Childhood & Early Life
Josiah Wedgwood was the youngest child born to Thomas and Mary Wedgwood on July 12, 1730 in Burslem, Staffordshire. He had ten elder siblings.
Young Wedgwood was born in a family that were traditionally potters since 17th century. As such, it was only natural for Wedgwood to follow suit.
Following the death of his father in 1739, he engaged himself in the family’s pottery business. He apprenticed under his eldest brother, Thomas Wedgwood IV. Soon, he became a skilled potter.
Josiah Wedgwood’s health was a matter of concern since early age. He was struck with a bout of smallpox at a young age. The disease left him with an amputated right leg.
Following the weakened knee, he was unable to work the foot pedal of a potter’s wheel. As such, he concentrated his energy on designing pottery. He became involved with potter craft.
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Wedgwood began his career by working under Thomas Whieldon, a renowned English potter of that time. His skill and talent at pottery soon elevated him from an employee of Whieldon to the latter’s business partner in 1754.
As Whieldon’s business partner, Wedgwood’s career flourished. He excelled at the then pottery techniques and soon began experimenting with other varied techniques as well.
In 1759, Wedgwood terminated his partnership with Whieldon to set up his own business at Burslem. Initially, he opened his work at his cousin’s Ivy House Factory. Wedgwood aimed at transforming the crockery industry, replacing the clumsy wares by durable and simple ones.
His business gained a magnificent start as the cream-colored earthenware gained remarkable limelight. The then Queen Charlotte was so enticed by his collection that she made him the royal supplier in 1762. Having received the Queen’s patronage, Wedgwood’s collection soon became popularly known as ‘Queen’s Wares’ and was greatly in demand.
Wedgwood’s pottery collection became a standard domestic pottery and enjoyed a worldwide market due to its highly durable and serviceable nature. The huge demand for his products led to expansion of his enterprise from British Isles to Continent. For meeting the demand, Wedgwood expanded his business to the nearby Brick House factory
In 1768, he turned his merchant friend Thomas Bentley into his business partner for the manufacture of ornamental items. Following year, he opened a new factory at Etruria, near Stroke-on-Trent named Etruria Works. He even built a village for his workers in Etruria to live in comfortable surroundings.
Initially at Etruria Works, he mainly produced ornamental pottery. These basically comprised of unglazed stoneware in varied colors and forms, decorated in Neoclassical style.
Inspired by the black porcelain that was being excavated in Etruria district of Italy, he experimented with the duplication of the product and found his first commercial success in ‘Black Basalt’. Black basalt was often accompanied by red encaustic painting to imitate Greek red-figure vases.
He further experimented with barium sulphate and from it, produced jasper in 1773. A revolutionary ceramic material, jasperware soon dominated the market and found itself being imitated by the well-established and famed porcelain factories in Sevres and Meissen. During this time, he appointed sculptor John Flaxman at Etruria and translated the latter’s works of wax portraits and relief figures into jasperware.
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Between 1771 and 1773, he shifted the manufacture of useful wares to the Etruria factory. In 1774, Empress Catherine the Great of Russia ordered 952 pieces of Wegdwood’s creamware for the gargantuan service.
Wedgwood is credited for inventing the device for measuring high temperatures in kilns, called pyrometer. The device was highly valuable as it made gauging oven temperature possible. For this, he earned himself a place as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
Wedgwood did not limit his interest to art alone and was equally interested in efficient factory organization and enhancement of transport system. He greatly supported the Trent and Mersey Canal dug between the River Trent and River Mersey which he believed would assist in improving the transport of raw materials and finished wares. It was while supporting for the cause that he befriended Erasmus Darwin.
Following the death of his business partner Thomas Bentley in 1780, Wedgwood turned to his friend Darwin for assistance. The close association between Darwin and Wedgwood later resulted in family relations. It was Darwin who encouraged Wedgwood to invest in steam powered engines, which resulted in the installation of the first steam engine in a factory in 1782.
For much of his latter life, he concentrated his energy in producing a replica of the Portland Vase. After three years of hard work, in 1789, Wedgwood finally succeeded in producing a facsimile of the blue and white glass vase of the first century BC
The modern marketing schemes that we enjoy today bear their roots to Wedgwood for it was he who first introduced to the world the concepts of direct mail, money back guarantee, self-service, free delivery, traveling salesman, buy one get one free and illustrated catalogues.
Other than art, Wedgwood was an ardent slavery abolitionist. From 1787 until his death, he actively participated for the abolitionist cause. He designed the anti-slavery black medallion, ‘Am I Not A Man And A Brother?’ that brought public attention to the cause. Wedgwood also made the Sydney Cove medallion which commemorated the landing of the first fleet in Botany Bay.
Wedgwood first jumped to limelight with his cream-colored earthenware collection that enticed then Queen Charlotte. She was so impressed by his efficiency of turning the clumsy crockery into durable and serviceable piece that she hired him as the royal supplier. The patronage earned from the queen led his collection to be titled, ‘Queen’s wares’
Wedgwood most successful innovation came with the discovery of basalt and jasperware. While basalt was a hard, stone-like material, jasperware was a durable unglazed ware.
He invented the pyrometer, a device that is to measure the extremely high temperatures that are found in kilns during the firing of pottery
Personal Life & Legacy
Wedgwood married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood in January 1764. The couple was blessed with eight children.
On January 3, 1795, Wedgwood passed away from cancer of the jaw. Three days later, he was buried in the parish church of Stroke-on-Trent.
Posthumously, a locomotive was named after Wedgwood. It ran on the Churnet Valley Railway.
A plaque was constructed in his blue pottery style and was laid at the site of his London showrooms.