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Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah WedgwoodBorn: 1730
Birthplace: Burslem, Stoke, England
Died: 3-Jan-1795
Location of death: Burslem, Stoke, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Peter ad Vincula Churchyard, Stoke, Staffordshire, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Unitarian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Artist

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Greatest potter of all time

The most distinguished of English manufacturers of pottery, came of a family many members of which had been established as potters in Staffordshire throughout the 17th century and had played a notable part in the development of the infant industry. Dr. Thomas Wedgwood of Burslem was one of the best of the early saltglaze potters. Josiah, born in 1730, was the youngest child of another Thomas Wedgwood, who owned a small but thriving pottery in Burslem. At a very early age he distinguished himself by keen powers of observation and interest in all that was curious and beautiful. Soon after the death of his father in 1739, Josiah, then scarcely ten years of age, was taken away from school and set to learn the art of "throwing" clay, i.e. shaping pottery vessels on the thrower's wheel, at which he soon became extraordinarily skilful.

In 1744 he was apprenticed to his eldest brother, who had succeeded to the management of his father's pottery; and in 1752, shortly after the term of his apprenticeship had expired, he became manager of a small pottery at Stoke-upon-Trent, known as Alder's pottery, at a very moderate salary. Within a year or two he became junior partner with Thomas Whieldon of Fenton, then the cleverest master-potter in Staffordshire. Many of Whieldon's apprentices afterwards became noted potters, and there can be little doubt that Wedgwood gained greatly at this period of his life by his association with Whieldon. But he was too original to remain long content with a subordinate position, and the pottery business was developing so rapidly that he had every inducement to commence work on his own account.

In 1759 he leased the Ivy House pottery in Burslem from some relatives, and like a sensible man he continued to make only such pottery as was being made at the period by his fellow-manufacturers. Salt-glaze and green and yellow glaze seem to have been his first staples. In 1762 he also leased the Brick-House, alias "Bell" works, at Burslem. The fine white English earthenware was just reaching perfection, and Wedgwood was soon one of its best-known makers. He was most active and energetic in his efforts, not only for the improvement of Staffordshire pottery, but almost equally so for the improvement of turnpike roads, the construction of a canal (the Trent & Mersey) and the founding of schools and chapels. Almost the first step in his public career outside his native district was the presentation of a service of his improved cream-colored earthenware to Queen Charlotte in 1762. The new ware was greatly appreciated, and Wedgwood was appointed potter to the queen and afterwards to the king. He gave the name of Queen's Ware to his productions of this class, and this judicious royal patronage awarded to a most deserving manufacturer undoubtedly helped Wedgwood greatly. Having laid the foundations of a successful business in his admirable domestic pottery -- the best the world had ever seen up to that time -- he turned his attention to artistic pottery, and the European renaissance of, classic art -- fostered by the discovery of Pompeii and the recovery of Greek painted vases from the ancient graves in Campania and other parts of Italy -- being at its height it was natural that Wedgwood should turn to such a source of inspiration. Although every European country was affected by this neo-classical revival it may he claimed that England absorbed it more completely than any other country, for the brothers Adam (the architects) and Josiah Wedgwood brought it into absolute correspondence with modern tastes and ideas. Wedgwood was particularly successful in this direction, for his "dry" bodies -- some of which, like the black and cane bodies, had long been known in the district, others, such as the famous Jasper bodies, which he invented after years of laborious effort -- lent themselves particularly well to the reproduction of designs based on the later phases of Greek art. If our increased appreciation and knowledge of Greek and Roman art makes us at times impatient with the mechanical perfection of the works of Wedgwood and his contemporaries, the fault is even more the fault of a nation and a period than that of any individual, however commanding. It will always remain to Wedgwood's credit that he was the most successful and original potter the world has ever seen -- the only one, through all the centuries, of whom it can be truthfully said that the whole subsequent course of pottery manufacture has been influenced by his skill.

Of the externals of his life a few facts will suffice. He married his cousin, Sarah Wedgwood, in 1764, and they had a numerous family of sons and daughters. One of these daughters was the mother of the famous naturalist Charles Darwin. Some time after his marriage (viz. 1768) he entered into a partnership with Thomas Bentley of Liverpool, a man of considerable taste and culture. Bentley, who was a handsome, courtly man, attended largely to the London sales. In 1769 they opened splendid new works, near Hanley, that with their classic leanings they christened "Etruria." They continued a practice of Wedgwood's in employing able artists to produce designs, and the most famous of these was John Flaxman, whose name will for ever be associated with the firm's productions. Bentley died in 1780 and Wedgwood remained the sole owner of the Etruria works until 1790, when he took some of his sons and a nephew, named Byerley, into partnership. He died on the 3rd of January 1795, rich in honors and in friends, for besides being a great potter he was a man of high moral worth, and was associated with many noted men of his time, amongst whom should be mentioned Sir Joseph Banks, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin. His descendants have carried on the business at Etruria to this day, and have lately established at the works a Wedgwood museum of great interest.

Father: Thomas Wedgwood (d. 1739)
Wife: Sarah Wedgwood (m. 1764)

    Lunar Society
    Risk Factors: Smallpox


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