The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt – review

An accessible new biography by the director of the V&A repositions the potter as not only a giant of design and manufacturing but a model of the best an entrepreneur can be

There are designers and there are designers. There are those who create beautiful objects and invent new techniques, some who transform taste, some who make a good business out of what may or may not be great products, some whose greatest talents are in selling. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) was all of the above, and more.

It wasn’t just that he endlessly experimented with chemicals and minerals, and with kiln temperatures and firing times, to revolutionise the ceramic industry, or that he had a sharp and exacting eye for the elegance of the vases and dinner services and medallions that his company made, but also that he pioneered new ways of getting them to buyers all over the world, of marketing them, of product placement and branding. He became very rich as a result. He was, as Tristram Hunt says, an 18th-century Steve Jobs.

Still that wasn’t all. Wedgwood dramatically increased the living standards of workers in the Staffordshire Potteries. With Etruria, his own factory complex, he built an early example of the industrial model village. Motivated by the need to get his products to the Liverpool docks, he helped drive the development of Britain’s canal system. He seems to have been a warm-hearted, good-humoured man, devoted both to his family and his business partner, Thomas Bentley. He used his talents and influence to campaign against slavery. And, as the grandfather of Charles Darwin, he passed on a share not only of his fervent intellectual curiosity, but also of the wealth and security without which it would have been much harder to sail on the Beagle and write On the Origin of Species.

If there was a dark side to Wedgwood, you won’t find it in Hunt’s book. He was certainly a tough competitor with his business rivals, and he sometimes had to muddy his hands in the corrupt politics of his day. Nor was he above playing on snobbery and class, gaining prestige for his wares by placing them in aristocratic and royal homes before selling them to wider markets. But he can hardly be blamed for pulling such levers as were available to him in the social machinery of the time.

Hunt has a double reason to be interested in Wedgwood. From 2010 to 2017 he was MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central, in the heart of the Potteries. He is now director of the V&A, which has a significant collection of Wedgwood artefacts. His aim is not only to tell his subject’s life story, but also to place him at the centre of the explosions of wealth, power and consumption that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Wedgwood ceramics
‘Wedgwood the man should be as famous as Wedgwood the brand.’ Photograph: Jonny Abbas/Alamy

Wedgwood benefited from ancient geology – the seams of clay and coal that made Staffordshire the centre of British ceramics – combined with new technologies that linked this previously disconnected county to the world. He took full advantage of his luck, using global shipping routes to reach the American colonies, to supply a 944-piece order to Catherine the Great of Russia, and even to sell china to China. He set up a shop in London – a proto-Apple store where the interior was carefully designed to show the products at their best – in order to soak up some of the surplus value sloshing around what was the world’s greatest trading city.

Hunt’s is far from the first biography of Wedgwood, and the tone is sometimes a bit too placid – you might sometimes wish that these extraordinary characters leap more form the page – but he performs the important task of telling the great potter’s story clearly and accessibly. Hunt’s greatest passion is reserved for the epilogue, where he describes with justified fury the butchering of Wedgwood’s legacy, following a takeover in the fast-money financial markets of the 1980s. The company’s new bosses proceeded, over the next 20 years, to award themselves handsome pay packages and “success bonuses”, even as they ran the business into the ground, trashed the 250-year-old brand, and ultimately laid off hundreds of skilled workers who had given their lives to the company, who for good measure had their pensions put at risk by their bosses’ actions.

This horrible episode should be better known, as it shows with perfect clarity how the supposed wisdom and efficiency of the markets can breed stupidity and waste. Josiah Wedgwood by contrast was a model of the very best an entrepreneur can be – energetic, creative, wealth-creating, public-spirited. He should be on banknotes (in 2016 he lost out to JMW Turner when on a shortlist for the £20 note).

Wedgwood the man should be as famous as Wedgwood the brand. That he is not might be due to his business – there are more heroic and glamorous trades than making pots – and to the national tendency to undervalue manufacturing. Hunt’s book should help to correct that imbalance.

The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt is published by Penguin (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Rowan Moore

The GuardianTramp

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