wedgwood porcelain -- 3/29/22

Today's selection -- from The Radical Potter by Tristram Hunt. Along with Thomas Newcomen, Richard Arkwright and James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood is one of the giants of the early Industrial Revolution:

"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 [fine china and porcelain] 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 Barthelemy 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 (where generations of Staffordshire potters have been laid to rest) 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 W. E. 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.

Wedgwood Portland Vase, black jasperware, c. 1790, copying the Roman cameo glass original.

"But there is another dimension still: the history of Wedgwood's life, business and product range captures that fascinating epoch of British history when the forces of Empire and industry, Enlightenment and Romanticism, parliamentary sovereignty and social class start to shape an emergent national identity. Through the design and dissemin­ation of Wedgwood's pottery we can unpick the first traces of globalization and the shifting balance of power between East and West; the advance of modern capitalism, bringing with it industrial­ization, division of labour and mass-market advertising; the contours of British nationhood; and, through his readings of Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley and Benjamin Franklin, the struggle for liberal dem­ocracy. 'I know you will rejoice with me in the glorious revolution which has taken place in France. The politicians tell me that as a manufacturer I shall be ruined if France has her liberty, but I am will­ing to take my chance in that respect,' Wedgwood wrote to Erasmus Darwin in 1789, after the fall of the Bastille, with almost sans-culotte enthusiasm. 'A gentleman who has just come from his travels has been here a day or two, & he assures me that the same spirit of liberty is developing itself all over Germany, all over Europe.'

"Wedgwood's biography therefore is a history of the design and manufacture of vases and saucers, teapots and mantelpieces, but just as importantly an intellectual and cultural history of the 'long eight­eenth century' as it was embedded in those artefacts. It is an account of the material culture of Georgian Britain and of how a nation grew to understand itself in a global context -- with all the fears and won­ders of those new worlds placed alongside the saggars in the kiln. And at a moment when a new equilibrium between East and West is being warily negotiated, in which the strength of exports and claims of civ­ilization, represented through material culture, are very much part of this uneasy struggle, it offers a perspective on the ebbs and flows of global power.

"At the heart of it is, necessarily, the energetic, intellectually acquis­itive, driven and self-promoting character of Josiah Wedgwood, whose ambitions always encompassed so much more than just pits and pots. He wanted to 'astonish the world all at once, for I hate piddling you know'. There is the well-known figure of 'owd wooden leg', crash­ing through his Stoke potbank, smashing services not made to his exacting levels of perfection, driving competitors into bankruptcy and endlessly experimenting on clay samples, colour glazes and heat levels."



Tristram Hunt


The Radical Potter


Penguin Random House UK


Copyright Tristram Hunt, 2021


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