Josiah Wedgwood

The picture of uniformly drunken, mutinous and diseased pottery workers fails, however, to accommodate the evidence that they were better educated than their equivalents in many other industries. Literacy levels were relatively high: it is astonishing that, even by 1816, the 13 children under 13 at Etruria could almost all read and write.’4 Drama and variety shows were popular: in Hanley itinerant actors used to perform behind the Sea Lion Inn, and Chartist theatrical performances as well as lectures were attended in the People’s Hall, even before surprisingly numerous theatres and hippodromes were built in the potteries from the mid-19th century.’’ Entertainments on classical themes could certainly be seen: a poster advertising performances at the Royal Pottery Theatre in Hanley during the 1850s includes forthcoming performances of T.C. King’s drama, Damon and Pytheas.5b And it is impossible that the men, women and children involved in the production, transportation and display of pottery did not pick up knowledge about the classical prototypes of these luxury wares. Once printing from copper-plates was introduced in the mid-18th century, the patterns were transferred from the plates (which had required enormous skill to etch) by cheap and unskilled labour. Women and children were often used to colour in between the lines transferred from the etching.’7 They must have been familiar with every minute detail. In reconstructing the workers’ experience, most of the best evidence comes from Etruria, which has amassed a large archive of documentation, not least Wedgwood’s own papers and correspondence. The oven books, for example, contain records created by the workers who fired the pots, and there are some fascinating small anonymous drawings of different classical shapes of vases, each carefully drawn to serve as an aide-memoire.58

Josiah himself was born into a family of potters in Burslem in 1730. As one of 13 children, when after his father’s death the family fell on hard times, at 10 years old, he started full-time work throwing clay. His experience of poverty informed his own reformist political views. The hardships he underwent contrast with the privileged upper middle-class childhood and young adulthood of the Scottish architect Robert Adam, who received a serious classical education at the Royal High School and then the University in Edinburgh, followed by the Grand Tour. But it was these two men who were chiefly responsible for the wholesale revival of classical forms in Britain. Wedgwood was largely self-educated and relied on others to translate Latin and Greek for him.59 But he was fond of French Enlightenment authors and fashionable writers in the English language, especially James Thomson, a Scottish poet whose radical tragedy Agamemnon had done much to invigorate British interest in the ancient theatre, as well as the poems of his friend Erasmus Darwin.60

Once Wedgwood had leased a small cottage with two kilns in 1759, in partnership with his cousin, he began to experiment with ceramic chemistry. Their business began to thrive. He then studied intensively the new art discovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as the history of ancient vases.61 A letter of October 1767 shows the excitement he had experienced when first looking at images of what he called ‘the Antiquitys’, and the ‘colours of the Earthen vases, the paintings, the substances used by the Ancient Potters, with their methods of working, burning &c.’62 A year later, he is personally trying to create ‘two or three sorts of faithfull copys from Etruscan Vases & am quite surpris’d both at the beauty of their forms, & the difficulty of making them’.63

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