Josiah Wedgwood : First Name in Pottery and Porcelain Part I


Wedgwood was a family name long before it came as close as any surname can to being synonymous with a craft. Josiah Wedgwood was not even the first potter to bare the name. His great-great-grandfather, Gilbert is described in a surviving document as a master potter.

The man that would eventually be credited with bringing the industrial revolution to pottery was born in 1730. He was the youngest of the thirteen children of Thomas Wedgwood IV and his wife Mary nee Stringer. Josiah’s father owned a pottery firm called the Churchyard Works and was assisted by an older son also called Thomas.

Two of Josiah Wedgwood’s uncles would make marks on the pottery industry as well. The pair invented a method for measuring the temperature of a kiln that greatly improved the way pottery was fired. They also revolutionized the way pottery was delivered to distant London for sale, making the business more profitable.

Josiah’s early education taught him to read, to write, and the basics of arithmetic but it was short lived. His father died when he was only nine years old and the family business passed into the hands of his elder brother. From his father’s estate Josiah was left £ 20 and he would not receive even that sum for nearly forty years.

Josiah left school to work in the family shop but it would five years before he would get the honor and complicated set of legalistic restrictions that went with the title apprentice. It does not appear as if the brother’s were particularly close and they would part ways as soon as Josiah came of age.

When he was 12 his family was stricken by one of the numerous rounds smallpox made through England. The entire Wedgwood clan took ill but seemingly all survived. Young Josiah was left with a badly infected knee that left him somewhat lame. While a bum leg is bad enough for anybody for a potter ' s apprentice it is cataclysmic. After his illness it was impossible for him to operate a potters wheel.

He continued to work in his brother ' s shop however and developed all the other skills essential to becoming a master potter. While a misfortune to Josiah Wedgwood, his lame knee was a boon to generations of china and porcelain lovers. The knee may have driven him away from the wheel but it drove him towards the pen and the brush. It is likely that in coping with his disability he develop other aspects of trade to degree nearly unique among his peers.

His apprenticeship ended in 1749 and it would be expected for him to be received as partner into the family business. In a curious parallel to his contemporary Ben Franklin, who also conflicted with a tradesman older brother, this did not happen. For reasons unclear, at the age of 19 Josiah Wedgwood was thrust, unemployed upon the world.

After a few years of being at what can only be described as loose ends he entered into a partnership with Thomas Whieldon. Whieldon was already well established as a potter with an excellent reputation. It is not clear why the most famous potter in England would take the untried Wedgwood on as a partner. He obviously trusted Wedgwood since he turned him loose on a variety of experimental projects with little supervision.

The two men got along well and shared many personality traits and interests. Whieldon and Wedgwood saw their trade in need of drastic improvement and modernization. Outdated materials and methods were reducing the demand for stoneware. Wedgwood declared that in his trade “elegance of form was very little attended to”.

In 1759 Wedgwood ended his partnership with Whieldon and started his own firm, Ivy House Works. He rented the property from his wealthy uncles and through them became acquainted with his future wife, Sarah. The couple would eventually have seven children. The eldest, Susannah, would as an adult marry Robert Darwin and mother Charles Darwin, the great naturalist.

During this time Wedgwood invented several new stoneware making processes including the first green glaze. The new glaze launched a propensity for making vegetable shaped pottery, cauliflowers, pineapples, and the like. Wedgwood pottery of this time still exists in abundance and is much loved by collectors. Wedgwood also developed a method for making agate and tortoiseshell pots. His business boomed and he outgrew the Ivy House Works and began searching for a bigger locale for his growing business.

In the nest piece on Josiah Wedgwood we will explore his rise to becoming the favored potter to the royal family. Wedgwood, as clever a marketer as he was a potter, exploited this relationship to make himself the most famous potter of his day if not of all time.


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Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.com.

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