Free access biography from Dictionary of National Biography
Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795), master potter, was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, probably on 12 July 1730, the date on which his baptism was registered at St John's Church in that parish. He was the thirteenth and youngest child of Thomas Wedgwood (1687–1739) and his wife, Mary,née Stringer (d. 1766), of Churchyard Pottery. The Wedgwood family had a long connection with Staffordshire pottery, starting with Josiah's great-great-grandfather, Gilbert Wedgwood, who is recorded as working a small pottery in Burslem towards the end of the seventeenth century. No trace has been found of any wares made by Thomas Wedgwood and it is probable that, like other potters, he supplemented his small income from it by farming a smallholding on the same land.
Scarcely anything is known of Josiah's childhood. He was brought up in the thatched Churchyard house and pottery, which Thomas Wedgwood had inherited from his father, and began his education at about the age of six, walking the 7 miles round trip to attend a small school in Newcastle under Lyme. His mother was the daughter of the Unitarian minister at Newcastle under Lyme, and she brought up her children in the same faith. Josiah's father died in 1739, bequeathing the small family business to his eldest son, Thomas, and on 11 November 1744 Josiah was apprenticed for five years to his brother at the Churchyard works to learn the 'Art of Throwing and Handleing' (Reilly, Wedgwood, 1.26–7). The terms of the contract are significant because the difficult art of throwing was the most highly rated of all the potter's skills and only those expected to become master potters served such an apprenticeship.
At an early stage of his indenture, probably about 1745 or 1746, Josiah suffered a severe attack of smallpox which left his right knee permanently weakened, and he was unable without assistance to work the 'kick-wheel' that provided the motive power of the thrower's wheel.
Wedgwood's business partners and marriage
Josiah nevertheless acquired considerable skill as a thrower and completed his apprenticeship. He continued to work for his brother until 1752, when he formed a partnership with John Harrison and Thomas Alders of Cliff Bank, Stoke-on-Trent. Two years later he was taken into partnership by Thomas Whieldon, one of the most respected potters in England, at his factory at Fenton Vivian, near Stoke. According to his experiment book, Wedgwood's work with Whieldon was largely concerned with the improvement of ceramic bodies, glazes, colours, and shapes, and it is clear that his efforts were directed principally towards the development of lead-glazed, cream-coloured earthenware ('creamware') and the creation and improvement of coloured glazes. He wrote later of this period: 'I saw the field was spacious, and the soil so good, as to promise an ample recompence to any one who should labour diligently in its cultivation' (Wedgwood MS 29–19121).
In 1759 Wedgwood left Whieldon to become an independent potter, renting the Ivy House works for £15 a year and hiring his cousin, Thomas Wedgwood, as journeyman. By 1765 Thomas was Josiah's principal assistant and a year later he was taken into partnership with a one-eighth share of the profits. This partnership, which was limited to the production of 'useful' wares (generally, tablewares), lasted until 1788.
Little evidence exists of the wares produced at the Ivy House works, but they almost certainly included typical Staffordshire pottery of the period for which there was an established market: salt-glazed stoneware, redware, and earthenware decorated with glazes in imitation of agate, marbling, and tortoiseshell. To these Wedgwood would have been anxious to add ware decorated with his fine green and yellow glazes, perfected in March 1759 and 1760, and his first cauliflower and pineapple shapes probably date from this period. His most important development, however, was the further improvement of his creamware body and in September 1761 a small quantity of this was bought from him by John Sadler of Liverpool, probably for experiments in transfer-printed decoration. The first delivery of Sadler's printed decoration on Wedgwood's creamware was made in March 1762. From 1762 Sadler and his partner Guy Green decorated increasingly large quantities of Wedgwood's creamware, which was sent to Liverpool for the purpose, and this valuable business, which grew rapidly in worth from £30 a month in 1763 to £650 a month in 1771, continued at least until 1795.
Wedgwood's success with these early wares enabled him, by the beginning of 1763, to move to the larger Brick House ('Bell') works. The change coincided with his decision to commission supplies of salt-glazed wares (which he ceased to produce in his own factory), moulded shapes, and large quantities of biscuit (unglazed) wares from William Greatbatch, a former employee of Whieldon's, who had set up his own pottery.
In the spring of 1762, while on a visit to Liverpool, Wedgwood fell and damaged his vulnerable right knee. Confined to his bed he was attended by Dr Matthew Turner, who introduced his patient to Thomas Bentley, a cultivated man, already experienced in commerce, who had acquired both classical learning and a knowledge of French and Italian. The two men found that their personalities were both compatible and complementary, and they began a friendship which was the foundation of one of the foremost manufacturing partnerships in industrial history. In Wedgwood's letters to Bentley, more than 1000 of which have been preserved, there has survived a remarkably full and lively account of their intimate association, which was to last for more than eighteen years. Bentley's replies, all but a few of them now lost, were described by Wedgwood as 'my Magazines, Reviews, Chronicles, & I had allmost said my Bible' (Wedgwood MS 25–18256, September 1769).
From the start Wedgwood demonstrated an initiative unique among potters of his time, and he was usually the first to adopt or adapt innovative aids and techniques. An important example was the engine-turning lathe, primarily a metalworking tool, the use of which he introduced to pottery in 1763.
On 25 January 1764 Wedgwood married Sarah (1734–1815), the daughter of his kinsman Richard Wedgwood, a prosperous merchant and the eldest brother of Thomas and John Wedgwood of the Big House, Burslem, from whom Josiah had rented the Ivy House works five years earlier. Sarah was a substantial heiress and brought with her a considerable dowry, said to have been £4000, which came under Wedgwood's control. It was a love match, successfully negotiated in spite of initial opposition from her father, and there is ample evidence that the marriage was a happy one. Sarah was intelligent, shrewd, and well educated—better, in fact, than her husband—and they shared a broad sense of humour and a strong sense of family duty. In the first years of their marriage, she helped Josiah with his work, learning the codes and formulae in which he recorded his experiments, keeping accounts, and giving practical advice on shapes and decoration.
In 1765 Wedgwood opened his first London showrooms in Charles Street, off Grosvenor Square, and in June he received a commission to make an elaborate tea service in green and gold creamware for Queen Charlotte. In the following year he was officially appointed potter to her majesty and his creamware was renamed 'Queen's ware'.
In 1766 Wedgwood bought for £3000 the Ridgehouse estate of some 350 acres, situated between Burslem, Hanley, and Newcastle under Lyme, and built there a factory which he named Etruria. A crucial advantage of the location of the factory was its position in the path of the projected Trent and Mersey Canal, in the promotion of which Wedgwood played an active part. He was also a leader in the fight for turnpike roads to improve communications between the Staffordshire potteries, London, and Liverpool.
Bentley, meanwhile, had formed a partnership in Liverpool with Samuel Boardman and, starting in 1764, had built up a solid and expanding trade in Wedgwood wares, much of which he shipped to America and the West Indies. In February 1767, after fourteen months of persuasion and discussion, Bentley agreed to become Wedgwood's partner in the manufacture of ornamental wares, for which the Etruria factory was to be designed. This project was threatened when, in April 1768, Wedgwood 'over walk'd & over work'd' his right knee (Wedgwood MS 17760, 30 April 1768); four weeks later, his leg was amputated, without anaesthetic, in his own house, by a local surgeon. By the third week of June, Wedgwood was sufficiently recovered to visit his Burslem factory and the Etruria site, and shortly afterwards he was fitted with the first of the wooden legs which he wore for the rest of his life.
The Wedgwood and Bentley partnership books were opened in November 1768, and the Etruria factory was officially inaugurated on 13 June 1769, a date commemorated by the production of six 'First Day's Vases' thrown by Wedgwood on a wheel turned by Bentley. Products of the new partnership included cameos, medallions, tablets for chimney pieces, and library busts in Wedgwood's refined black stoneware which he called black basaltes. Far more important were the ornamental vases, an innovation in English pottery, formerly thought fine enough only for tableware. By the end of 1768 Wedgwood had three types of vases in production: creamware, often enriched with gilding; 'variegated', in imitation of natural stones such as agate, marble, porphyry, and lapis lazuli; and black basaltes, ornamented in bas-relief or, from 1769, painted in imitation of Greek and Roman red-figure vases. He told Bentley that it was his modest intention to become 'Vase Maker General to the Universe' (Wedgwood MS 25–18240, 1 May 1769). By August 1772 he already had 'upwards of 100 Good Forms of Vases' (Wedgwood MS 25–18392, 23 Aug 1772), most of them copied or adapted from shapes illustrated in books of engravings but disguised by altered ornament or added decoration.
The display of Wedgwood's vases in the Wedgwood and Bentley London showrooms, which moved in 1768 to larger premises in Great Newport Street, created a new fashion—a 'violent Vase Madness' (Wedgwood MS 25–18314, 2 Aug 1770), which, by its sudden success, revealed serious flaws in the management of the partnership. Wedgwood was heavily in debt. Although profits for both partnerships were satisfactory, failure to regulate production had led to a vast accumulation of stock and a serious lack of ready cash, classic symptoms of uncontrolled expansion with insufficient capital resources. The pricing of ornamental wares was haphazard, production runs were often too short to be economical, and the lack of a costing system had allowed the wasteful use of labour and materials to go unnoticed. Wedgwood responded to the threat to the business by planning production and creating a 'price book of workmanship', one of the first essays in cost accounting in the history of manufacturing (Reilly, Josiah Wedgwood, 112–14).
It was not only the products of the Etruria factory that were innovative: the layout of the factory and the management techniques employed there were exceptionally advanced, and the finished estate included an elegant house, Etruria Hall, for the Wedgwood family, and housing for many of the workers. Wedgwood insisted on strict factory discipline but he subsidized an early form of sick-benefit scheme, and conditions for work at Etruria compared favourably with those to be found anywhere in Europe. Originally intended for the production of ornamental wares only, the plan of the factory was extended in 1767 to embrace the Queen's ware 'useful' wares, the production of which was moved from the Brick House works in 1772.
Queen Charlotte's patronage of Wedgwood's creamware was followed by orders for tableware from the king and many of the nobility. In 1770 Wedgwood received his first order from Empress Catherine II of Russia. Three years later she commissioned a large Queen's ware dinner and dessert service of nearly 1000 pieces for the Chesmensky Palace, familiarly known as La Grenouillière (the frog marsh). The 'Frog' service, then the largest ever ordered from a British potter, was decorated with hand-painted landscapes and a frog emblem at Wedgwood's Chelsea decorating studio, supervised by Bentley. Its completion in 1774 marked the removal of the firm's London showrooms from Great Newport Street to even larger premises in Greek Street, where the service was displayed, by invitation, to the public. This great service is now permanently exhibited at the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.
Wedgwood's Queen's ware, the most influential development in the history of British pottery, achieved almost a monopoly of the high-quality earthenware tableware market in Europe. It was widely imitated, notably in France (faience-fine, faience anglaise), Germany (Steingut), and Italy (terraglia), and by the end of the century the manufacture of the traditional European tin-glazed earthenware had virtually ceased.
From 1772 it was Wedgwood's policy to mark everything made at Etruria. He was the first earthenware potter consistently to mark his goods and the first ever to use his own name, which was impressed in the clay. He and Bentley undertook market research, cultivating influential patrons (several of whom permitted him to copy objects in their private collections), enlisting the help of ambassadors, and taking pains to produce wares suited to specific markets. In 1771–2, in a daring and ultimately successful experiment in inertia selling, unsolicited parcels of ware were sent to many of the noble houses of Germany in the hope of attracting orders and advertising the quality of the goods. Between 1773 and 1787 Wedgwood issued illustrated catalogues of his Queen's ware and ornamental wares, the later editions being published in French, German, and Dutch translations.
Design played an important part in Wedgwood's success and he owed to Bentley his conversion to the neo-classical style, which he applied to his Queen's ware tablewares as he did to his ornamental wares at a time when all other pottery and porcelain manufacturers were dedicated to the rococo.
Wedgwood became a master potter at a time when it was the ambition of almost every potter in Europe to make porcelain. His commonplace book shows that he was well informed about porcelain manufacture, but he was also aware of the crippling losses associated with it and the failure of many of the English factories which had made it. In 1775 he led the potters when they successfully contested the renewal of Richard Champion's patent for the exclusive use of Cornish clay and china stone, but he failed in his attempt to establish a 'Public Experimental Work' in co-operation with other leading Staffordshire potters for the manufacture of 'an useful white porcelain body' (Reilly, Josiah Wedgwood, 311–12).
By that time Wedgwood was well advanced with his long and arduous series of more than 5000 recorded experiments which culminated in his invention of jasper, but it was not until November 1777 that he was able to assure Bentley that he could make it 'with as much facility & certainty' as the black basaltes (Wedgwood MS 25–18790, 3 Nov 1777). The most significant ceramic invention since that of porcelain by the Chinese nearly a thousand years earlier, jasper was an original white stoneware body which was capable of being stained by metallic oxides and ornamented in bas-relief to produce the two-colour appearance of cameos. It was perfectly suited to neo-classical decoration, and the colours that Wedgwood chose for his new medallions, plaques, and tablets for chimney pieces were intended to complement those most fashionable in interior decoration. It was no coincidence that they closely matched some of those used by Robert Adam. Wedgwood developed advanced ornamenting techniques to produce in jasper an enormous variety of ornamental wares from buttons to vases, and his cameos were mounted in metal as jewellery or as ornament for boxes, cabinets, and clocks.
The smaller designs for Wedgwood's bas-relief ornaments were cast or copied from antique gems, often borrowed from the collections of such patrons as the duke of Marlborough and Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Portraits of 'Illustrious Moderns', of which Wedgwood produced more than 300 as jasper medallions, and larger reliefs, were modelled for him by professional sculptors and modellers, including the younger John Flaxman and Joachim Smith in London, or by William Hackwood, employed at Etruria for sixty-three years. After Bentley's death in 1780 Wedgwood extended his range of commissioned models, setting up a studio in Rome. There Italian sculptors, supervised by Flaxman and Henry Webber, were employed to adapt subjects from the antique, buying work from London modellers and using designs in the Romantic style from three gifted amateur artists, Lady Diana Beauclerk, Lady Templetown, and Emma Crewe.
From 1781 Wedgwood was able to make jasper vases, for several of which Flaxman also provided bas-relief ornaments, and it was Flaxman who in February 1785 drew Wedgwood's attention to the Portland vase. In 1786 Wedgwood obtained permission to copy it in jasper. Work on the vase continued for more than three years before he was able to send the first perfect copy to his friend, Dr Erasmus Darwin, who later included a description of it in The Botanic Garden (1791), with an illustration engraved by William Blake. Wedgwood's jasper Portland vase was exhibited in London in May 1790 and copies were sold by subscription. Fine 'first edition' vases rank among the greatest technical achievements of European pottery and they provided a triumphant finale to Wedgwood's career.
In 1782 Wedgwood had worked on a method for improving the accuracy of firing pottery. His new instrument for measuring heat in the kilns, a form of thermoscope, was called a 'pyrometer', and he read the first of four papers describing his invention to the Royal Society in May of that year. He was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1783. In March 1786 he was elected fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and in October of the same year fellow of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.
Wedgwood's interest in the arts was undoubtedly stimulated by his long friendship with Bentley and by his association with patrons whose collections he was invited to visit. In 1780 George Stubbs, at whose request Wedgwood had made some large earthenware tablets for the artist to paint on, was his guest at Etruria. Stubbs stayed for several months, making sketches for a large painting on panel of the Wedgwood family, painting portraits on Wedgwood's ceramic plaques of Josiah and Sarah and on panel of her father, Richard, and modelling two large bas-reliefs for reproduction in jasper and black basaltes. Portraits of both Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood were painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1784, and in 1785 Wedgwood bought three paintings from Joseph Wright of Derby. As the Reynolds portrait shows, Wedgwood's features were undistinguished and his dress unostentatious; but the jaw is firm and the grey-blue eyes show humour as well as resolution. The subject's high colour may be evidence of his fondness for red meat, porter, and fortified wines. Profile portraits of Wedgwood, modelled by Joachim Smith and William Hackwood, were reproduced in jasper.
Wedgwood's geological explorations in search of raw materials, and his chemical experiments in their use, often required the superior scientific knowledge and experience of his friends. After Bentley his closest friend was Dr Erasmus Darwin, Sarah Wedgwood's 'favourite Esculapius' (Wedgwood MS 25–18430, 26 Dec 1772), who attended the family whenever serious illness threatened and who inoculated the Wedgwood children against smallpox. Darwin was a member of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Wedgwood's membership is disputed but it is certain that he attended meetings of the society, where he met Joseph Priestley, James Watt, William Withering, and other members, as well as distinguished visiting speakers. From about 1779 Wedgwood freely supplied Priestley and other scientists with chemical wares for their experiments, and in 1791 he offered Priestley a home at Etruria after the Birmingham riots in which his house and laboratory were destroyed. Matthew Boulton, also a member of the society and famous for his manufacture of metalwork of the highest quality, was for many years a friendly rival whom Wedgwood described as 'very ingenious, philosophical & agreeable' (Wedgwood MS 25–18147, 23 May 1767).
Of the seven children of Josiah and Sarah Wedgwood born between 1765 and 1778, two died young: their second son, Richard, who lived less than a year, and their youngest daughter, Mary Ann, who was retarded and suffered from fits and died at the age of eight. The eldest child, Susannah, Josiah's favourite, was to marry Erasmus Darwin's son, Robert; their fifth child was the naturalist Charles Darwin. The three surviving sons, John, Josiah, and Tom [see Wedgwood, Thomas], were educated privately before going on to Edinburgh University. All received training in the pottery business but in 1779 Wedgwood confided to Bentley that he expected his eldest son to be 'settled as a gentleman farmer' while Josiah (II) and Tom were to be 'potters & partners in trade' (Wedgwood MS 26–18946, 19 Dec 1779). Despite Bentley's warnings Wedgwood indulged his children and was especially patient with his sons. Although privately he hoped that all three might follow him in the firm, he told them that they should 'judge for themselves before they engaged in it' (Wedgwood MS W/M 32, 17 June 1793). Wedgwood's cousin Thomas, his partner in the manufacture of 'useful' wares, left the firm in 1788 and died shortly afterwards, leaving Wedgwood in sole control. Only Wedgwood's nephew, Tom Byerley, to whom he had entrusted the London showrooms after Bentley's death, combined sufficient experience in the business with a genuine desire to share the burden.
In 1790 Wedgwood nevertheless took his three sons and his nephew into partnership and began progressively to retire from active control; but his plan 'to ease myself of increasing care in the decline of life' (Wedgwood MS W/M 32, 17 June 1793) was frustrated by the resignation of both his eldest and his youngest sons from their partnerships in 1793. Tom, the cleverest of the brothers, was later to be known as one of the pioneers of photography.
Wedgwood's political sympathies were generally whig and towards the end of his life he found more time for activity in this area. He founded the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, acting as spokesman for the pottery industry in opposition to Pitt's proposed commercial treaty with Ireland, and as adviser to William Eden in negotiations for the French commercial treaty of 1786. His enthusiasm for the French Revolution was less public and less sustained than his belief in the American cause in 1776; but he was unequivocal in his championship of the campaign for abolition of the slave trade, becoming a committee member of an anti-slavery society, distributing pamphlets, and issuing a jasper cameo depicting a kneeling slave in chains.
In November 1794 Wedgwood's health began to fail and he took several weeks away from the potteries, leaving the management of Etruria in the hands of his second son. Erasmus Darwin was consulted and Wedgwood appeared to recover, but a few weeks later his face swelled and he suffered acute pain in the jaw, attributed to a decayed tooth. The surgeon summoned to extract it discovered 'signs of mortification' and Darwin decided that nothing could be done. Wedgwood's condition deteriorated rapidly and he became unconscious. He died, probably from cancer of the jaw, on 3 January 1795, at Etruria Hall. He was buried on the 6th in the parish church of Stoke-on-Trent. Seven years later a marble memorial tablet commissioned by his sons was installed there. The portrait, carved in high relief by John Flaxman, was considered a good likeness and the inscription bore a suitable tribute, but the tablet is remarkable for the date, 'August 1730', given for Wedgwood's birth, suggesting that the present-day ignorance of his early life was shared by his family. Wedgwood's will was proved on 2 July 1795. He had made substantial gifts to his children during his lifetime but the total value of his estate nevertheless approached £500,000.
Josiah Wedgwood belonged to the fourth generation of a family of potters whose traditional occupation continued through another five generations. No other family business is recorded as surviving in unbroken succession for so long. The reason for its survival is plain: the strength of its foundations. Wedgwood was the most innovative of English potters and, in his time, the most enlightened. As he told his young cousin, Ralph Wedgwood, 'Everything gives way to experiment' (Reilly, Josiah Wedgwood, 311). Gladstone paid tribute to him in 1863 as 'the greatest man who ever, in any age or country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry' (Reilly, Wedgwood, 1.16). Wedgwood himself might have preferred the less fulsome appreciation inscribed on his monument: 'He converted a rude and inconsiderable Manufactory into an elegant Art and An important part of the National Commerce'.
Oxford DNB: Robin Reilly, 'Wedgwood, Josiah (1730–1795)',Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2007 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/28966, accessed 12 March 2009]
J. Smith, Wedgwood medallion, c.1773, Man. City Gall. · W. Mackwood, Wedgwood medallion, 1779, NPG · G. Stubbs, ceramic colours on ceramic, 1780, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston [see illus.] · G. Stubbs, group portrait, oils, 1780 (The Wedgwood family), Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston · W. Hackwood, ceramic relief medallion, 1782, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston · J. Reynolds, oils, 1784, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston · E. Davis, bronze statue, 1860, Stoke-on-Trent railway station; copy, Wedgwood factory, Barlaston · Chitqua, miniature · J. Flaxman, marble relief on memorial tablet, St Peter ad Vincula, Stoke-on-Trent; copy, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston · attrib. J. Reynolds, oils, Down House, London · S. W. Reynolds, engraving (after J. Reynolds, 1784) · J. Smith, ceramic relief medallion, Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston · R. Unwin, miniature · J. T. Wedgwood, engraving (after J. Reynolds, 1784)
Wealth at death
approx. £500,000: will, Wedgwood, History of the Wedgwood family,  173–5