Josiah Wedgwood was in English potter, whose work has come to be regarded as among the finest examples of Staffordshire ceramic art. Although famous for the blue and white pottery (Jasperware) which bears his name, for Wedgwood, getting to that stage was a struggle of health and family.
Wedgwood was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, on July 12, 1730, into a family noted for its long tradition of pottery. Josiah was the youngest of 12 children born to Thomas and Mary Wedgwood (Stringer). In 1739, at the age of nine, after the death of his father, he went to work in his father's pottery works at Churchyard Works, Burslem, where he became exceptionally skilled at the potters wheel.
After 5 years working as a 'thrower' Josiah was apprenticed to his eldest brother, Thomas. Little did anyone know at that stage, Josiah Wedgwood was destined to become the innovative designer, shrewd businessman and manufacturer of pottery to the world that we know today.
An attack of smallpox affected his physical mobility, and later this was serious enough to necessitate having his right leg amputated. This meant that he could no longer perform the tasks for which he had been trained, being unable to work the foot pedals of the potter's wheel. This enabled him to spend his time researching, experimenting and developing his knowledge of the technical processes involved in the ceramics industry.
In 1749, Thomas refused his proposal to become a partner in the business, so Wedgwood briefly went to work with John Harrison, another Staffordshire potter. Shortly after (1754), Wedgwood went into business with Thomas Whieldon of Little Fenton, probably the leading potter of his day. Destined to become a major force in the industry, here Wedgwood invented various mottled glazes and further improved the green and yellow glazes, used on tureens and other wares, which are still popular among collectors. This partnership enabled Wedgwood to complete his studies and expertise, to become a Master Potter.
Within five years, Wedgwood had opened a works of his own at the Ivy House factory in Burslem (1759). He attempted to produce high quality products and also increase productivity by redistributing his work force into specialist tasks. Perhaps, the first production line as we would recognise it today.
Wedgwood's first major success came (around 1760) with the production of "Creamware", a lightweight, easily worked and decorated, lead-glazed, cream coloured earthenware. By the late 18th Century, helped along by numerous copies and an affordable price, a product of quantity, creamware became the staple earthenware body, superseding delftware and saltglaze.
Shortly after, Wedgwood met the Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley. This partnership would be the making of Wedgwood, who now used Bentley's expertise to develop a major export industry.
As with all great innovations, Wedgwood's work has regularly attracted the attention of fakers, and competitors flourished in several other areas of the country. But Wedgwood's expanding business never faltered and he moved into the nearby Brick House (or Bell Works) factory in 1763.
It wasn't long before the British nobility and then Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, patronised Wedgwood's cream-coloured earthenware, making it more popular than ever. Wedgwood convinced her to let him rename the pottery "Queen's Ware", thus ensuring its longevity and worldwide attention, and Queen Charlotte bestowed on Wedgwood the title "Queen's Potter" in 1765. As sales spread from the British Isles to the continent, Wedgwood even received orders for a massive service from Catherine, the Empress of Russia, in 1774 for around 1000 pieces. The washing up alone must have taken an army of servants.
Enjoying his status as a wealthy industrialist, Wedgwood, with others, developed technical and commercial enterprises, one of which resulted in the Trent and Mersey Canal, which opened in 1777. This tied in neatly with his need to experiment and to develop new ideas and products. One of Wedgwood's more useful inventions was the pyrometer, a device for measuring the high temperature inside kilns. Obviously, this allowed for more accurate firings and the repetition of product, earning him a commendation and election to the Royal Society (1783).
It was during these times that he met and became friends with Erasmus Darwin, each becoming the grandfathers of Charles Darwin, through Wedgwood's eldest daughter Susannah. Wedgwood married Sarah Wedgwood (a distant cousin) in 1764 and together they had six children, Susannah, John, Josiah (II), Thomas, Catherine, Sarah and Mary Anne.
In 1768 Wedgwood formed a partnership with his friend Thomas Bentley (see pottery marks) producing a range of high quality ornamental pottery. This allowed for the production of finer and finer work and together they were a formidable team. Eventually the Brick House became too small to keep up with the expansion rate and the lease was about to run out anyway, so Wedgwood opened a second factory in 1769, called "Etruria", this time moving to Hanley, Stoke on Trent. Etruria became the flagship of the Wedgwood brand and pioneered new forms of technology. Indeed, in 1782 it became the first factory to install a steam engine.
The Wedgwood/Bentley output consisted of plaques and ornamental wares in the fashionable Neo-classical style, and the very famous Black Basalt (designed c.1767, and also known as Egyptian ware). In the early period basalt's were produced in greater numbers even than Jasperware. The hard, dense composition of basalt was ideal for busts and portrait medallions, acquiring a velvety smoothness with age and handling.
Probably the most famous of all Wedgwood products is "Jasperware" (1776) which represented his finest achievement. Jasperware was unglazed, white stoneware clay, usually pale blue or light green overlaid with white relief portraits or Greek Classical scenes. One of the main designers of Jasperware was John Flaxman (1755-1826), a famous English sculptor and moulder, who worked for Wedgwood for 12 years before emigrating to direct the Wedgwood Studio in Rome.
The earliest Jasperware has solid colour throughout the body of the piece, but after about 1780 the white body was usually dipped into a tank of coloured jasper slip. Modern Jasperware, in typical greens and blues, has once again reverted to the original method of using a solid coloured body. Other colours included sage green, olive green, black, and occasionally yellow, but "Wedgwood Blue" remains the best known and loved.
Wedgwood's most famous item of Jasper was the replica of the Portland vase, which was hailed as a great copy of the original that dated from around 25BC. This turned into a bit of an obsession with Wedgwood, the project taking a full three years before Wedgwood was satisfied that the copy was perfect in 1789. Some would say, the copies even surpassed the original. He made about 50 of these vases, most of which now reside in museums or private collections.
Never one to stand still for very long, Wedgwood went on to develop a white, hard and more durable variant of Creamware, known as "Pearlware" (1779). Early Pearlware can be recognized by the white appearance of undecorated areas and often there is a distinct blue tinge to the thickest areas of glaze. Wedgwood Pearlware tableware was marked from 1840 with the word "PEARL", and from 1868 with a "P". The formula contained some china clay and traces of cobalt oxide and copper to achieve the white colour. It provided a good base for bright coloured enamels, or in Wedgwood's words, "Good for tea and other wares". It was adopted by many potteries in the early 19th century, who may already have been making their own kinds of pearlware, for a wide range of wares.
A year later (1780) Wedgwood's long time business partner Thomas Bentley died ,
and Wedgwood ran the factories with the help of his friend Erasmus Darwin until 1790, when he took into partnership his three sons, Josiah, John, and Thomas.
By the time of Wedgwood's death in Etruria on 3rd Jan 1795, his life's work amounted to great innovation in the pottery industry along with new scientific discoveries. He pioneered new mass production techniques, improvements in transport links and created a huge export based industry. His descendants carried on this business tradition and still produce many of his early designs.
Left: Printed marks from the 1900s
Above: Pottery marks from 1760s on
Right: Wedgwood and Bentley mark late 1760s
Business continued at Etruria right up until 1950. However, prior to that, the Wedgwood's bought a 380 acre site at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, to build the new Wedgwood works factory. This was completed in 1940 and was reputed to be the most advanced pottery in England, boasting electricity and the latest ovens. Works gradually transferred over to the new site. The company is today, still a famous name in pottery, and the Barlaston site has a pretty fantastic visitor centre for you to enjoy the old and the new of Wedgwood pottery side by side.
Details: The Wedgwood Visitor Centre, Barlaston, Stoke on Trent, ST12 9ES.
Tel: 01782 204141.
Anytime you hear a collector talking about their pottery collection, they'll say something like, 'This is my bit of 'Wedgy' in the corner', and you'll always detect more than a little hint of pride.
Author: Phil Chave URL: www.antiquecollector.uk.com
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