Book of the week: The Radical Potter by Tristram Hunt
In this exceptional biography, Hunt shows that Josiah Wedgwood was the Steve Jobs of his day
Joe Maher/Getty Images
“Any list of the most outstanding British business leaders of all time would have to place Josiah Wedgwood at or close to the top,” said Richard Lambert in the FT. He was the man who, in the second half of the 18th century, capitalised on the “craze for tea drinking” by turning Staffordshire into a global powerhouse for ceramics.
But as Tristram Hunt shows in this exceptional biography, Wedgwood was more than merely a shrewd businessman. Endlessly curious and public-spirited, he led the development of England’s road and canal systems, and championed the abolition of slavery at a time when many viewed it as an economic necessity. Hunt suggests that he was the Steve Jobs of his day – an “interdisciplinary” innovator with a strong sense of “aesthetic control”.
The central irony of Wedgwood’s life is that although his name is associated indubitably with pottery, “he could not himself turn a potter’s wheel and throw a pot”, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. In 1742, a smallpox epidemic swept through the Potteries, leaving a 12-year-old Wedgwood – one of 12 children in a family of potters – with a “weakened right leg” (which he had amputated in his 30s, leading employees to dub him “owd wooden leg”).
Unable to be a hands-on potter, Wedgwood instead focused on design and innovation. His experiments with kilns, glazes and clays led to the production of “elegant ceramics” that were comparable to Chinese porcelain in quality. Soon, his wares were the toast of high society: George III and Queen Charlotte were among his most dedicated clients, and in 1774 he completed a 944-piece dinner set, the Frog Service, for Catherine the Great.
Hunt, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, has produced a “sympathetic, engaged and finely written biography”, said David Horspool in The Spectator. Its one jarring note is its suggestion that Wedgwood was a “radical”: this sits oddly with his often ruthless business practices and “pursuit of royal and aristocratic approbation”.
But then Wedgwood was a “mass of contradictions”, said Paul Lay in The Times. A supporter of free trade, he pushed for restrictions on Chinese and Irish ceramics. He opposed slavery but transported his goods to the West Indies and supplied the traders of Liverpool and Bristol with their sugar bowls. Brisk, timely and “highly readable”, Hunt’s biography brings a complex and “relentlessly innovative” figure to life.
Allen Lane 352pp £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99
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