Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wedgwood, Josiah
WEDGWOOD, JOSIAH (1730–1795), potter, thirteenth and youngest child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood (born Stringer), was baptised in the parish church of Burslem, Staffordshire, on 12 July 1730. He was the fourth in descent from Gilbert Wedgwood of the Mole in Biddulph, born in 1588, who settled in Burslem about 1612, when he married Margaret, one of the two daughters and coheirs of Thomas Burslem. This Gilbert was a great-great-grandson of John Wedgwood of Dunwood, whose marriage took place in 1470. The Wedgwoods were a prolific race, so that, in spite of the possession of some property in hinds and houses, it was necessary for the cadet branches of the family to make a living by adopting the staple occupation of the district. Thus it came to pass that Josiah Wedgwood's father, as well as several of his uncles and cousins, were potters—some masters, some journeymen. Before Josiah had completed his ninth year his father died, and the boy's school career, such as it was, closed. He at once began work at Burslem in the pottery of his eldest brother, Thomas, and soon became an expert 'thrower' on the wheel. An attack of virulent smallpox when he was about eleven greatly enfeebled him, particularly affecting his right knee. However, on 11 Nov. 1714, when Josiah was in his fifteenth year, he was apprenticed for five years to his brother Thomas. Unfortunately—so it seemed at the time—he was soon compelled, by a return of the weakness in his knee, to abandon the thrower's bench and to occupy himself with other departments of the potter's art. He thus obtained a wider insight into the many practical requirements of his craft, learning, for instance, the business of a 'modeller,' and fashioning various imitations of onyx and agate by the association of differently coloured clays. Towards the close of his apprenticeship Josiah developed a love for original experimenting, which was not appreciated by his master and eldest brother, who declined on the expiry of his indentures to take him into partnership. The young and enthusiastic innovator was not fortunate in his next step, when he joined—about 1751—Thomas Alders and John Harrison in a small pot-works at Cliff Bank, near Stoke. He succeeded, indeed, in improving the quality and increasing the out-turn of the humble pottery, but his copartners did not appreciate nor adequately recompense the efforts of one who was so much in advance of them in mental power and artistic perception. A more congenial position was, however, soon offered to him by a worthy master-potter, Thomas Whieldon of Fenton. With this new partner Wedgwood worked for about six years, until the close of 1758, when he decided to start in business on his own account. On 30 Dec. in that year he engaged for five years the services of Thomas Wedgwood, a second cousin, then living at Worcester, and practising there as a journeyman potter. There is no doubt that the wares (especially those having green and tortoiseshell glazes) made during the period of collaboration between Thomas Whieldon and Josiah Wedgwood owed much of their distinctive character to improvements effected by the young potter.
It was probably during the first half of 1759 that Wedgwood, now in his twenty-ninth year, became a master-potter. His capital was extremely small; but he knew his strength, and ventured to take on lease a small pot-works in Burslem, part of the premises belonging to his cousins John and Thomas Wedgwood. Although the annual rent paid for this Ivy House Works was but 10l., this sum did not represent its market value. The kilns and buildings soon became unequal to the demands made upon them. More accommodation was wanted, not only for an increased number of workmen, but also for carrying out the modern system of division of labour which Wedgwood was introducing, and for improved methods of manipulation. But the master-potter himself was everything and everywhere, and not only superintended all departments, but was the best workman in the place, making most of the models, preparing the mixed clays, and of course acting as clerk and warehouseman. Yet Wedgwood saw the impossibility of conducting upon the old lines the factory which he had begun to develop. He could not tolerate the want of system, the dirt and the muddle, which were common characteristics of the workers in clay. But Wedgwood introduced much more than method and cleanliness into his factory. Dissatisfied with the clumsiness of the ordinary crockery of his day, he aimed at higher finish, more exact form, less redundancy of material. He endeavoured to modify the crude if naive and picturesque decorative treatment of the common wares by the influence of a cultivated taste and of a wider knowledge of ornamental art. Such changes were not effected without some loss of those individual and human elements which gave life to many of the rougher products of English kilns during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But there was much to be said on the other side. Owing to their uniformity in size and substance, dozens of Wedgwood's plates could be piled up without fear of collapse from unequal pressure. In glaze and body his useful wares were well adapted for their several purposes. And then the forms and contours of the different pieces showed perfect adjustment to their use: lids fitted, spouts poured, handles could be held. Although it is not to be assumed that all these improvements and developments took place during the first few years of Wedgwood's career as an independent manufacturer, yet they were begun during his occupancy of the Ivy House Works. That his business rapidly became profitable may be concluded from the fact that in the course of 1760, less than two years after Wedgwood had begun his labours at the Ivy House Works, he was able to make a gift—double that of most of the smaller master-potters of Burslem—towards the establishment of a second free school. And very soon after this dale Wedgwood paid much attention to the improvement of the means of communication by road in the potteries, giving evidence before a parliamentary committee in 1763, and subscribing in 1765 the sum of 500l. towards making new roads. Later on he took an important part in the development of the local canal system, seeing very clearly how necessary for the trade of the district were easy communication and rapid transit of raw materials and of goods by water as well as by land between the chief places of production and of distribution.
About 1762, when he was appointed queen's potter, Wedgwood, finding it necessary to secure additional accommodation, rented the Brick House and Works in Burslem. These he occupied until his final removal to Etruria in 1773. In 1766 Thomas Wedgwood, who had been employed in the factory since 1759, was taken into partnership. In the same year Josiah Wedgwood acquired for 3,000l. a suitable site between Burslem and Stoke-upon-Trent for a new factory and residence. Later on he added considerably to this domain, and built thereon for his workmen a village, to which he gave the name Etruria, as well as the mansion Etruria Hall and an extensive and well-equipped pot-works. The new Etruria factory was opened on 13 June 1769, just ten years after Wedgwood had first started in business entirely on his own account. Doubtless the sale of useful ware as distinguished from ornamental furnished Wedgwood with the funds at his disposal. For during the decade 1759-69 he had been continually improving the cream-coloured earthenware, as well as several other ceramic bodies of less importance. Wedgwood, we know, was well acquainted with what other potters in England had already achieved. The ingenious processes and beautiful productions of John Philip Elers [q. v.] were familiar to him; he used the slip-kiln introduced by Ralph Shaw, the liquid glaze or dips employed by Enoch Booth, and the plaster-of-paris moulds described by Ralph Daniel. Many patented and secret processes connected with the ceramic industry had been devised in the forty years 1720-60. Wedgwood adopted or improved many of them, adding novel elements derived from his own careful and numerous experiments, and from his own acute powers of observation. Wedgwood was not a great chemist in the modern sense, for chemistry in his day was very imperfectly developed. But his trials of methods and materials were carried out in the exhaustive spirit of true scientific inquiry, and brought about many improvements. His good taste and his endeavour after purity of material and finish of form bore good fruit. He rapidly acquired something more than a local reputation. The products of his kilns were esteemed for their adaptation to their several uses, the variety and elegance of their shapes, the delicacy and sobriety of their colouring, and the propriety of their decoration. These remarks apply especially to the cream ware, afterwards known as queen's ware. This was not brought to perfection until about 1768 or 1769, when the English patents of Brancas-Lauraguais (1766) and William Cookworthy [q. v.] (1768) had directed attention to the true china-clay of Cornwall. But before that date Wedgwood had succeeded in improving the texture and colour of his cream ware, and in preventing its glaze from becoming crazed through contracting more than the body after being fired in the kiln. This last improvement was effected by adding both pipeclay and ground flint to the lead compound previously used alone for glazing purposes. But Wedgwood's early advances were not confined to cream ware. He turned his attention to the black composition known as Egyptian black, a rough product which, under the name of black basaltes, acquired in Wedgwood's hands a richer hue, a finer grain, and a smoother surface. Ita density was high (2·9), and it took a fine polish on the lapidary's wheel. Of it were fashioned many objects of decoration, as well as of utility. Inkstands, seals, tea equipages, salt-cellars, candlesticks, life-size busts, vases, relief-plaques, and medallion portraits of 'illustrious ancients and moderns' were made in this body, which was sometimes decorated with 'encaustic' colours, silvering, gilding, or bronzing. The encaustic colours were enamels without gloss, and were employed chiefly on black basalt vases imitative of Greek work. Although the examples available for copying generally belonged to a period of poor art; and although the effect of the encaustic colours was often marred by weak drawing and a vulgar modernity of style, still the body was choicer and the potting more accomplished than any similar work done by Wedgwood's immediate predecessors. Besides cream-coloured earthenware and black basaltes, another ware improved by Wedgwood was the variegated or marbled. This was of two kinds, one coloured throughout its entire substance by means of the association, in various twistings and foldings, of two or more clays burning to different hues in the kiln. This kind of ware, though improved during his partnership with Whieldon, cannot be regarded as a characteristic product of Wedgwood's labours. But with the other kind of variegated ware the case is different. This was cream ware, or later on a kind of stone ware, irregularly and picturesquely veined and mottled merely on the surface in imitation of various kinds of granite, porphyry, jasper, agate, and marble. It was largely used for vases, and was distinctly in advance of anything previously produced in this direction. A fourth ceramic body made by Wedgwood was probably a new departure. It was a kind of unglazed semi-porcelain, used occasionally for the plinths of marbled vases and for early portrait-medallions. It possessed a marked degree of translucency and a smooth waxen surface; but its usefulness was lessened by a tendency to warp and crack in firing, and by the dulness and yellowish cast of its white. Its place was taken, and more than filled, in after years by the greatest inventive triumph among all Wedgwood's improved wares, the jasper body. Of this more must be said presently, now one must be content with the bare mention of a fifth ware—the various kinds of terracotta, cane-colour, bamboo, brick-red, chocolate, and sage-green. These were often used in relief of one hue upon a ground of another.
At the time (1766) when Wedgwood was deeply occupied with the founding of the new Etruria, many other important matters engaged his attention. Among these the extension of the canal system to his locality ought to be named. Wedgwood's indefatigable efforts, with his knowledge of the requirements of the potteries' district, had been of great use in settling sections of the Grand Trunk Canal, in proving the weakness of rival schemes, and in gaining the approval of certain landowners. He was in frequent consultation with James Brindley [q. v.], the engineer, and with Francis Egerton, third duke of Bridgewater [q. v.]; while his friends Erasmus Darwin [q. v.l and Thomas Bentley (1731-1780) [q. v.] helped his efforts by evidence and in writings and conferences when the bill was under discussion by a parliamentary committee. Finally the act received the royal assent on 14 May 1766. The Trent and Mersey Canal, which was opened in 1777, and of which Josiah Wedgwood was first treasurer, passed through the Etruria estate and proved, as Wedgwood foresaw, of enormous benefit to the chief local industry. Another matter gave some trouble to Wedgwood about the same time. His London showroom in Charles Street, Grosvenor Square, proved inadequate (and was indeed closed in October 1766), and it was not until August 1768 that larger premises were secured in Newport Street, St. Martin's Lane. Just before this, on 28 May, Wedgwood had his right leg amputated, foreseeing that this useless and often painful member would prove a serious encumbrance in his enlarged sphere of work at Etruria, and on 14 Nov. of the same year terms of partnership were finally arranged between Josiah Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley, the latter acquiring an equal share in the profits arising from the sale of ornamental as distinguished from useful ware. Wedgwood's letters to Bentley reveal the writer's appreciation of his partner's great services to the business, and show the innate refinement and amiability of Wedgwood's mind and character.
The out-turn and sale of the products of Wedgwood's factory greatly increased after the opening of the Etruria works in 1769. The ornamental as well as the useful ware became better and better known and appreciated, not only in England but on the continent. But as yet the most original and most distinctive of the ceramic bodies invented by Wedgwood had not been produced. He was endeavouring to compound a paste of fine texture allied to true porcelain, but endued with certain properties, which no hard or soft china previously made had possessed. He found the very substance required in certain mineral compounds of the earth baryta. The distinctive character of this earth seems to have been first made out in 1779 by Guyton de Morveau, while William Withering [q. v.] four years afterwards recognised the same base in a mineral carbonate from Lead-hills, Lanarkshire. But Wedgwood so early as 1773 was making trials of both these minerals. He was puzzled by the apparently capricious behaviour of these two compounds, but learnt where to obtain and how to recognise the more important of the two, the sulphate of baryta or cawk, which became henceforth the chief and characteristic constituent of his 'jasper,' although a small quantity of the carbonate of baryta was occasionally added to the mixture. One of Wedgwood's early recipes for this new jasper body, when translated into percentages, approaches these figures—sulphate of baryta 59, clay 29, flint 10, and carbonate of baryta 2. Within rather wider limits these proportions were varied with corresponding variations in the properties, texture, and appearance of the product. But the product was a ceramic novelty, a smooth paste of exquisite texture, without positive glass, yet so compact as to admit of being polished, like native jasper, on the lapidary's wheel; of varying degrees of sub-opacity to translucency, sometimes a dead white, sometimes of an ivory hue. But its chief charm was derived from its behaviour in the kiln with certain metallic oxides. By means of these the jasper body could be stained or coloured of various exquisite hues either on its surface-layer or throughout its substance. The oxide, whether that of cobalt for blue, of manganese for lilac, of iron for yellow, of iron and of cobalt for green, did not form a layer (as with enamel on porcelain) lying as an adherent film upon the paste, but became thoroughly incorporated with the material to which it was applied. But there were two methods of employing the chromatic constituent: it might be mingled uniformly with the body, forming solid jasper, or it might be used as a wash upon the surface, thus constituting jasper dip. The later method was invented in 1777, but came into general use after the death of Bentley in 1780; sometimes, as in jasper strap and chequer work, both methods were used on the same piece. Jasper was employed in the production of an immense variety of objects, portrait and other medallions and plaques, tea and coffee sets, salt-cellars, bulb and flower-pots, lamps and candlesticks, bellpulls, scent-bottles, chessmen, and last and most esteemed of all, ornamental vases. The parts in relief, generally of white jasper, were separately formed in moulds and then affixed to the coloured body. Usually before firing, but sometimes after, corrections, undercutting, and further modelling could be given to the reliefs, and thus it happens that in many portrait cameos, plaques and vases, there are variations of excellence between different copies from the same mould. This remark applies particularly to the larger and more important pieces, such for instance as Wedgwood's remarkable reproduction in jasper of the antique glass cameo vase known as the Barberini or Portland vase. No two copies of the very limited original issue (about 1790) of this vase are exactly alike, the differences not being confined to colour of the ground and quality of the white reliefs, but extending to the modelling and finish of the surfaces of the figures. Wedgwood's original price for his best copies was fifty pounds, a sum which has been greatly exceeded in recent years, when copies have been sold for 173l., 199l., 10s., and 215l.. 5l. 5s. It may be here added that a iasper tablet, 28 inches by 11 inches, a sacrifice to Hymen, produced in 1787, was sold in 1880 for no less a sum than 415l. But the highest figure reached by a piece of jasper ware was in 1877, when a large black and white jasper-dip vase, decorated with the design of the 'Apotheosis of Homer,' fetched, with its pedestal, no less than 735l. It should be noted that Wedgwood frequently polished on the wheel the edges of his cameos, and occasionally even the grounds or fields of his smallest pieces, thus closely imitating the appearance of natural engraved stones.
It must not be thought that Wedgwood's energies were concentrated upon one variety of ornamental pottery, or that he failed to develop the production of useful ware. His catalogues were indeed confined to decorative pieces, but their extensive distribution, not only in English, but in French, Dutch, and German translations, drew attention to his productions, such as his dinner services, which became extremely popular all over Europe. Wedgwood's agents were generally active in obtaining orders for both useful and ornamental wares, while home and foreign patronage, royal, noble, or distinguished, greatly extended his reputation and his business. The two dinner services finished in 1774 for the Empress Catherine II of Russia consisted of 952 pieces, of cream-coloured ware, the decoration of which, in enamel with English views and with ornamental leaf borders, added a sum of over 2,000l. to the original cost of the plain services, which was under 52l.
Wedgwood's designs were drawn from numerous sources. Engravings, casts from antique and renaissance gems, the original work of many sculptors, English as well as foreign, such as John Flaxman, L. F. Roubiliac, Henry Webber, William Hackwood, James Tassie, Koeling, Hollingshead, and Pacetti, with designs taken direct from ancient vases and sculptures, furnished abundance of material. But Wedgwood was more than a mere chooser and employer of artists, a mere translator into clay of designs made by other hands in other materials, a mere copier of the antique. He possessed great power of adaptation, and an inventive faculty, which revealed itself not only in new materials and new methods, but in the origination of new forms. Into his selected designs, original or derivative, he infused something of his spirit and temper, and combined, wherever possible, beauty and utility. His work was distinguished by reticence in form and colour, and thus offered a marked contrast to the contemporary productions of Chelsea and Worcester. In fact, no other potter of modern times so successfully welded into one harmonious whole the prose and the poetry of the ceramic art. Even if he has left us no works which we can call wholly his own, we know that he was a practical thrower, an expert modeller and an ingenious designer of new shapes; and that his sense of beauty, his power of imagination, his shrewdness, skill, foresight, perseverance and knowledge enabled him to attain, in spite of the absence of school learning, an altogether unique position. His companionship and advice were sought by men of the highest cultivation. But his reputation in his own day and in his own neighbourhood was due, not only to appreciation of the work which was the main occupation of his life, but to the generosity, public spirit, and high personal character, which were so conspicuous in Wedgwood. The most attractive products of his kilns were imitated, sometimes with a fair measure of success, by a host of potters during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth, but the merit of initiating and carrying out on a very large scale a great technical and artistic development of English earthenware remains with Wedgwood. His productions, with those of his immediate predecessors, his contemporaries, his rivals, imitators and successors, should be compared and contrasted not only in such public collections as those of the South Kensington Museum, the Museum of Practical Geology, and the British Museum, in London, but also by the study of the Tangye Collection at Birmingham, the Mayer Collection at Liverpool, the Hulme Collection at Burslem, and the Joseph Collection in Nottingham Castle.
Wedgwood's contributions to literature (other than private letters) are few. There is sound common-sense in his 'Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Pottery,' published in 1783 on the occasion of bread riots, and in another epistle to workmen relating to their entering the service of foreign manufacturers. His remarks on the bas-reliefs of the Portland vase are not valuable, while his criticism (1775) of Richard Champion's petition for an extension of a patent for making porcelain would have been differently worded had he been acquainted with the real merits of Champion's case (for a review of the matter, see Hugh Owen's Two Centuries of Ceramic Art in Bristol, 1873, pp. 149-51).
On 16 Jan. 1783 Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. He contributed two papers on chemical subjects to the 'Philosophical Transactions' (1783 and 1790), and three (in 1782, 1784, and 1786) on the construction and use of a pyrometer, an ingenious invention for determining and registering high temperatures by the measurement of the shrinkage suffered by cylinders of prepared clay in the furnace or kiln. This method, though still employed in some potteries, affords irregular results. On 4 May 1786 Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. He exhibited to the society on 6 May 1790 an early copy of the Barberini vase and read a paper thereon. In the same year he retired from some of the more arduous duties of his business. During this and the three subsequent years his health gave frequent occasions for anxiety to his friends, but he was able to entertain a succession of congenial visitors at Etruria Hall, to make longer excursions from home than before, and to divert himself by improving his grounds and by collecting books, engravings and objects of natural history. But after a brief illness, the nature of which admitted from the outset of no hope of recovery, Josiah Wedgwood died at Etruria Hall on 3 Jan. 1795, at the age of sixty-four. His grave is in Stoke-on-Trent churchyard; in the chancel there is a monument to his memory by Flaxman, with an inscription, which tells us that he 'converted a rude and inconsiderable manufactory into an elegant art and an important part of national commerce.' Wedgwood left more than half a million of money besides his large and flourishing business. His will, made on 2 Nov. 1793, was proved on 2 July 1795 (P. C. C. 484 Newcastle). He divided his substance mainly among his children, but did not forget the assistant who, since 1781, had helped him in his scientific work, leaving to Alexander Chisholm an annuity of 20l., an immediate gift of ten guineas 'as a testimony of regard;' and further desiring his 'son Josiah to make the remainder of his life easy and comfortable.'
On 25 Jan. 1764, at Astbury in Cheshire, Wedgwood married Sarah Wedgwood; daughter of Richard Wedgwood of Spen Green, Cheshire. Mrs. Wedgwood and her husband were cousins in the third degree, their common great-great-grandfather being the Gilbert Wedgwood previously named. She was born on 18 Aug. 1734, and died on 15 Jan. 1815. From the union there sprang seven children, three sons and four daughters. The eldest child, Susannah, married Robert Waring Darwin, son of Dr. Erasmus Darwin [q. v.], and father of Charles Robert Darwin [q. v.] Wedgwood's third son, Thomas, is noticed separately. His second son, Josiah, had nine children. One of these was Hensleigh Wedgwood [q. v.], mathematician and philologist; a daughter, Emma, married her first cousin, Charles Robert Darwin. The works at Etruria are still carried on by a grandson and other descendants of the second Josiah Wedgwood.
A good portrait of Wedgwood, painted in 1783 by Sir Joshua Reynolds, now belongs to Miss Wedgwood of Leith Hill Place, Dorking; it has been twice engraved, once in mezzotint by S. W. Reynolds. The Earl of Crawford owns an early copy in oil by John Rising. George Stubbs painted in oil a family picture with nine figures, four being on horseback, also a large portrait in enamel on earthenware; both these works are now in the possession of Mr. Godfrey Wedgwood. A portrait of Wedgwood on horseback, also painted in enamel on earthenware, is owned by Lord Tweedmouth; an engraving of this picture is given in F. Rathbone's 'Old Wedgwood.' A cameo medallion-portrait, modelled by William Hackwood, was made at Etruria. On the monument in Stoke-on-Trent church there is a posthumous relief by Flaxman, while there is a modern bust by Fontana in the Wedgwood Memorial Institute at Burslem (founded 1863). A bronze statue of Wedgwood is at Stoke close to the railway station; it is the work of Mr. E. Davis, of London. It is that a wax cameo portrait of Wedgwood was executed shortly after 1781 by Eley George Mountstephen.
[Among the sources used in preparing this memoir are Meteyard's Life of Josiah Wedgwood, 1865; Ward's Borough of Stoke-upon-Trent, 1843; Gatty's Cat. of Liverpool Art Club Loan Collection, 1879; F. Rathbone's Cat. of the Centenary Exhibition at Burslem, 1895; Church's Portfolio Monograph on Josiah Wedgwood, 1894. The Stafford Advertiser of 29 June 1895 contains an account of the proceedings at Burslem at the centenary of Josiah Wedgwood's death.]