Josiah Wedgwood: Master Potter

DURING his early years as a potter, Josiah Wedgwood had a leg infirmity that kept him at home for long periods. Wedgwood did not waste his time, but used these periods of immobility for research into glazes and design. The knowledge he acquired was largely responsible for putting him far ahead of his rivals in the years to come. Another factor contributing to his genius in ceramics was his keen boyhood interest in fossils, shells, and other curiosities, and in the manifold and beautiful colors and patterns of nature. All these things were to prove a major influence on his work and establish him as one of the world's most gifted potters.

Wedgwood was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, England, in 1730, the youngest of 13 children of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood of the Churchyard Pottery works. After serving his apprenticeship and working with other partners, he set up in business on his own in Burslem in 1859. For an outlay of 10 he rented two kilns, some sheds, workrooms, and a small cottage.

Wedgwood was a perfectionist. In the design of his ``useful'' wares he ensured that spouts poured well, that lids fitted, and that handles were comfortable to hold. Furthermore, no new piece went into production until his wife, Sarah, had made exhaustive actual-use trials in her own kitchen and approved the design.

In the early 18th century, only the wealthy people possessed dinner and tea sets and these were usually made of gold, silver, or imported Oriental porcelain. Most other people used ``trenchers,'' made from wood or a crude form of pottery.

Wedgwood changed all this. He started to produce fine wares at a price that all but the poorest could afford. It was distinctive cream ware, finished with a brilliant green glaze to decorate leaf and vegetable shapes. This was followed by a new and inexpensive range of cream-colored earthenware, known to this day by royal consent of Queen Charlotte as ``Queen's Ware.'' Although famed for his Blue Jasper and Black Basalt wares, Queen's Ware was perhaps his greatest contribution to the pottery industry.

In order to cope with ever-increasing orders from home and overseas, Wedgwood built a splendid new factory near Hanley, in Staffordshire in 1766. It was constructed expressly for his purposes, and incorporated improved working conditions for his staff. Many of Europe's leading industrialists came to inspect and admire this prototype of factories of the future.

The factory, which he named Etruria, remained in operation until 1950 when production was transferred to the present works at Barlaston.

His quest for perfection was such that in 1766 he even sent a representative to the American colonies to obtain samples of the particularly fine Ayoree or Cherokee clay. Years later a sample of this clay was used in the Jasper body. Wedgwood made approximately 3,000 experiments before perfecting his now famous Jasper.

One of Wedgwood's proudest achievements was the execution of an order from the Empress Catherine of Russia for a complete dinner and dessert service of 952 pieces, decorated with 1,244 views of English castles, abbeys, and famous houses, all of which were hand-painted at his own studio.

In 1786, Wedgwood borrowed the celebrated Barberini or Portland vase, one of the finest examples of Greco-Roman ceramics, and worked for more than three years to reproduce its shape in his then-new and revolutionary method. In later years, when the original was smashed by a drunkard in 1845, one of the Wedgwood copies was used as a guide to its restoration. Of about 43 first-edition Wedgwood copies made, the whereabouts of 38 are known.

Josiah Wedgwood was an outstanding chemist, a brilliant scientist, and a gifted inventor - his best-known invention being the pyrometer, an instrument for measuring extreme heat. This led to his election as a fellow of the Royal Society ``... as a Gentleman likely to prove a useful & valuable Member.''

His championship of the cause of freedom everywhere prompted him to produce a special Jasper slave medallion, based on the emblem of the Anti-Slavery Society, showing the figure of a kneeling suppliant black slave in manacles and inscribed: ``Am I not a man and a brother?'' He also championed the American War of Independence, declaring: ``I bless my stars and Lord North that America is free.''

Wedgwood considered his greatest achievement was his Jasper, an unglazed vitreous fine stoneware which could be stained blue, green, lilac, yellow, or black to provide a suitable background for classical reliefs and portraits in the same material.

The present Wedgwood factory at Barlaston stands on a beautiful 500-acre estate, employing 2,500 highly skilled workers. It is the most modern and extensive factory of its kind in the world and includes a visitor center where one can see the traditional skills of craftsmen and women at work, as well as a fascinating museum collection.

The ``father of English potters'' died in 1795. ``He was the greatest man who ever, in any age or country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry,'' wrote 19th-century British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

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