Josiah Wedgwood: the radical father of English pottery

Josiah Wedgwood is renowned for his iconic and innovative ceramics. But, as Tristram Hunt explains, the designer also had an activist streak that he embedded in his earthenware

Progressive potter: Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95). As well as pioneering new types of pottery, he also imbued his work with political radicalism. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

On 26 September 1792, Earl Macartney set sail from Portsmouth aboard HMS Lion, accompanied by the East Indiaman Hindostan. After stalling in squally weather off Torbay, they skirted Brittany before sailing south to Madeira, round the Cape of Good Hope and then east to the Chinese port city of Tientsin (Tianjin). Counted among the passengers were nearly 100 of Georgian Britain’s finest brains – natural philosophers, instrument makers and draughtsmen – and, as importantly, some 600 crates of artefacts and objects carefully chosen to showcase the advanced thinking and industrial might of Great Britain.

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Macartney’s mission was to convince the Chinese to open up their huge markets to imports from Britain – “to excite at Peking a taste for many articles of English workmanship hitherto unknown there”. So he laid before the “Celestial Court” a vast array of textiles and trade goods. Most remarkably, he took china to China, in the form of six Wedgwood vases. In the official register of Goods Purchased for the Embassy to China, “Wedgwood Jasperware” valued at £169.17.0 stands as perhaps the most outrageous testament to an unwavering British belief in its design and manufacturing prowess.

It was an inspired choice. What Josiah Wedgwood – the father of English pottery – had achieved was of global significance. During the final decades of the 18th century, he turned the tide on Chinese porcelain imports and made Great Britain the epicentre of ceramics. In the words of his epitaph, Wedgwood converted “a rude and inconsiderable manufacture into an elegant art, and an important branch of national commerce”.

Wedgwood was a radical who not only transformed the ceramic industry but also played an active role in promoting democracy

The impact was felt around the world. “Its excellent workmanship; its solidity; its fine glaze, impenetrable to acids; the beauty, convenience, and variety of its forms, and its moderate price, have created a commerce so universal that in travelling from Paris to St Petersburg, from Amsterdam to the furthest point of Sweden one is served at every inn from English earthenware,” wrote the French travel writer Barthélémy Faujas de Saint Fond after his visit to Britain in 1784.

Alongside the pottery came the politics. Wedgwood was a radical who not only transformed the ceramic industry but also played an active role in promoting democracy and progressive change around the world. He embedded within his earthenware all the 18th century’s great themes: Enlightenment, liberty and national identity. To my mind, he deserves to be recognised as much for his radical patriotism as for technical ingenuity.

Wedgwood’s global reach was all the more surprising given the limitations of his upbringing. Born in 1730 in Burslem, the “Mother Town” of Stoke-on-Trent, his family had worked as potters in north Staffordshire for generations. By the mid-1700s, the close proximity of clay and coal had helped to turn that narrow vale of the Midlands into a moderately prosperous ceramics cluster of potbanks and bottle-kilns.


Listen on the podcast: Tristram Hunt discusses Josiah Wedgwood


Wedgwood’s genius, however, accelerated the Potteries (as the region was known) into a crucible of the industrial revolution, and made his name a byword for design excellence. The 19th-century prime minister WE Gladstone put it this way: “Wedgwood was the greatest man who ever, in any age, or in any country… applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry.” His marriage of technology and design, retail precision and manufacturing efficiency transformed the production of pottery and ushered in a mass consumer society.

The brilliance was born partly of adversity. Smallpox swept through Burslem during the 1740s, and the Wedgwood family were badly infected with this potentially fatal disease. In Josiah’s case, his right knee took the brunt of the infection: forever weakened, requiring crutches or a cane, this disability prevented him from operating the foot pedal on the potter’s wheel, so he could never be a thrower. Instead, design, innovation and business were aspects of the pottery trade that would draw his attention. Nearly a quarter of a century later, on 31 May 1768 – which Wedgwood christened “Saint Amputation Day” – his leg was removed entirely with a saw just below the right knee, without any anaesthetic. He was quickly rechristened “owd wooden leg” by his pottery workers.

Pineapple teapots

Wedgwood’s fusion of art and industry was first apparent in his remarkable use of glazes while working as a junior partner to potter Thomas Whieldon. Incredible rococo designs – pineapple-inspired teapots; cauliflower-coloured plates – began to emerge from Wedgwood’s experimentation.

But the key breakthrough came in the mid-1760s with creamware. Building upon the work of Enoch Booth, Wedgwood designed a clean, functional and elegant alternative to Chinese porcelain that was both sturdier and cheaper to produce. “It forms for the table a species of pottery of firm and durable body, and covered with a rich and brilliant glaze,” one contemporary wrote, “and it was accompanied also with the advantages of being manufactured with ease and expedition.” The smooth, fine-textured body also allowed for an easy application of decoration – by applying transfers or painting with enamels – which meant the pottery could swiftly follow fashion or encompass individual commissions of table services.

With rising real incomes and a fickle consumer market, the challenge for Wedgwood and his business partner, the cultured Liverpool merchant Thomas Bentley, was how to get his creamware noticed by a discerning public. Here was where Wedgwood’s marketing brilliance stepped in. “Fashion is infinitely superior to merit in many respects,” he once reflected, “and it is plain from a thousand instances that if you have a favourite child you wish the public to fondle and take notice of, you have only to make choice of proper sponcors [sic].”

Brilliantly, he bagged the greatest sponsor of them all in Queen Charlotte, whose patronage of his tableware service turned creamware into “Queensware” and elevated Wedgwood into “Master Potter to Her Majesty”. He was so focused on his high-society promoters that he even named one of his flower pots “Devonshire”, after that duchess. “A name has a wonderful effect I assure you,” he knowingly informed Bentley.

Royal influencer: A portrait of Queen Charlotte produced by Wedgwood and Bentley. Her patronage of his tableware service took it to new heights, and Wedgwood bemace
Royal influencer: A portrait of Queen Charlotte produced by Wedgwood and Bentley. Her patronage of his tableware service took it to new heights, and Wedgwood became “Master Potter to Her Majesty”. (Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Indeed, there is barely a technique in modern salesmanship – from product placement to the use of influencers – that Wedgwood and Bentley did not pioneer. Wedgwood’s West End showroom was, like so many today, more commercial gallery than shop. He created a space “to shew various Table & desert services completely set out on two ranges of Tables… in order to do the needful with the Ladys in the neatest, genteelest & best method”.

At the same time, his creation of one of the first modern factories at Etruria (named after the pre-classical civilisation) in Stoke-on-Trent ensured efficient delivery of ornamental pottery and tableware, and previously unseen levels of sustained, high-quality production.

After Queensware came Black Basalt, pearlware and, above all, Jasper – the most original and beautiful of all the ceramic materials Wedgwood pioneered. Even today a pale-blue Jasper body with white neo-classical reliefs instantly signals Wedgwood – source of so much subsequent imitation and inspiration for designers and artists over the centuries.

The invention of Jasper in the mid-1770s was the result of years of experimentation with clays, kilns, cobalt and iron oxide carried out by Wedgwood in his basement laboratory. For alongside his marketing and design brilliance, Wedgwood was a scientist whose clay trials and calculations on kiln temperatures earned him a fellowship of the Royal Society.

As such, he was an obvious fit for that radical circle of 18th-century provincial intellectuals, natural philosophers and industrialists called the Lunar Society, which met monthly at Matthew Boulton’s Soho House in Birmingham to debate “the first hints of discoveries, the current observations, and the mutual collision of ideas”. The latest advances in minerology, astronomy and medicine were all there to be interrogated by the likes of Joseph Priestley and James Watt alongside Boulton and Wedgwood. Here were the origins of the English Enlightenment – not taking place at Oxford or Cambridge, but among makers and doers, Nonconformists and entrepreneurs, in the Midlands.

The Lunar Society never discussed party politics but its members were, at heart, deeply sympathetic to dissent, liberalism and internationalism. In the words of Richard Edgeworth, they stood against the forces of “Toryism and love of gain”. They hoped that the clarifying logic of science would not only reveal nature’s secrets but also dispel the old corruption that kept in place church and king conservatism – the traditional 18th-century Tory belief in the privileged authority of the Church of England (which led to discrimination against dissenters) and support for the power of the monarchy rather than parliament.

Wedgwood’s politics were born of radical patriotism: a deep love of his country alongside a fearful sense that the promise of Great Britain – liberty under the law, Protestantism and progress – was being undermined by ministerial greed and jobbery. Above all, Wedgwood was a democrat. He supported the renegade MP John Wilkes in his campaigns for parliamentary reform and extension of the franchise, producing a series of teapots championing “Wilkes and Liberty” as the rallying cry of a reformed polity.

Wedgwood also shared Wilkes’ sympathy for the American colonists, then beginning their struggle for independence, as fellow patriots seeking to protect their Magna Carta rights. To support their cause, he secretly designed an intaglio depicting a coiled rattlesnake with its tail raised and jaws open, above which was embossed the legend “DON’T TREAD ON ME” – a motif of anti-British resistance originally conceived by Benjamin Franklin and widely adopted among the rebel troops of the Continental Army.

After America came France. When the Bastille was stormed in 1789, Wedgwood was similarly excited by the prospect of radical change there. “I know you will rejoice with me in the glorious revolution which has taken place in France,” he wrote immediately to his great friend Erasmus Darwin. “The politicians tell me that as a manufacturer I shall be ruined if France has her liberty, but I am willing to take my chance in that respect.” Very swiftly, Wedgwood stopped making his Jasper medallions of Queen Marie Antoinette and started modelling a new figure of “France embracing Liberty”.

Evils of slavery

Wedgwood’s most lasting contribution to 18th-century radicalism was his campaign against the transatlantic slave trade. Here stands an uncomfortable tension: for decades, the success of the Wedgwood & Bentley business had been intertwined with the riches derived from the Atlantic slave economy. Not only was the growing wealth of the Georgian consumer market buoyed by slavery’s profits, but the sugar bowls and tea rituals that Wedgwood provisioned were directly linked to that exploitation.

Nonetheless, by the 1780s Wedgwood had become convinced of slavery’s inherent evil by “what has come to my knowledge of the accumulated distress brought upon millions of our fellow creatures by this inhuman traffic”. Elected onto the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, he used his profound gifts of design and marketing to create a medallion that became the defining symbol of anti-slavery activism. Composed of white Jasper with a black relief and mounted in gilt metal, it depicts an enslaved African man on half-bended knee raising up his shackled arms. On the edge of the tiny medallion is inscribed the challenge: “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

Wedgwood created a medallion of an enslaved African that became the defining symbol of anti-slavery activism

Produced and distributed at Wedgwood’s own expense, it was known as the Emancipation Medallion or Badge. As Thomas Clarkson noted in his History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade (1808): “Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.”

By visually displaying the extent of public support for the anti-slavery movement, aligning the cause of abolition with leading public figures, and reminding civil society of the suffering endured by enslaved Africans, the medallion played a significant role in the campaign that led to the abolition of the slave trade to the British colonies in 1807.

This summer, the V&A Wedgwood Collection at Stoke-on-Trent began a project encouraging Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College students to design their own medallions as a way of reflecting upon the anti-racist challenge today. For these young people, Wedgwood’s radicalism was as much of an inspiration as the elegance of his ceramics.

Since the 1790s, when Macartney first sailed to China, the beauty of Wedgwood’s pottery has been a source of profound national pride for British art and design. There is now perhaps the opportunity for his radical patriotism and progressive internationalism to be a source of similar admiration.

Tristram Hunt is the director of the V&A Museum. His most recent book is The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain (Allen Lane, 2021). You can listen to him discuss Wedgwood on the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine