Biography of Josiah Wedgwood

Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood was an eighteenth century potter, industrialist and designer.

When and Where was he Born?

12th July 1730, Burslem, Staffordshire, England.

Family Background:

Josiah Wedgewood’s family were all potters and he was the thirteenth and youngest son.

Education:

Dame school in Burslem and elementary school in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. (Dame schools were run by women, usually elderly, in their own homes).

Timeline of Josiah Wedgwood:

1730: Wedgwood was baptised on July 12th. At the age of nine he leaves school and is apprenticed to the family firm at Churchyard Works.

1739: Death of his father. Wedgwood now works for his older brother at the Churchyard works in Burslem and becomes skillful on the potter’s wheel.

1741: He has an attack of smallpox and his work as a potter becomes difficult. The disease affects his right leg. Unable to work for some time he spends his time reading and researching about pottery.

1744: Wedgwood becomes apprenticed to his brother Thomas.

1752: Thomas refuses to enter into a formal partnership with Josiah so he begins to look elsewhere.

1754: Josiah Wedgwood goes into a partnership with Thomas Whieldon of Fenton Low, Stoke on Trent. He first begins his experiment book at this time. In the early years he experimented quite a lot and his most notable triumph from this period was the green glaze.

1759: He sets up his own business in Burslem at the Ivy Works.

1762: He is introduced to Thomas Bentley in Liverpool by Matthew Turner and the two become friends. He perfects the cream ware of earthenware pottery. Wedgewood expands his business to the nearby Brick House (Bell Work).

1763: He patents his cream coloured pottery. This became known as Queen’s Ware as it was very popular with King George the Third’s wife Queen Charlotte. Next he turned his attention to Egyptian Black objects such as candlesticks, busts and vases where black basalts were sometimes decorated with colour or silver or gold.

1764: He marries Sarah (known as Sally) Wedgwood, his cousin on 25th January at Astbury, Derbyshire.

1765: He opens his first London showroom.

1766: He joins with the Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley in a project to build the Trent and Mersey Canal as he quickly saw that canals were very important to his business. He is appointed “Potter to Her Majesty”.

1767: Wedgwood enters a partnership with Bentley. He also works on trials to perfect the Black Basalt ware.

1768: Bentley and Wedgwood become partners in a company producing ornamental vases which quickly became very popular. He has to have his right leg amputated above the knee due to complications from his childhood smallpox.

1769: The official opening of the Etruria factory takes place on the 13th June. The ideas behind this model factory were closely based on the Soho manufactory of Matthew Boulton whom Wedgwood had known for some time, as both were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. (so called because meetings took place on evenings with a full moon so attendees could see their way to the venue). He employed many famous artists such as John Flaxman to paint his new vases. The factory became very efficient due to the Division of Labour theory of Adam Smith which principally meant giving specific jobs to an individual specialist.

1772: Wedgwood opens a showroom in Westgate Buildings, Bath.

1773: He receives a commission from Catherine the Great of Russia for a 944 dinner service which was delivered the following year. This is often known as the Frog Service due to its green frog motif on each piece (which Wedgwood disliked) and many examples of it are still on show in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg, Russia.

1774: Wedgwood is by now world famous and has requests from many of the other royal houses of Europe.

1775: Jasper ware is trialled for the first time and was followed by others such as rosso antico (red porcelain), cane, drab, chocolate, and olive wares. Jasper ware is normally described as stoneware with an unglazed matte “biscuit” finish. It is produced in a number of different colours as described above but the most common and best known is the pale blue that has become known as Wedgwood Blue.

1777: The opening of the Trent and Mersey Canal means that he could now easily bring Cornish china clay to his Etruria works. He also becomes a Unitarian, a religious movement which had social reform at its heart. He supports universal male suffrage and annual parliaments and becomes friendly with other reformers such as Joseph Priestley. His son Tom was to give an annual grant to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself once a Unitarian preacher.

1782: Josiah Wedgwood invents the pyrometer to measure the temperature of an object without touching it. The factory becomes the first in the country to introduce steam power in its production methods.

1783: He is elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

1787: He helps Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe found the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Wedgwood joins the committee and produces the society’s seal in his trademark silhouette style. Wedgwood was however to die before slavery was finally abolished. (See William Wilberforce).

1790: An exhibition id held in London of the Jasper Portland Vase. This was based on a glass Roman original from about 1 to 25 AD (currently in the British Museum) and is widely held to show the height to which his skills had developed. (See picture in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

When and Where did he Die?

3rd January 1795, Etruria, Staffordshire, England.

Age at Death:

64.

Marriage:

To Sarah (known as Sally) Wedgwood, his cousin on 25th Jan 1764 at Astbury, Derbyshire.

Site of Grave:

St. Peter ad Vincula Churchyard, Stoke-on-Trent.

Places of Interest:

BIRMINGHAM:

Museum and Art Gallery.

LONDON:

Victoria and Albert Museum.

STAFFORDSHIRE:

The Wedgwood Story, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent.