Biography of Josiah Wedgwood, British Potter and Innovator

Statue of Josiah Wedgwood
A statue of Josiah Wedgwood outside the Wedgwood Visitor Centre and Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Josiah Wedgwood (ca July 12, 1730–January 3, 1795) was England's foremost pottery manufacturer and a mass producer of quality ceramics exported around the globe. A member of his family's fourth generation of potters, Wedgwood started his own independent firm and became the Royal Potter for Queen Charlotte, the consort of King George III. Wedgwood's mastery of ceramic technology was matched by the marketing savvy and connections of his partner Thomas Bentley; together they ran the most famous pottery works in the world. 

Fast Facts: Josiah Wedgwood

  • Known For: Creator of the famous Wedgwood pottery
  • Born: July 12, 1730 (baptized), Churchyard, Staffordshire
  • Died: January 3, 1795, Etruria Hall, Staffordshire
  • Education: Day School at Newcastle-under-Lyme, left at 9 years of age
  • Ceramic Works: Jasper ware, Queen's Ware, Wedgwood blue
  • Parents: Thomas Wedgwood and Mary Stringer
  • Spouse: Sarah Wedgwood (1734–1815)
  • Children: Susannah (1765–1817), John (1766–1844), Richard (1767–1768), Josiah (1769–1843), Thomas (1771–1805), Catherine (1774–1823), Sarah (1776–1856), and Mary Anne (1778–1786). 

Early Life

Josiah Wedgwood was baptized on July 12, 1730, the youngest of at least eleven children of Mary Stringer (1700–1766) and Thomas Wedgwood (1685–1739). The founding potter in the family was also called Thomas Wedgwood (1617–1679), who established a successful pottery works around 1657 at Churchyard, Staffordshire, where his great-great-grandchild Josiah was born. 

Josiah Wedgwood had little formal education. He was nine years old when his father died, and he was taken from school and sent to work in the pottery for his eldest brother, (another) Thomas Wedgwood (1717–1773). At 11, Josiah had smallpox, which confined him to bed for two years and ended with permanent damage to his right knee. At the age of 14, he was formally apprenticed to his brother Thomas, but because he could not physically work the wheel, at 16 he had to quit. 

Jasper ware Wedgwood Blue Teacup
Wedgwood teacup and saucer in the Waterford Wedgwood flagship store in London, England. The teacup features the white and blue jasper ware ceramic which is synonymous with the brand. Oli Scarff / Getty Images News

Early Career

At the age of 19, Josiah Wedgwood proposed that he be taken into his brother's business as a partner, but he was rejected. After a two-year position with the pottery firm of Harrison and Alders, in 1753, Wedgwood was offered a partnership with the Staffordshire firm of potter Thomas Whieldon; his contract stipulated that he would be able to experiment.

Wedgwood stayed at the Whieldon pottery from 1754–1759, and he began experimenting with pastes and glazes. A primary focus was on improving creamware, the first commercial English ceramic invented in 1720 and widely used by the potters of the time. 

Creamware was very flexible and could be decorated and over-glazed, but the surface was likely to craze or flake when subjected to temperature changes. It chipped readily, and the lead glazes broke down in combination with food acids, making them a source of food poisoning. Further, the application of the lead glaze was hazardous to the health of the workers in the factory. Wedgwood's version, eventually called queens ware, was slightly yellower, but had a finer texture, greater plasticity, less lead content—and it was lighter and stronger and less prone to break during shipments. 

Thomas Bentley Partnership

In 1759, Josiah leased Ivy House pottery in Burslem, Staffordshire, from one of his uncles, a factory which he would build and expand several times. In 1762, he built his second works, the Brick-House, alias the "Bell Works" at Burslem. That same year, he was introduced to Thomas Bentley, which would prove to be a fruitful partnership. 

Wedgwood was innovative and had a strong technical understanding of ceramics: but he lacked formal education and social contacts. Bentley had a classical education, and he was socially connected to artists, scientists, merchants, and intellectuals in London and around the world. Best yet, Bentley had been a wholesale merchant in Liverpool for 23 years and had a broad understanding of the current and changing ceramic fashions of the day.  

Wedgwood Etruria Factory, ca 1753
Josiah Wedgwood's Ivy and Etruria works in Staffordshire, England, ca. 1753. Oxford Science Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images

Marriage and Family 

On January 25, 1764, Wedgwood married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood (1734–1815) and they eventually had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood: Susannah (1765–1817), John (1766–1844), Richard (1767–1768), Josiah (1769–1843), Thomas (1771–1805), Catherine (1774–1823), Sarah (1776–1856), and Mary Anne (1778–1786). 

Two sons, Josiah Jr. and Tom, were sent to school in Edinburgh and then privately tutored, although neither joined the business until Josiah was ready to retire in 1790. Susannah married Robert Darwin, and was the mother of the scientist Charles Darwin; Charles' grandfather was scientist Erasmus Darwin, a friend of Josiah's.

Ceramic Innovations

Together, Wedgwood and Bentley created a huge variety of ceramic objects—Bentley keeping an eye to the demand, and Wedgwood responding with innovation. In addition to hundreds of types of tableware, their Staffordshire Etruria manufacturing facility produced specialty wares for grocers and butchers (weights and measures), dairies (milking pails, strainers, curd pots), sanitary purposes (tiles for indoor bathrooms and sewers all over England), and the home (lamps, baby feeders, food warmers). 

Wedgwood's most popular wares were called jasper, an unglazed matte biscuit ware available in solid paste colors: green, lavender, sage, lilac, yellow, black, a pure white, and "Wedgwood blue." Bas-relief sculptures were then added to the surface of the solid paste color, creating a cameo-like appearance. He also developed black basalt, a stoneware in striking deep back colors.

The Portland Vase, 18th Century, Josiah Wedgwood
The Portland Vase (black and white jasper ware) that Wedgwood considered his finest work inside the Wedgwood Museum, in Stoke-on-Trent. Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

The Art Market

To answer what Bentley saw as a new demand in London for Etruscan and Greco-Roman art, Wedgwood made cameos, intaglios, plaques, beads, buttons, figurines, candlesticks, ewers, jugs, flower holders, vases, and medallions for furniture all decorated with classic art figures and themes. The canny Bentley recognized that original Greek and Roman nudes were too "warm" for English and American tastes, and the firm dressed their Greek goddesses in full-length gowns and their heroes in fig leaves. 

Illustration of 18th century Wedgwood Plaque
'Penelope and Maidens', Wedgwood plaque, 18th century. Illustration from Story of the British Nation, Volume III, by Walter Hutchinson, (London, c1920s). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The demand for cameo portraits skyrocketed and Wedgwood met it by hiring known artists to make models in wax for use on the production floor. Among them were Italian anatomist Anna Morandi Manzolini, Italian artist Vincenzo Pacetti, Scottish gem engraver James Tassie, British designer Lady Elizabeth Templeton, French sculptor Lewis Francis Roubiliac, and English painter George Stubbs. 

Wedgwood's two main modelers were British: John Flaxman and William Hackwood. He sent Flaxman to Italy to set up a wax modeling studio between 1787–1794, and Wedgwood also set up a studio in Chelsea where artists in London could work. 

Wedgwood Cameo of British King George III and Queen Charlotte
George III and Queen Charlotte, modeled by William Hackwood after waxes by Isaac Gosset, 1776-1780, jasper, ormolu frames by Matthew Boulton. Public Domain (on display at Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent, England)

Queen's Ware 

Arguably, Wedgwood and Bentley's most successful coup was when they sent a gift set of hundreds of his cream-colored tableware to British King George III's consort, Queen Charlotte. She named Wedgwood "Potter to Her Majesty" in 1765; he renamed his cream-colored ware "Queen's ware." 

Five years later, Wedgwood obtained a commission for a several-hundred piece tableware service from the Russian empress Catherine the Great, called the "Husk service." It was followed up by the "Frog service," a commission for Catherine's La Grenouilliere ("frog marsh", Kekerekeksinsky in Russian) palace consisting of 952 pieces decorated with over 1,000 original paintings of the English countryside. 

The Life of a Scientist 

Wedgwood's classification as a scientist has been debated over the intervening centuries. Largely through his connection to Bentley, Wedgwood did become a member of the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham, which included James Watt, Joseph Priestly, and Erasmus Darwin, and he was elected into the Royal Society in 1783. He contributed papers to the Royal Society's Philosophical Transactions, three on his invention, the pyrometer, and two on ceramic chemistry. 

The pyrometer was a tool made first of brass and then high-fired ceramic that allowed Wedgwood to determine the internal heat of a kiln. Wedgwood recognized that the application of heat shrinks clay, and the pyrometer was his attempt to measure that. Unfortunately, he never was able to calibrate the measurements to any scientific scale available at the time, and the subsequent centuries have found that Wedgwood was somewhat incorrect. It is a combination of heat and the length of kiln time that shrinks pottery in a measurable fashion.

Wedgwood and Bryerly Showroom, London 1809
The showrooms of Wedgwood & Byerley in St James's Square, London, 1809. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Retirement and Death 

Wedgwood was often ill for much of his life; he had smallpox, his right leg was amputated in 1768, and he had trouble with his sight beginning in 1770. After his partner Thomas Bentley died in 1780, Wedgwood turned the management of the shop in London over to a nephew, Thomas Byerly. Nevertheless, he was a vigorous and active director of the Etruria and other manufactories up until his retirement in 1790.

He left his company to his sons and retired to his mansion Etruria Hall. In late 1794, he fell ill—possibly with cancer—and died on January 3, 1795, at the age of 64. 

Legacy 

When Wedgwood began his work, Staffordshire was the home of several important ceramic manufacturers such as Josiah Spode and Thomas Minton. Wedgwood and Bentley made their company the most important of the Staffordshire potteries and arguably the best-known pottery in the western world. Etruria would run as a facility until the 1930s.

Wedgwood's company remained independent until 1987, when it merged with Waterford Crystal, then with Royal Doulton. In July 2015, it was acquired by a Finnish consumer goods company.

Selected Sources