Historian Tristram Hunt introduces Josiah Wedgwood, the subject of his new book
From the Court of Peking to the clays of Sydney, from the dining rooms of Hampshire to the libraries of Lausanne, a trail of Wedgwood can chart the eighteenth-century emergence of global trade, colonization of new lands, advent of the novel and birth of modern historical writing.
Out of the narrow vale of North Staffordshire, the Potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, came the giant figure of Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95) – a scientist and businessman, artist and marketeer, radical and industrialist, whose material impact would be felt right across the globe.
“Its excellent workmanship; its solidity; the advantage which it possesses of standing the action of fire; its fine glaze, impenetrable to acids; the beauty, convenience, and variety of its forms, and its moderate price, have created a commerce so active, and so universal that in travelling from Paris to St Petersburg, from Amsterdam to the furthest point of Sweden, from Dunkirk to the southern extremity of France, one is served at every inn from English earthenware,” wrote the French travel writer Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond in 1784. “The same article adorns the tables of Spain, Portugal, and Italy; it provides the cargoes of ships to the East Indies, the West Indies and America.”
When the British mineralogist John Mawe travelled to “so remote a place” as Tijuco, Brazil in the early 1800s, he found “our tables were daily covered with a profusion of excellent viande, served up on fine Wedgwood ware, and the state of their households generally corresponded with this essential part of it.”
The epitaph which adorns Wedgwood’s memorial on the walls of Stoke Minster declares that his achievement was to convert “a rude and inconsiderable manufacture into an elegant art, and an important branch of national commerce […] His mind was inventive and original. His character was decisive and commanding, without rashness or arrogance.”
The great nineteenth-century liberal Prime Minister and mercantile scion WE Gladstone put it this way: “Wedgwood was the greatest man who ever, in any age, or in any country […] applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry.”
Wedgwood’s marriage of technology and design, retail precision and manufacturing efficiency, transformed forever the production of pottery, and ushered in a mass consumer society. With Thomas Newcomen, Richard Arkwright and James Watt he was one of the founding figures of the Industrial Revolution.
Wedgwood is a defining figure of his age in a similar way, perhaps, to that of Steve Jobs in the twenty-first-century digital era. Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of the Apple genius recounts how it was Jobs’s “passion for perfection and ferocious drive” that revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing.
For Isaacson, “Jobs stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation. He knew that the best way to create value in the twenty-first century was to connect creativity with technology, so he built a company where leaps of the imagination were combined with remarkable feats of engineering.”
The same could be said of Josiah Wedgwood in his interdisciplinary thinking, aesthetic control, production oversight and relentlessly experimental frame of mind.
That is why, even at a distance of some 250 years, Wedgwood’s vision and passion, technical ingenuity and business acumen, speak excitingly to us today.
Extract from The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt (Allen Lane, £25). Buy a copy here.
Tristram Hunt is a special guest on A Drink with the Idler on Thursday 23 September. Register here – it’s free for subscribers.