The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt - review by Sarah Watling

Sarah Watling

Of Porcelain & Profits

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain


Allen Lane 352pp £25

‘The politicians tell me that as a manufacturer I shall be ruined if France has her liberty,’ Josiah Wedgwood wrote to Erasmus Darwin in 1789, ‘but I am willing to take my chance in that respect.’ A year earlier he had written with similar equanimity, indeed enthusiasm, about the campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, from which much of the prosperity that fuelled sales of his famous creamware, queensware and jasperware derived. ‘Even if our commerce was likely to suffer from the abolition,’ he insisted to a sceptical friend, ‘I persuade myself that when this traffic comes to be discussed and fully known, there will be but few advocates for the continuance of it.’

One of the achievements of Tristram Hunt’s biography of Wedgwood, The Radical Potter, is to bring into view the commercial and moral instincts of the man behind the powerhouse and show how they made a whole: to examine, too, what they might tell us about the transforming nation of which Wedgwood had such high opinions and expectations. For Wedgwood’s opposition to the slave trade was not only an ethical response to its horrors. It also stemmed from a concern for the ‘national character … stigmatised by injustice and murder’. Great Britain, a model to the world, must not stoop so low.

The name Wedgwood brings to mind exquisite blue-and-white jasperware, but when Josiah Wedgwood was born into a family of potters in 1730, the youngest of eight surviving children, the potteries of the English Midlands were still a long way from competing with the expertise and refinement of porcelain manufacturers in Japan, Korea and China. That a British delegation had the temerity to present the Chinese emperor with six Wedgwood vases sixty years later owed less to British overconfidence than it did to the revolution in quality Wedgwood had helped to bring about.

When he was twelve years old, a bout of smallpox left Wedgwood with a weakened right knee (much later the leg had to be amputated). This disability could have been disastrous for his career as a potter, leaving him as it did incapable of operating the foot pedal on the pottery wheel. Yet for a boy of Wedgwood’s precocious intelligence and unending curiosity, other avenues – ‘design, innovation and business’ – remained open, if not beckoning. Eventually, Wedgwood set up his own pottery in Burslem (one of the six towns that later became Stoke-on-Trent) and it swiftly expanded. The early successes were down to his practical involvement in almost every aspect of the process and his relentless enthusiasm for experimenting with glazes, clays, bodies and methods. But he was also a man able to identify the changes occurring around him and exploit them.

North Staffordshire when Wedgwood set out was soon to become a ‘crucible’ of the Industrial Revolution. Georgian Britain was expanding its imperial and commercial reach and busy establishing an identity for itself that could accommodate these global ambitions. There were more producers and more consumers; there were goods from the East piling up at British ports and a market for affordable luxury was coming into life.

By the mid-1760s, Wedgwood’s potteries were producing what Hunt calls ‘the finest and lightest cream-coloured earthenware yet manufactured’. He was instrumental in securing an act of Parliament authorising the creation of the Trent and Mersey Canal; its completion meant that he could get his products safely and swiftly to Liverpool for decoration. He was also canny enough to know how to tell Britain’s middling sort what they wanted, working hard to obtain the patronage of the aristocracy who set fashions. His designs were as ever-evolving as they were beautiful. The company had exclusive showrooms too – in ‘the pre-eminent world city’ that was 18th-century London, naturally, but also in burgeoning provincial towns such as York and Bath. Since shopping had become a leisure activity, Wedgwood’s intention for his Soho showroom was nothing less than ‘to amuse, and divert, and please, and astonish, nay, and even to ravish the ladies’.

There were higher-minded motivations too. Hunt gives due note to the significance of Wedgwood’s Dissenting faith, which shaped his passion for intellectual enquiry as well as his moral convictions, and to his membership of the Lunar Society, with its commitment to Enlightenment rationalism. Both influences encouraged his lifelong innovating, culminating in his successful reproduction of the first-century-AD Portland Vase.

Hunt delves into what he calls Wedgwood’s ‘messy array of ideologies’, never losing sight of the fact that his subject’s Nonconformist conscience prompted genuine commitments and activism but did not prevent him from turning a profit. Wedgwood’s potteries, for instance, were quickly churning out commemorative medallions of heroes of the French Revolution.

Wedgwood’s commercial ambitions and sense of civic responsibility found expression in Etruria, the factory-home-community he built on a 300-acre estate in the late 1760s. Etruria provided sanitary housing, facilities and recreational space for workers, while also keeping them under their boss’s watchful eye. Potters, we learn, did not have a terribly good reputation in the 18th century: Wedgwood complained of ‘dilatory, drunken, Idle, worthless workmen’. Better living conditions at Etruria, though benefiting Wedgwood’s workers, were intended to benefit the business.

There Wedgwood pioneered mass production, dividing the labour of workers so that each person was responsible for a single task, rather than an individual product. Battles to force his workers into line with the capitalist future, Hunt writes, were for Wedgwood ‘bound up in the single heroic programme of commercial advancement and cultural Enlightenment’. But in case we need a reminder of what such factory-line innovations ultimately meant for the mass of humanity, Hunt has Marx at the ready. There is a sad irony in a man as creative as Wedgwood setting out to ‘make such Machines of the Men as cannot Err’.

‘The development of a cohesive British identity and social purpose’, Hunt tells us, ‘was closely aligned … with the expansion of imperial interests and global commerce.’ For Wedgwood and others, his international business prowess was not only about personal success and wealth but about Britain’s glory too. (Some of his most enthusiastic agents abroad were British ambassadors and their wives.) The company’s sheer physical impact alone is remarkable: Wedgwood pottery adorned the tables of the queen of England and the empress of Russia, and of ravished ladies in provincial towns, in the trading hubs of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, in the Caribbean cities of Bridgetown and Kingston, and across Europe.

It was Wedgwood’s belief in Great Britain and its role in the world that made him at times its outspoken critic. Elected to Wilberforce’s London Committee in 1787, he harnessed his business resources, design abilities and understanding of consumer psychology to make his most significant contribution to the abolition movement, producing at his own expense a jasperware medallion of a pleading slave that became a defining (though, as Hunt notes, not itself unproblematic) image of the campaign. Hugely popular, it helped spread the word while providing income for the cause. 

Wedgwood emerges from this book as a man of voracious interest in the world. Canny and determined, he had both strong beliefs and the adaptability that marks any great innovator. Hunt is in no doubt as to his accomplishments, but he is not tempted to whitewash the legacy of the trends Wedgwood was part of as empire and industrial capitalism advanced. Most importantly, he is able to show what Wedgwood himself believed about his world and his role in it.

Anyone interested in a technical history of the methods and changing fashions of pottery won’t be disappointed by this book, which returns repeatedly to the material culture at the heart of the story. As a former MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central who was involved in the campaign to save the Wedgwood Museum, Hunt is well placed to appreciate the value of what Wedgwood created; the appalling story of the mismanagement that led to Waterford Wedgwood’s collapse in 2009, described in a long epilogue, only serves to underline it. Hunt has been careful not to write a ‘Great Man’ biography, instead placing his subject within the network of friends, collaborators, fellow innovators, artists and craftspeople that made the Wedgwood phenomenon possible. And he is as interested in what the man can tell us about the times as what the times meant for the man.

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