Enterprising potter

Etruria Hall, Stoke-on-Trent

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) triumphed magnificently over adversity. 

He lost his father when he was nine, and at the age of eleven smallpox left him with a permanently weakened right knee so that he couldn’t become a thrower.  This did, however, enable him to explore the various skills of the pottery trade and gave him the freedom to question and experiment with established practices.

By the age of nineteen he had invented an improved green glaze, become a master-potter and leased a pottery in Burslem with his cousins, John and Thomas Wedgwood.

His business soon outgrew these facilities, largely because of his personal energy, his multiplicity of skills and his adventurousness both as a designer and a businessman. 

He was more prepared than any of his competitors to try new methods.  He insisted on a clean, tidy working environment and his products had a better finish and more shapely proportions – and, indeed, uniformity of size – compared with the rest of the market.

In 1765 he was appointed the Queen’s Potter, and contributed £500 towards new roads in the Potteries area, the first step in a lifelong campaign to gain secure, rapid transport facilities for his precious and fragile wares, which led to his association with the Trent & Mersey Canal, opened in 1777.

Two years later, with his second cousin Thomas, he acquired the site which became his Etruria Works, and the following year invited Thomas Bentley, a merchant with wide experience of the fashionable world, into the partnership.

Wedgwood was a member of the influential group of Midlands intellectuals known as the Lunar Society (because they met and exchanged ideas on the Monday nearest the full moon), including Dr Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819).

In 1764 he had married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood (1734-1815), and their eldest child, Susannah (1765-1817), married Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848), the son of Erasmus Darwin:  their son was the famous naturalist Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882), who in turn married his first cousin, Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896).

On May 28th 1768, Josiah Wedgwood had his right leg amputated, “foreseeing,” according to the Dictionary of National Biography, “that this useless and often painful member would prove a serious encumbrance in his enlarged sphere of work at Etruria”. 

Etruria Works was opened in June 1769, and by 1773 he had centralised all his operations there. 

The name Etruria refers to the kingdom of central Italy that preceded the Roman republic and connects Wedgwood’s designs with the Etruscans’ elegant pottery.  In fact, the antique pottery so much admired by Wedgwood’s clients ultimately proved to be Greek.

As befitted Wedgwood’s reputation for manufacturing beautiful ceramics, his works was tastefully designed by the Derby architect Joseph Pickford.  The central range, facing the canal, surmounted by a cupola containing a bell, was flanked by two roundhouses.  The northern roundhouse is the only surviving structure of the entire complex. 

By the mid-1760s he had, by shrewdly using recent developments in ceramic technology, perfected the first of a series of innovations – his cream-ware named, by permission, Queen’s Ware, which was followed by Egyptian Black (sometimes known as basalts, first sold in 1768), marble-ware and eventually his jasper-ware, which could be tinted in a variety of colours, of which the pale blue is more familiar than the alternatives dark blue, lilac, sage green, black and yellow, and pearlware, a form of creamware with a blue tint.

His exports included a dinner-service of of 952 pieces for the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, which cost over £2,000 after its decoration with 1,244 individual views of British landscapes and great houses.  Known as the Frog service from its enamel emblem, this unique commission was exhibited, with admission by ticket, at Wedgwood’s London showroom before dispatch in June 1774. 

The family residence, Etruria Hall (1768-71), was designed by Joseph Pickford.  It was screened from the works by a plantation, and because Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood’s family continued to increase two wings were added in 1780. 

The relationship between the works and the owner’s residence is reminiscent of Matthew Boulton’s Soho House in Birmingham and Sir Richard Arkwright’s Willersley Castle in Derbyshire. 

The Wedgwood family continued to occupy the Hall until 1819, and again from 1828 to 1842.  From 1848, it was associated with the nearby Shelton Ironworks until the 1980s, by which time it was used as offices by British Steel.

When the surrounding area was reclaimed for the 1986 Stoke National Garden Festival, the Hall was restored to its eighteenth-century appearance as the centrepiece of the site, and in the following years it was incorporated into a new hotel.

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