How a mutilated leg only brought happiness to an English potter
JOSIAH WEDGWOOD (1730-1795)
Josiah Wedgwood, one of history's most famous potters, contracted chickenpox as a child and became paralyzed.
After a while, when he was able to walk again, his right knee was so stiff that he had to walk on crutches for two years and later could only move with the help of a cane.
As a result, being born into a family of potters, he was unable to turn the foot wheel, which made him unfit for the profession. That is why he became proficient in the firing technique, the quality of the material and the shape of the pots. He turned out to be a true genius.
On a business trip to Liverpool several years later, his horse was hit by a carriage and his right leg was so badly injured that he had to be nursed at a local inn for an extended period of time.
Trying to cheer up the restless patient, the doctor one evening brought in Thomas Bentley, not only a businessman but also an intellectual who campaigned for the abolition of slavery.
They spoke of religion, commerce, art and poetry, logic and politics, subjects of which the humble potter, who had hardly been to school, knew little. The two became business partners and lifelong friends. For the second time, the sick leg had brought him luck too.
But it continued to haunt him. Only amputation could take the pain away, the doctors said. On May 31, 1768 – according to Wedgwood 'Saint Amputation Day' – the time had come. Two men sawed off the leg as he sat upright in a chair at home.
Wedgwood was deeply interested in the medical symptoms that occurred after surgery. After a few weeks he wrote to his friend Bentley: 'The wound is healing well and is only less than five by three centimeters in size. I just measured it.'
Three weeks later – after 'twenty lost working days' – he was able to get back to work. In London he had an artificial leg fitted by a woodcarver, but that soon had to be overhauled. Wedgwood wasn't careful enough and ran around on it as if it were a real leg.
From that time dates a vision—perhaps from the laudanum anesthetic during and after the amputation—in which he saw appear before his mind a completely new assortment of dinnerware and vases, "articles that we will most certainly supply the whole world." Whatever he managed to do.
To this day, Wedgwood is one of the best and most exclusive pottery porcelain factories in the world.
Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730, the youngest of ten, twelve or thirteen children – this is unclear – in the pottery village of Burslem in northern Staffordshire, central England. It was a village without roads. There were only some narrow muddy paths.
The potters had the habit of digging out the flattened soft spots in the clay roads at night and using the raw material thus obtained to make butter pots for the market in Stafford.
The pits were filled with rainwater. And so English was enriched with the word potholes. The village had one horse, one mule and barely a few carts. The workers lugged the clay and coal, both of which were abundantly available, for less than a shilling a day.
Hardly anyone could read or write. And the constable tied drunken fighters to a pole opposite the pub De Rode Leeuw for sobriety.
Josiah was able to go to school from the age of seven, but two years later his father died and he had to work for one of his brothers as a potter's assistant. At the age of fourteen he received an apprenticeship with the same brother, which he terminated eight years later.
Josiah teamed up with others and began experimenting with mixing clay, glazes and firing.
He wrote down his findings in notebooks that can still be seen in the Wedgwood Museum today. He was already so aware of his talent that he had a clause included in successive partnerships protecting his discoveries.
In between, he fell ill and fell in love with the girl who cared for him: his cousin Sarah Wedgwood, daughter of a wealthy cheese merchant.
Her father disapproved of marrying the poor, ailing potter and said he would not consent to a marriage until Josiah could show as much as the dowry was 4,000 pounds. The bride said she would wait for him.
Josiah, then 28, started his own pottery workshop. He hired fifteen workers and children and did good business. Twice a month he was allowed to visit his beloved on Sundays.
Beginning in 1761, Wedgwood made its own high-quality creamware, cream-coloured pottery that would, in the long run, supplant wooden and pewter tableware throughout England.
From the creamware catalog of 1774 Colonies for Colonies, Wedgwood campaigned all the way to Parliament for the construction of a real road to Liverpool, if only to get his handiwork on site unscathed.
Shortly afterwards he succeeded in realizing already existing plans for a canal between Liverpool and Hull, which passed near him.
It wasn't until 1764, six years after his marriage proposal, that he had saved the exorbitant £4,000 and was able to marry his Sally. A year later, Susannah was born, the first of their nine children.
Meanwhile, his nine-year-older brother John, who lived in London, increasingly worked as Josiah's agent. John rented showrooms where the beau monde could admire Josiah's dinnerware and vases.
He established contacts with the court so that in 1766 Queen Charlotte named Josiah Potter to her Majesty. The young potter who had always had a commercial nose promptly renamed his creamware Queen's ware.
Since then, Wedgwood made a habit of courting royalty by offering tasteful gifts that left you wanting more. The attention of the English aristocracy was aroused.
Wedgwood made sure that there were always new things to see in his London showrooms, he constantly expanded the range and regularly came up with new materials. He deliberately created new fads in a modern way.
Fashion is infinitely superior to merit in many respects, he wrote more than 200 years ago. And : 'You always have to stay one step ahead of your customers.'
Unable to meet the demand, he opened a new factory on a vast estate where he also had a hundred houses built for workers. Out of respect for the Etrurian pottery of which he had been making refined reproductions for years, he named the estate Etruria.
Although later research showed that the vases in question came from Greece. He remained faithful to his creamware. It was so excellent in shape and required so little decoration that he could bake them in ten thousand pieces.
An acquaintance of nobility was appointed ambassador to Catherine the Great's court and advertised Wedgwood. The
In 1773, the tsarina ordered a set of 952 pieces, all of which had to bear the frog mark, because the place where
her palace was known as the Frog Swamp. Wedgwood had the good sense to put it on display in London for two months for Basalt Vase from 176 Shipment.
In a letter dated August 23, 1772, Wedgwood writes that about the entire nobility had been supplied with his vases, he concluded from the falling turnover, and that it was now time to appeal to the middle class, that prices should therefore be lowered and that this could only be done by increasing production.
He deliberately stimulated the buying appetite of the wealthy middle class.
Based on special clay from the American colonies, after many thousands of experiments between 1768 and 1775, he developed a new material that he called jasperware. He made his most refined vases and cameos with it.
Jasperware usually has a pastel blue background with overlaid white relief of classical figures. The application possibilities turned out to be endless. Wedgwood became a household name.
Another bestseller was the Portland Vase, a reproduction of a first-century BC Roman amphora that Wedgwood borrowed from the third Duke of Portland. For three years, Josiah and his associates labored to produce a true-to-life copy.
The result was 'a miracle of imitation' that conquered the market from 1789.
Wedgwood was an enlightened mind. He frequented the Lunar Circle in Birmingham, where progressive men of the time gathered, including steam engine inventor James Watt and his manufacturer engineer Matthew Boulton, as well as the doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin.
They discussed the latest inventions, read poetry, reflected on telescopes and microscopes, raved about Rousseau and raised their children according to his principles.
They campaigned against the slave trade, advocated universal suffrage and supported the American Revolution against England.
Wedgwood was also not very religious for his time. "His religion was making perfect pottery," said one biographer. In London, Josiah was a member of the Royal Society.
In 1782 he submitted to this society his invention of the pyrometer, a device for measuring high temperatures in ovens. For his friends, he produced all possible jars and retorts for free to facilitate their experiments.
The working-class village of Etruria is often described as a model, a place where Josiah could realize his social ideas. He improved the housing of his employees, tried to guarantee their employment and introduced the beginning of health insurance.
On the other hand, he had little understanding of riots that broke out during a recession in the 1980s, when America declared its independence and the French fleet prevented the British from trading with Europe.
The riot was crushed and the leader was sentenced to the gallows. The workers died in droves from potter's rot, a term that covered all occupational hazards in the industry.
Lead poisoning in the dippers, the men who dipped the pottery in a mixture of lead, dye, ground flint and clay. Or chlorine poisoning in the workmen who removed salt glaze from the hot ovens and inhaled chlorine gases.
And dust lungs developed from inhaling flint particles that cut like tiny razor blades into the delicate tissues, so that a pink foam choked them to the point of suffocation. Josiah's idealism often clashed with his business interests.
It also remains somewhat mysterious how, without ever having time for socializing, he remained friends with both the intellectuals of Birmingham and the London aristocracy. He only made time for his wife. She was known for her strong personality.
Her taste was the norm. Wedgwood: 'I speak from experience about feminine taste.
Otherwise I'd cut a thin figure among my pots, not one of which is made without my Sarah's approval.' She was often ill and was tormented by rheumatism. Whenever possible, Josiah would escort her to a spa—where he sometimes didn't hesitate to open a new branch.
On the other hand, he was not impressed by the female efforts on this earth.
He thought the fuss about pregnancy and childbirth was exaggerated: 'It creates a sort of segregation between the sexes, no doubt intended to impress us poor men and make us believe that women suffer terribly for us and their children. '
Sarah had a temper like a thundercloud and would survive him for twenty years in spite of all her ailments and pains. A list of staff and possessions at Etruria Hall, compiled shortly before Wedgwood's death, shows that she employed seven male servants, from the butler to the gardener.
She had ten horses at her disposal and two chariots with two and two with four wheels.
In 1790, when Josiah turned 60, he passed his business over to his three sons and a son-in-law. However, none of them was so devoted to the craft as the father. At the end of 1794 he suffered from a jaw infection that shortly afterwards affected his throat.
His doctor, Erasmus Darwin, gave him laudanum to ease the pain; more than he strictly needed.
On January 2, 1795, Josiah went to sleep. He told his wife he didn't want to be disturbed. The next day his door remained closed. The gardener pulled out a ladder, climbed through the window and found his master dead in bed.
Wedgwood was not an artist. He derived the decoration of his dinnerware and vases from classical examples or was created by designers who were employed by him.
His own contribution was in the field of technology, in which he was inexhaustible, under the motto: Everything gives way to experiment (everything lends itself to experimentation).
He found new compositions of clay for plates and vases, for decorations in contrasting colors on dark surfaces, and so on.
And as his monument in Stoke-onTrent reads: 'He transformed a shaggy, insignificant handicraft into an elegant art and an essential part of national commerce.'
Josiah left behind a fortune after his death, but the firm went downhill. The eldest son John wanted to be a lord and MP, put his money in a bank that went bankrupt and led a restless existence. Josiah Jr.
wanted to act as director, but preferably from his estate and not on Etruria. Thomas, the youngest, didn't feel like it either. He was depressed, became addicted to opium and died at the age of 34.
He is the only other Wedgwood to appear in books about inventors: as the early precursor of photography. He obtained images but could not fix them yet.
Josiah's favorite daughter Susannah married Erasmus Darwin's son one of Birmingham's Lunatics and a friend of her father's.
One of her sons was none other than Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species, who was born in 1809. Wedgwood's grave can still be seen in the Saint Peter ad Vincula cemetery in Stoke-on-Trent.