How Did Josiah Wedgwood Become One of Britain’s Greatest Entrepreneurs?

Alice Loxton

5 mins

22 Oct 2019

Famed as the ‘Father of English Potters’, Josiah Wedgwood led English pottery from a cottage craft to a prestigious art form sustaining an international business.

He was a pioneer of modern marketing, a prominent abolitionist and the grandfather of Darwin. Here’s the story of Wedgwood’s remarkable success.

Experiment and innovation

Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730 to a family of potters from Staffordshire. They were English Dissenters, and Josiah’s grandfather was an active Unitarian minister. At the age of nine, Josiah’s father died, which forced him to start working as a thrower, working with clay on a spinning disc. Soon he worked as an apprentice for his eldest brother, Thomas Wedgwood IV.

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However, a vicious bout of smallpox left him with a seriously weakened right knee, proving almost impossible to work the foot pedal of a potter’s wheel. After years of discomfort, he eventually had his leg amputated in in 1768, at the age of 38. As a result, from an early age, he indulged in experimentation on the design and development of pottery.

His family business produced pottery which was inexpensive and poor quality, black and mottled. Josiah was determined to do better.

By 1750, there were about 130 potteries in North Staffordshire, mostly producing black and red glazed wares. Wedgwood’s innovation came in transforming the clumsy earthenware body of pottery into an elegant product suitable for elite society. He must have felt a huge sense of achievement when he wrote in his experiment book, ‘A Good wt. [white] Glaze’.

Wedgwood tea and coffee service from 1765, Wedgwood’s creamware was hugely popular as a cheaper equivalent of porcelain. Image source: Valerie McGlinchey / CC BY-SA 2.0 uk.

The exuberance and splendour of rococo and baroque had become distasteful, and the intricacies of chinoiserie seemed dated. Fashionable neo-classical tastes demanded the purity and simplicity of antiquity – Wedgwood’s white glaze fitted the bill perfectly.

He wrote to his brother in 1765,

‘I have begun a course of experiments for a white body & glaze which promises well hitherto’.

In 1762, Josiah met Thomas Bentley, a Liverpool merchant who became a lifelong friend. Bentley’s extensive travels in Europe acquiring knowledge of classical and Renaissance art would influence Wedgwood’s designs and allow him to capture the neo-classical style.

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His big break came later in 1765, when Queen Charlotte commissioned ‘A complete sett of tea things’ – including a dozen cups for coffee, six fruit baskets and stands, six melon preserve pots and six hand candlesticks.

Determined to make the most of this royal connection, he gained permission to style himself ‘Potter to Her Majesty’ and title this cream earthenware as ‘Queen’s Ware’.

Wedgwood’s pieces became the height of fashion, with orders flying in from across the globe. Empress Catherine the Great of Russia requested a service of Queen’s Ware, receiving 952 pieces in 1774.

Wedgwood’s designs have retained a place in royal households ever since – they adorned the banqueting tables at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and a 1,282 piece dinner service was ordered by The White House during President Roosevelt’s time in office.

Jasperware 

Around 1771, Wedgwood began experimentation with Jasperware, a type pottery which had a ‘biscuit’ finish – matte and unglazed. The fired body of the vase was naturally white, but could be stained with metallic oxides – chromium oxide for sage green, cobalt oxide for blue, manganese oxide for lilac and the salt of antimony for yellow.

His pale blue was so popular it became known as ‘Wedgwood Blue’.

Trial colourings for Jasperware, with numbers keyed to Wedgwood’s Experiment Book, 1773-1776.

Relief decorations were applied in contrasting colours, usually white. These reliefs were produced in moulds and applied as sprigs, which were low relief shapes made separately and applied to it before firing.

The design of these reliefs was inspired by classical art, popularised by recent excavations in Italy – Pompeii was rediscovered by a surveying engineer in 1748. However, contemporary tastes considered some naked figures ‘too warm’, and the sensuality of Greek gods too readily apparent. As always, Wedgwood was quick to respond to his customer demands, providing clothing or fig leaves to satisfy sensibilities.

The Portland Vase

One of the great inspirations for Wedgwood’s work was the collection of Sir William Hamilton. Hamilton, whose wife was the mistress of Nelson, was British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800. He became an important figure for British visitors in Italy, and housed an impressive collection of antiquities – including the Portland Vase, a Roman cameo glass vase.

Hamilton leant this vase to Wedgwood in 1784 after a fellow sculpture described it as

‘the finest production of Art that has been brought to England and seems to be the very apex of perfection to which you are endeavouring’.

The original Roman vase which Wedgwood spent four years trying to replicate. Images source: Jastrow / CC BY 2.5.

Wedgwood spent four years of painstaking trials attempting to duplicate the vase in black and white jasperware. His numerous attempts (on display at the V&A), suffered from cracking and blistering, and the sprigged reliefs peeled off during firing.

Finally, in 1790, the Portland Vase was recreated in Wedgwood’s stoneware – perhaps his pièce de résistance. When it was exhibited in The British Museum later that year, the initial showing had 1,900 tickets, which sold out immediately.

The inventor of modern marketing

Wedgwood’s London showroom in 1809, located in St James’ Square.

Wedgwood’s innovation was not limited to the kiln – he is often credited as the inventor of modern marketing. Utilising the demands of the consumer revolution and the growth of the middle classes, he invented a multitude of savvy sales techniques: money back guarantees, direct mail, travelling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, illustrated catalogues and buy one get one free.

Great care was taken with opening times, and new products were held back to increase demand.

His warehouses in London became the most fashionable places to meet. Soon, showrooms were established in Bath, Liverpool and Dublin. All the produce was made in the custom-built estate and factory in Staffordshire, named Etruria after the Italian district famed for artistry. 

A prominent abolitionist

Wedgwood was a prominent slavery abolitionist, derived from a friendship with the campaigner Thomas Clarkson. He mass-produced a slave medallion supporting the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which became the one of the most famous images associated with the abolition campaigns.

Thomas Clarkson described the success of the medallion:

‘ladies 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 honorable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom’

Wedgwood’s medallion read ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ Image source: Daderot / CC0.

A family of innovators

Wedgwood was a good friend of the physician, botanist and poet, Erasmus Darwin. On the death of his business partner, Thomas Bentley, Wedgwood asked Darwin to help manage the business. A result of this close association was the marriage of their children: Robert Darwin married Susannah Wedgwood.

One of their children – the grandson of Josiah – was Charles Darwin, who proposed the first theory of evolution through natural selection. The great inherited wealth of Wedgwood success funded Charles’ place on the Voyage of the Beagle and provided a private income to sustain the vocation of natural history. He would then marry another Wedgwood, his first cousin Emma.

The Wedgwood fortune greatly benefited Darwin’s ability to pursue natural history.