Josiah Wedgwood

Wedgwood, Josiah, 1730–95, English potter, descendant of a family of Staffordshire potters and perhaps the greatest of all potters. At the age of nine he went to work at the plant owned by his brother Thomas in Burslem, and in 1751, with a partner, he started in business. In 1753 he joined Thomas Whieldon of Fenton, then one of the foremost potters of Staffordshire, and in 1759 Wedgwood started his own business at the Ivy House Works, Burslem. He obtained a site near Stoke-on-Trent, where he built a village called Etruria for his workers and opened a new works in 1769. In that year he took into partnership Thomas Bentley, who remained a valuable ally until his death in 1780. At Etruria, Wedgwood specialized in ornamental products to supplement the utilitarian wares of Burslem. Wedgwood entered the field of pottery at a time when it was still a backward and minor industry and by his skill, taste, and organizing abilities transformed it into one of great importance and enormous aesthetic appeal. He combined experiments in his art and in the technique of mass production with an interest in improved roads, canals, schools, and living conditions for workers.

Wedgwood soon acquired a reputation for his cream-colored earthenware, known as queen's ware, and at the same time produced decorative objects, candlesticks, and vases of a black composition known as basalt or Egyptian stoneware. He also produced a mottled and veined ware in imitation of granite and a translucent, smooth, unglazed semiporcelain. This gave way to his best-known product, jasper ware, best known in a delicate blue with white, cameolike Greek figures embossed upon it (see Portland vase), which has been in continuous production since 1774. He invented and perfected this ware and in it gave expression to the interest of his day in the revival of classical art. He employed the best talent available for his finer pieces, many of which were designed by John Flaxman. Wedgwood's terra-cottas of various hues were made with one color in relief upon another. He produced exquisite wares for many royal and noble patrons, including a dinner service for Catherine the Great. His work is found in many museums and private collections; the Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Mass., has an outstanding collection. He also published several pamphlets, and his Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Pottery appeared in 1783. For his invention of a pyrometer for measuring temperatures, Wedgwood was made a fellow of the Royal Society (1783). The extensive potteries he established, which he built into a large, worldwide commercial empire, were perpetuated by his descendants.

See W. Mankowitz, Wedgwood (1953); A. Kelly, The Story of Wedgwood (1962); E. Meteyard, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood (1865, repr. 1970); B. Dolan, Wedgwood: The First Tycoon (2004).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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