An elegant biography, abundant in historical and cultural detail, of the 18th-century pottery magnate.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95) played a crucial role in the evolution of English manufacture as it made its way out of feudalism into the industrial age. He was a son of the Enlightenment, aware that he would get the high-quality products he sought only from artisans who got a fair shake in terms of wages and benefits from an employer who recognized their skills and craftsmanship. Wedgwood was willing to provide those benefits, including education for his employees’ children, decent housing, medical benefits (in an industry notorious for poisonous materials that induced health problems), and pensions—all revolutionary notions in those days, as was his belief that his workers understood the value of money. He tinkered tirelessly with qualities of his clay, conducted chemical research to eliminate lead from glazes, and investigated the different kinds of firings being developed around the world, just as he experimented with the idea of a production line. He also cultivated his scant but profitable connections with the aristocracy and the royal household. Wedgwood had to compete on a playing field that included Spode and Sèvres, but his willingness to accept unique commissions won him customers from American colonists to Russian royalty. He worked to standardize products for consistency and availability, with such success that Wedgwood blue jasper ware has been popular for 225 years. Such work, Dolan (Ladies of the Grand Tour, 2001, etc.) reminds readers in a nicely phrased appreciation, “represents elite taste without social prejudice. The name carries the status of an old master, but is accessible to those without aristocratic wealth.” This shrewd portrait of a remarkable life also renders with vivid particularity the time and place in which Wedgwood worked his magic
A slice of serious history that’s also pretty as a picture.