Wedgwood, Josiah

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Wedgwood, Josiah (1730-95): English Manufacturer.

Josiah Wedgwood, a leading innovator in the manufacture and marketing of ornamental earthenware, revolutionized the way English potters did business in the second half of the eighteenth century and elevated the production of pottery to an art that attracted the patronage of the social elite.

Wedgwood was descended from a long line of Staffordshire potters. His father died in 1739, and five years later, Wedgwood was apprenticed to his brother, Thomas. In the early and mid-1750s, Wedgwood entered partnerships with established potters and began experimenting with the body, glazes, colors, and forms of pottery. He set up his own business in 1759, and in 1766 he was appointed Potter to the Queen following his completion of a commission from George III and Queen Charlotte for a creamware tea set. In 1767, he renamed his creamware "Queen's Ware."

In 1762, Wedgwood met Thomas Bentley, and the two formed a partnership that would last until Bentley's death in 1780. In 1764, Wedgwood married a distant cousin, Sarah, sole heir to a prosperous cheese merchant, Richard Wedgwood. Sarah's fortune helped Wedgwood buy a 350-acre Staffordshire estate, which he renamed Etruria and on which he built a large factory for the production of both useful and decorative pottery. The firm of Wedgwood-Bentley, based in Etruria but with shops in London and major provincial cities, capitalized on the complementary talents of its partners. Bentley supplied the genteel education, fashionable connections, sense of current tastes, and commercial experience; Wedgwood supplied the technical expertise, experimental energy, ambition, and inventive genius. Wedgwood's technical innovations included a 1769 patent for encaustic painting of pottery and the invention in 1782 of a device for measuring kilns' internal temperatures.

In the production of practical pottery, Wedgwood refined techniques of mass-production, relying on specialization and division of labor. In producing ornamental wares, largely in a neoclassical style, he refined techniques of mass marketing and thereby influenced both the aesthetic tastes of the time and the development of a consumer economy. Enlightenment ideals are plainly visible in Wedgwood's political views, friendships, and intellectual orientation. He was a vocal supporter of the American colonies' struggle for independence and of the French Revolution before the Terror of 1792. He favored annual parliaments and the abolition of slavery. He was a close friend of the family physician, Darwin, Erasmus (Wedgwood's oldest daughter married Erasmus's son, Robert, and became the mother of Charles). He was acquainted with Joseph Priestly, James Watt, and Franklin, Benjamin. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1783. Wedgwood's motto was the Enlightenment dictum that "everything gives way to experiment," and he believed that his great achievement was to unite art with industry.

Further Reading:

Hilary Young, ed. The Genius of Wedgwood, 1995.

Glen Colburn

Morehead State University