The renowned firm founded by Josiah Wedgwood in 1759 might be thought hardly to call for extensive chronicle so familiar is the name even to the man-in-the-street. But, truth to tell, to a surprisingly great number of folk, the name merely connotes the blue and white jasper ware, which he made immortal, or in some cases merely a certain tone of blue. That this famous family of potters held a unique position in the pottery industry is not to be doubted; and one may say that, in this twentieth century, the name of Josiah Wedgwood stands out prominently as a pattern of the great Master Potters of past times. He is, indeed, 'a living tradition'.
Gilbert's son Thomas bought the old Churchyard Works at Burslem and his son and grandson (Josiah's grandfather and father) followed on making pottery at the same place. His father died in 1739 and little Josiah left school to learn the family craft at the Churchyard Works under his elder brother Thomas. At 14 he was apprenticed to 'the Art, Mistery, Occupation or Imployment of Thrower and Handleing', as it was quaintly phrased.
In those days pottery was in a rudimentary stage, but by the time Wedgwood had reached the apprenticeship stage, Astbury had achieved his first triumph with the clays of Devon and Dorset and by the time Josiah was twenty Enoch Booth had introduced fluid lead glaze. Despite this we may consider Wedgwood to have been responsible beyond all others in changing the whole course of ceramic industry.
After his apprenticeship he went into partnership, first with John Harrison of Newcastle-under-Lyme, who had an interest in a potworks at Stoke. But two years later, in 1754, he entered into partnership with Thomas Whieldon of Fenton Hall, a fine potter, to whom Josiah owed a great debt – if only because was then at liberty to pursue his own experiments without interference and was thus enabled to evolve the Green Glaze and Cauliflower wares which are now so famous among connoisseurs.
Before these important events he had, in 1762, literally by accident (an accident to his already injured knee) become friendly with Thomas Bentley, a merchant of Liverpool, and in 1769 the two became partners. For eleven years (until Bentley's death in 1780) the latter was in charge of the London showrooms, meeting wealthy patrons, suggesting designs to please the clients, and supervising the painting, which at this time was done at Chelsea.
In 1764 Wedgwood had married, an event which was destined to have a very important effect upon his subsequent fortunes, for we may take as literally true his statement in one of his letters to Bentley: 'I speak from experience in Female taste, without which I should have made but a poor figure among the Pots, not one of which of any consequence is finished without the approbation of my Sally.' She was his cousin, and an heiress, so she brought with her a 'dot' which, with his own capital, enabled him to acquire the Ridge House Estate in 1766.
Here he built his new works, which he named Etruria after the Etruscan wares he thought to imitate, destined to be the home of the Wedgwood Potteries from 1769 until 1940. For a further four years 'useful wares' continued to be made at the Bell Works, while from the very first Etruria concentrated upon ornamental wares, Black Basalt being the first of his now celebrated matt-surfaced creations.
The blue, green and black somewhat severely shaped bodies upon which the classic reliefs in white are imposed, are masterpieces of design and Wedgwood's designers and modellers, William Hackwood, John Flaxman, James Tassie and George Stubbs were artists of great ability. Men like Flaxinan and Tassie had the true sculptor's genius for beauty of form and taste in decoration, whether applied to wares, cameos or veritable portrait reliefs.
When Bentley died in 1780 Wedgwood carried on until 1790, when he took his three sons and his nephew, Thomas Byerley, into partnership. Then he surrendered active participation in the management, eventually dying in 1795 at the age of 65.
He was succeeded by his second son Josiah at a period when times were bad for trade. Josiah II had much to contend with and he wrote, in a letter of 1811 that 'the business is not worth carrying on, and if I could withdraw my capital from it, I would tomorrow. But, though despondent he was not beaten. He was a man of great integrity and keen judgment and devoted much time to seeking how to produce translucent china. He was unsuccessful in this at the time and doubtless, when, after the declaration of Peace in 1815, trade took a turn for the better, he had other things to consider.
He had not the interest and 'drive' that his father had to help him and, in 1828 during another bad spell, the London showrooms were given up, the stock and effects being sold for £16,000.
The twentieth century has seen the company expand its overseas markets considerably, especially that of America where Kennard Wedgwood – of the fifth generation from the founder – became its representative in 1906. In this connection it should be recorded that Wedgwood made the great service, of 1,282 pieces, which was supplied for State occasions at the White House during Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency.
The period between the two Great Wars was, for the firm, one marked by rapid strides in both artistic and technical progress. Tunnel oven firing was introduced and, on the artistic side, the well known designers Keith Murray and Eric Ravilious were responsible for epoch-making work in British ceramic decoration, under the Art Directors John Goodwin and his successor, Victor Skellern, A.R.C.A.
The Bi-Centenary of the birth of Josiah Wedgwood was celebrated with great pomp at Stoke-on-Trent in 1930, the proceedings being opened by H.R.H. Princess Mary. A pageant in which the whole Pottery Industry took part, included 700 of the Company's own workpeople and eight members of the family.
A memorable achievement of the years immediately following was the production of the fine service of 1,200 pieces chosen for the Coronation Banquet of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II at Lancaster House in 1953. The design chosen was 'Golden Persephone' by the late Eric Ravilious.
Although the move means that a revolution has taken place in the methods of working and in the amenities under which its entire complement work, it need hardly be said that the operatives are as highly skilled as ever and the wares they produce retain all the beauty and individuality that has characterised the productions of Wedgwood throughout the last ten generations of this great family of Staffordshire potters.
NOTE: This article which originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.
questions / comments? email: Steve Birks