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Josiah Wedgwood and Sons Ltd., Barlaston

NOTE: This article which follows originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.

The renowned firm founded by Josiah Wedgwood in 1759 might be thought hardly to call for extensive chronicle so familiar is the name even to the man-in-the-street. But, truth to tell, to a surprisingly great number of folk, the name merely connotes the blue and white jasper ware, which he made immortal, or in some cases merely a certain tone of blue. That this famous family  of potters held a unique position in the pottery industry is not to be doubted; and one may say that, in this twentieth century, the name of Josiah Wedgwood stands out prominently as a pattern of the great Master Potters of past times. He is, indeed, 'a living tradition'.

The first Josiah Wedgwood was born in Burslem, the hub of the Potteries, in 1730 and he came of a family with a potting tradition extending at least as far back as early Jacobean times. He was the great grandson of Gilbert Wedgwood, himself a potter, in the mid-seventeenth century.

Gilbert's son Thomas bought the old Churchyard Works at Burslem and his son and grandson (Josiah's grandfather and father) followed on making pottery at the same place. His father died in  1739 and little Josiah left school to learn the family craft at the Churchyard Works under his elder brother Thomas. At 14 he was apprenticed to 'the Art, Mistery, Occupation or Imployment of Thrower and Handleing', as it was quaintly phrased.

In those days pottery was in a rudimentary stage, but by the time Wedgwood had reached the apprenticeship stage, Astbury had achieved his first triumph with the clays of Devon and Dorset and by the time Josiah was twenty Enoch Booth had introduced fluid lead glaze. Despite this we may consider Wedgwood to have been responsible beyond all others in changing the whole course of ceramic industry.

After his apprenticeship he went into partnership, first with John Harrison of Newcastle-under-Lyme, who had an interest in a potworks at Stoke. But two years later, in 1754, he entered into partnership with Thomas Whieldon of Fenton Hall, a fine potter, to whom Josiah owed a great debt if only because was then at liberty to pursue his own experiments without interference and was thus enabled to evolve the Green Glaze and Cauliflower wares which are now so famous among connoisseurs.

Wedgwood kept an 'Experiments Book' from which it may be gathered that he recognised the need for some radical improvement in the wares hitherto made. 'I saw the field was spacious and the soil so good as to promise an ample recompense to any one who should labour diligently in its cultivation'. Hence his distinctive Green Glaze and Cauliflower wares.

The partnership was dissolved in 1759 and Josiah Wedgwood started for himself at Ivy House Works in Burslem, which he rented for 10 a year from his uncle. After five years he took over the well-known Brick House, Burslem (the Bell Works) and, with his cousin Thomas as Manager, from 1766 he pursued his way, making the useful wares in cream-coloured earthenware, which first made his name a household word.

The decoration of this ware was either transfer printed, painted, or a combination of both. Sadler and Green of Liverpool did his transfer printing and the painting was done by widow Warburton of Burslem or by Phillips and Greaves of Stoke.

This cream-coloured ware made a great sensation in the industry and became very popular. The year 1765 was a memorable one for the potter, for in that year he received his first Royal order. It came through an agent, but it was for a tea set with a gold ground and raised flowers in green. It was for Queen Charlotte (Queen of George III) and it pleased her so well that, henceforth, the cream-coloured ware was given the name of 'Queen's Ware'. So popular did it become that in 1765 Wedgwood set up a London warehouse or showroom in Charles Street and he himself writes in 1767: 'It is really amazing how rapidly the use of it has spread almost over the whole globe and how universally it is liked'. Only seven years later he supplied the 'Semiramis of the North', Catherine II of Russia, with a combined dinner and tea set of 952 pieces, the decoration of which consisted of 1,244 English scenes.

Before these important events he had, in 1762, literally by accident (an accident to his already injured knee) become friendly with Thomas Bentley, a merchant of Liverpool, and in 1769 the two became partners. For eleven years (until Bentley's death in 1780) the latter was in charge of the London showrooms, meeting wealthy patrons, suggesting designs to please the clients, and supervising the painting, which at this time was done at Chelsea.

In 1764 Wedgwood had married, an event which was destined to have a very important effect upon his subsequent fortunes, for we may take as literally true his statement in one of his letters to Bentley: 'I speak from experience in Female taste, without which I should have made but a poor figure among the Pots, not one of which of any consequence is finished without the approbation of my Sally.' She was his cousin, and an heiress, so she brought with her a 'dot' which, with his own capital, enabled him to acquire the Ridge House Estate in 1766.

Here he built his new works, which he named Etruria after the Etruscan wares he thought to imitate, destined to be the home of the Wedgwood Potteries from 1769 until 1940. For a further four years 'useful wares' continued to be made at the Bell Works, while from the very first Etruria concentrated upon ornamental wares, Black Basalt being the first of his now celebrated matt-surfaced creations.

This was followed, in 1774, by the triumphal production, after long and arduous experimenting, of the range of beautiful semi-porcelain Jasper wares which, in popular estimation, are Wedgwood's masterpieces. He was himself inclined to this opinion. The invention of this superfine body was, of course, a technical triumph of a high order, but its enduring fame is mainly due to its artistic qualities of shape, colour and decoration.

The blue, green and black somewhat severely shaped bodies upon which the classic reliefs in white are imposed, are masterpieces of design and Wedgwood's designers and modellers, William Hackwood, John Flaxman, James Tassie and George Stubbs were artists of great ability. Men like Flaxinan and Tassie had the true sculptor's genius for beauty of form and taste in decoration, whether applied to wares, cameos or veritable portrait reliefs.

Wedgwood was, in his own craft, the exponent of the wave of classicism which, in Architecture and decoration, is represented by the Brothers Adam and in furniture by Chippendale and Hepplewhite.

When Bentley died in 1780 Wedgwood carried on until 1790, when he took his three sons and his nephew, Thomas Byerley, into partnership. Then he surrendered active participation in the management, eventually dying in 1795 at the age of 65.

He was succeeded by his second son Josiah at a period when times were bad for trade. Josiah II had much to contend with and he wrote, in a letter of 1811  that 'the business is not worth carrying on, and if I could withdraw my capital from it, I would tomorrow. But, though despondent he was not beaten. He was a man of great integrity and keen judgment and devoted much time to seeking how to produce translucent china. He was unsuccessful in this at the time and doubtless, when, after the declaration of Peace in 1815, trade took a turn for the better, he had other things to consider.

He had not the interest and 'drive' that his father had to help him and, in  1828 during another bad spell, the London showrooms were given up, the stock and effects being sold for 16,000.

When he died, in 1843, Josiah III, who had been in the business from 1823 did not succeed him, for he had already retired from the firm. The third son Francis took over and carried the business to 1888, thus bridging the period of trade revival between the 1850's and 1870's a period distinguished by the productions of Wedgwood 'Parian', 'Lavender' and 'Majolica' wares. He also reopened showrooms in London. One of the most notable  events was the successful revival in 1878 of the making of bone china which at the present day is world renowned.

The twentieth century has seen the company expand its overseas markets considerably, especially that of America where Kennard Wedgwood of the fifth generation from the founder became its representative in 1906. In this connection it should be recorded that Wedgwood made the great service, of 1,282 pieces, which was supplied for State occasions at the White House during Theodore Roosevelt's Presidency.

The period between the two Great Wars was, for the firm, one marked by rapid strides in both artistic and technical progress. Tunnel oven firing was introduced and, on the artistic side, the well known designers Keith Murray and Eric Ravilious were responsible for epoch-making work in British ceramic decoration, under the Art Directors John Goodwin and his successor, Victor Skellern, A.R.C.A.

The Bi-Centenary of the birth of Josiah Wedgwood was celebrated with great pomp at Stoke-on-Trent in 1930, the proceedings being opened by H.R.H. Princess Mary. A pageant in which the whole Pottery Industry took part, included 700 of the Company's own workpeople and eight members of the family.

By the year 1936 it was realised that the historic works at Etruria were encroached upon unpleasantly by coal mines and iron works. It was therefore decided to abandon them and the estate of Barlaston Hall was purchased in 1937 and a model factory and village were designed. Building commenced in 1938 and the Fine Earthenware Section was completed by 1940. The war interrupted further work, which was only resumed in 1945, but the factory went into full production in 1950.

A memorable achievement of the years immediately following was the production of the fine service of 1,200 pieces chosen for the Coronation Banquet of H.M. Queen Elizabeth II at Lancaster House in 1953. The design chosen was 'Golden Persephone' by the late Eric Ravilious.

Although the move means that a revolution has taken place in the methods of working and in the amenities under which its entire complement work, it need hardly be said that the operatives are as highly skilled as ever and the wares they produce retain all the beauty and individuality that has characterised the productions of Wedgwood throughout the last ten generations of this great family of Staffordshire potters. 

NOTE: This article which originally appeared in a 1956 book 'British Potters and Pottery Today', is based mainly upon accounts provided mainly by the firms themselves.

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