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The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt

26 November 2021

Suzanne Fagence Cooper considers the Wedgwood legacy

TRISTRAM HUNT’s biography of Josiah Wedgwood presents the entrepreneurial potter as a central figure in the commercial and intellectual world of 18th-century England. Hunt tops and tails his study by discussing the Potteries in the context of globalised trade. He explains how Wedgwood’s vases were paraded before the Chinese Emperor, and how his creamware was admired by fashionable households from New York to St Petersburg.

Wedgwood was not just an inventor: he recognised the importance of marketing and staying ahead of the competition. Hunt unpicks the networks of patronage which took the famous “Frog” service from Staffordshire to the palace of Catherine the Great. In a remarkable publicity coup, Wedgwood flattered Britain’s aristocrats by including views of their country seats on the dishes, ice-pails, and tureens destined for the Russian Court. And then he sold tickets to view the dinner service in his fancy new showrooms in London. As Wedgwood said, he wanted to “astonish the world all at once, for I hate piddling you know”.

He continued to astonish his customers and colleagues until he retired in 1790. It took him years to perfect the rich colours of his jasperware. He weathered the commercial storms of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution. He impressed the Royal Society with his experiments. Like many of his friends in the Lunar Society, he favoured religious toleration and campaigned for the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. Wedgwood was a moderniser, streamlining production in his factories. He was remembered for converting “this rugged pott-making spot of earth” into a centre of “utility, elegance and splendour”, known the world over.

Hunt’s retelling of Wedgwood’s life is wide-ranging and enthusiastic. He addresses 18th-century concerns about the emergence of consumer society, and the “rage of pleasure and unmanly dissipation” which “created a train of new necessities”. Here, and in other chapters, however, it would be interesting to tease out this gendered question of taste, and to hear more about female employees and patrons.

Wedgwood’s recent history is the focus of a hard-hitting epilogue. Hunt bears witness to the demise of the brand’s empire since 2000. He served as MP for Stoke-on-Trent, and is now Director of the V&A Museum, where the Wedgwood Museum collection is preserved. Hunt itemises the “culture of corporate excess” which tore the heart out of the business. The new owners ignored the principles established by Wedgwood himself. He knew that “the Desire of selling much in a little Time, without respect to the Taste or Quality of the Goods” ruins the reputation of a company.

It is clear that Wedgwood’s story can still offer useful lessons about globalisation, patriotism, and “the corrupt exertion of privilege”.

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a curator, lecturer and writer. Her latest book, How We Might Live: At home with Jane and William Morris, will be published by Quercus in June 2022.


The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the transformation of Britain
Tristram Hunt
Allen Lane £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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