Josiah Wedgwood 1730 – 1795

“Vasemaker General to the Universe”

Timeline 1795

FireplaceBorn in Burslem, Staffordshire in 1730, Josiah Wedgwood was the youngest of 13 children of a pottery making family. When Josiah was just 9 years old his father died and the size of the family meant that he had to start earning his living so he was apprenticed to his elder brother as a potter. The work was hard and the days long and, when Josiah contracted smallpox that left him with a damaged knee, he could no longer work the kick-wheel for 10 hours a day so he had to find new ways to help the family. He studied the market and realised that there was a demand for more elegant designs and shapes than the heavy earthenware that Staffordshire was famous for.  He began a number of experiments to find a finer clay and better colours. At the age of 24 he found a sponsor in the form of Midlands potter Thomas Whieldon who financed the experiments. It was here that Wedgwood invented the clear green glaze that became commonplace on vegetable-shaped pottery that was popular in the 1750s.

Around the same time the taste for tea was growing in England and Josiah took over a pottery kiln in Burslem where he made teapots to exploit the market. Around the same time imports of fine porcelain from China were being bought by the rich but the middle classes could not afford the delicate blue and white items. Wedgwood began another series of experiments to manufacture a cheaper alternative that gave as fine a result as the Chinese wares. It took more than 4,000 experiments before he developed his cream ware for which he was to become well-known. 

In 1764 he married his cousin Sarah and opened a new factory, the Bell Works, in Burslem. The following year he was commissioned by George III’s wife Queen Charlotte to make a dinner service. The set was such a success that Josiah began calling himself “Potter to Her Majesty” and everyone wanted the new “Queensware” tableware. Soon after with business partner Thomas Bentley he opened showrooms in London and launched the country’s first mail-order homeware service. New styles were being introduced to the Wedgwood range and he began to make English copies of some Etruscan vases that had been discovered during the recent excavations at Pompeii. Wedgwood refined the black Staffordshire ware to create a fine pottery he called “basalt”.

DetailThe demand for Wedgwood’s pieces made him understand that he needed an efficient transport system to deliver it and he soon realised that the new canal system was ideal. Unlike pannier carriage by donkey on rough turnpike roads, canal journeys were smooth and less hazardous to cargo. He supported the Trent and Mersey Canal, which linked The Potteries to Liverpool and brought new markets as well as making it easier to bring in raw materials.   It was around the same time that he built his largest works “Etruria” named after the Italian style that had brought him fame.

He also began work to find lighter coloured clays to exploit the changing taste for pastel colours that was sweeping the country in home decoration. After another 5,000 experiments he discovered the recipe for the green and blue Jasper wares that today symbolise a “typical” Wedgwood piece. Ever the scientist he designed a pyrometer that measured shrinkage in a piece of clay so that the exact temperature of a kiln could be gauged so that more repeatable conditions could be applied to kilns to reduce waste. For his invention he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. Perhaps Wedgwood’s most famous piece was his copy of the Portland Vase, which he made in black Jasper that replicated the classic glass original. It was produced in 1789.
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