Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795)
Wedgwood was an innovative designer, a manufacturer of high-quality pottery and a campaigner for social reform.
Josiah Wedgwood was born into a family of potters on 12 July 1730, at Burslem, Staffordshire. His father’s death in 1739 led him to an early start working as a ‘thrower’ in the pottery of his eldest brother, Thomas, to whom he was later apprenticed. An attack of smallpox seriously weakened Josiah, and in 1768 he had to have his right leg amputated. This meant he was forced to abandon throwing, but he subsequently gained a wider insight into the potter’s craft – for example the work of the ‘modeller’ – and this encouraged his love of experimentation.
Thomas refused Josiah a partnership in the business, so the younger man moved first to a small pottery run by John Harrison, then more happily to the firm of Thomas Wheildon of Fenton. From there, he opened works of his own, first at his cousin’s Ivy House and later at the Brick House factory. At these works, Wedgwood made many models himself, and also prepared clay mixes. In June 1769, he opened a new factory at Etruria, near Stoke-on-Trent, in partnership with Thomas Bentley. Attached to the factory was a village where Wedgwood’s workmen and their families could live in decent surroundings.
Wedgwood greatly improved the clumsy ordinary crockery of the day, introducing durable, simple and regular wares. His cream coloured earthenware was christened ‘Queen’s Ware’ after Queen Charlotte, who appointed him queen’s potter in 1762. Other eminent patrons included Empress Catherine II of Russia, who ordered 952 such pieces in 1774.
Wedgwood experimented with barium sulphate (caulk), and from it produced jasper, in 1773. Jasperware, which is used for a whole host of ornaments, blends metallic oxides, often blue, with separately moulded reliefs, generally white. Some such reliefs were designed for Wedgwood by John Flaxman. Other wares included black basaltes, frequently enhanced by ‘encaustic’ colours like red, to imitate Greek vases.
Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1783, primarily for inventing the pyrometer to measure oven temperatures. He took a keen interest, too, in efficient factory organisation, and in improving the transport of raw materials and finished wares by canals, such as the Grand Trunk Canal, and by road.
In 1780, when Wedgwood’s long-term business partner died, he asked his friend Erasmus Darwin for help. Darwin’s son would later marry Wedgwood’s daughter, and they were the parents of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated the theory of evolution. Charles would himself, in turn, marry a Wedgwood.
When Wedgwood died on 3rd January 1795 he left a thriving business and a fortune to his children.