Josiah Wedgwood Part II: Queen Charlotte’s Potter


Once Josiah Wedgwood ended his partnership with Thomas Whieldon and struck out on his own his career began to truly hit its stride. The shop he rented from his uncles, the Ivy Works, was soon too small to hold his expanding business.

Wedgwood turned out innovation after innovation. The plates, pots, and bowls the Ivy Works produced using Wedgwood’s unique methods for making green and tortoiseshell earthenware caught the fancy of a growing middle class. For what was really the first time, it was possible to buy everyday pottery that was as beautiful as it was useful. The unusual fruit and vegetable shaped wares of this period of Wedgwood is still a favorite among china collectors.

In 1762 Wedgwood moved his concern to another larger building not far from the Ivy Works. The bigger accommodations, called the Bell Works, began within a year to produce a new cream colored, extremely fine type of china. The new material withstood sudden changes in temperature that had cracked previous varieties.

That same year, while on a business trip to Liverpool, Wedgwood fell from his horse and greatly aggravated his crippled knee. While recovering he became friends with Thomas Bentley. The two would remain partners and friends until Bentley's death in 1780.

Business was so brisk that Wedgwood decided that he needed a full time agent in the capital and sent his brother John to live in London. Later an additional representative would be sent to assist John in his dealings with customers.

The newly developed cream china attracted the attention of the highest levels of English society. Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, began to place orders and presented Josiah with a new set of technical problems.

The Queen Charlotte’s many remarkable personal traits have overshadowed by her husband’s famous descent into madness. Not the least of which was giving birth to fifteen children of which thirteen survived. Three would become the heads of states.

Her majesty requested a set of china with large areas covered with gold leaf fired directly onto the plates. A method for affixing small amounts of gold onto china had already been in use in England for sometime but nothing like what the Queen requested had ever been done. Overcoming this challenged would test Wedgwood skills and make him a celebrity.

When informing his brother of the order Josiah famously wrote him that he should “put on the best suit of clothes you ever had in your life” in order to visit court to ascertain Her Highness' exact wishes. He was stunned by the reply informing him that the Queen wanted, if not the impossible, the nearly so.

Queen Charlotte was so pleased with her gold plated china that she ordered a great deal more. Her orders were dominated by the cream colored china to such a degree that it was soon called Queen's Ware. Wedgwood said she commanded it but allowed might be a better description.

Commanded or not, the name was a marketing bonanza. The Wedgwood shop in London became more than a place of business. Members of the nobility dropped in the way others might visit a museum or cafe. Wedgwood china was discussed after dinner as if it were artwork, which of course, it was.

Charlotte was not the only royal customer for Wedgwood china; Empress Catherine of Russia ordered a huge collection in 1770. In total the set contained 952 pieces. Each uniquely painted with authentic scenes from the English countryside. Although the set cost the Empress over £2,700 Wedgwood made little from the sale. Little, of course, but the invaluable advertising a sale to the Empress of Russia carried with it.

It is said she prized it greatly and worried guests treated it with remarkable care. The Empress’s dinner table glares must have been effective for the set still exists in its entirety.

As productive and profitable as this period was for Wedgwood it was not without difficulties. In 1768 another fall caused his leg to swell to such a degree that the pain became unbearable. His doctors suggested that his leg would have to be amputated.

As bad as that sounds today, in 1768 the operation was performed without antiseptics or anesthesia and was practically a death sentence. The nature of his affliction was such that the bone of his knee thickened with each onset of pain and inflammation. Every time his leg flared up he was taken one step closer to the inevitable operation

A Mr. Bent performed the amputation and it went about as well as could be hoped in that era of primitive medicine. His wife Sara, and close friend Thomas Bentley carefully oversaw Wedgwood’s painful recovery. Apparently the operation was a complete success because once freed of the bone infection his general health and vitality improved dramatically.


—–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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