and a handsome mansion for his own residence, and there he built the village of Etruria, consisting chiefly of the habitations of his workmen. He died there on the 3rd of January 1795, in the 65th year of his age. He was married, and had several children. [3]

To Wedgwood originally, and to him almost exclusively during a period of more than thirty years, Great Britain was indebted for the rapid improvement and vast extension of the earthen-ware manufacture. During the early part of his life England produced only brown pottery and common articles of white earthenware for domestic use. The finer wares for the opulent classes of society, as well as porcelain, were imported from Holland, Germany, and France. He did not extend his operations to the manufacture of porcelain—the kaolin, or China clay, not having been discovered in Cornwall till he was far advanced in life; but his earthenware were of such excellence in quality, in form, and in beauty of ornamentation, as in a great degree to supersede the foreign china-wares, not only in this country, but in the markets of the civilized world. 

Wedgwood’s success was the result of experiments and trials, conducted with persevering industry on scientific principles. He studied the chemistry of the aluminous, silicious, and alkaline earths, colouring substances, and glazes, which he employed. He engaged the most skilful artisans and artists, and superintended assiduously the operations of the work-shop and the kiln. In order to ascertain and regulate the heat of his furnaces, he invented a pyrometer, by which the higher degrees of temperature might he accurately measured: it consisted of small cylinders of pure white clay, with an apparatus which showed the degrees of diminution in length which the cylinders underwent from the action of the fire. [4] Besides the manufacture of the superior kinds of earthenware for the table and domestic purposes, he produced a great variety of works of fine art, such as imitations of cameos, intaglios, and other antique gems, vases, urns, busts, medallions, and other objects of curiosity and beauty. His imitations of the Etruscan vases gained him great celebrity, and were purchased largely. He also executed fifty copies of the Portland vase, which were sold for fifty guineas each [5].

(Left): The Portland Vase, Roman, ca. 25 BCE – 25 CE. (Image: Wikimedia Commons). (Right): One of the Wedgwood copies of The Portland Vase, British, Wedgwood & Sons, ca. 1790. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Notes:

This excerpt was adapted from the very excellent Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable Chambers’ Book of Days. (Here)

  1. Wedgwood suffered from smallpox when he was young, resulting in pain and lameness in his right leg. It is thought that this injury resulted in an infection known as Brodie’s Abscess. It was thought that this infection posed a risk to his life so in May 1768, Wedgwood went through a surgery for amputation without anesthetic or antiseptic. He had a wooden leg made for him by a Mr. Addison of Longacre. (Source)

2. Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818), queen consort of King George III.

3. Married Sarah (called Sally). Their children: Susannah (married Robert Darwin), John, Richard, Josiah, Thomas, Catherine, Sarah, and Mary Anne.

4. Josiah Wedgwood was also a member of The Royal Society.

5. Fifty guineas in 1790 is approximately $8,633.76 today. (If you can find an original for that price, buy it. Let’s just say that it would sell for a little bit more now.)

6. Wedgwood’s business became Josiah Wedgwood and Sons. Wedgwood and Sons merged with Ireland’s Waterford Crystal in 1987. In 2009, with Royal Doulton China, Wedgwood and Waterford became WWRD Holdings Ltd, which has been owned by Fiskars since 2015. (Ticker symbol FSKRS, Market price as of 12/31/20: $18.95/share).

See Also:

Fiskars.com

Wedgwood.com

Wedgwood Museum

World of Wedgwood, Victoria and Albert Museum

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