Entrepreneur Wedgewood “Was Encouraged to Question Authority”

(p. C6) During this pandemic, the upper-middle class went bonkers over pots. They clanged them nightly on the street in homage to health care workers, and as soon as they were loosed from quarantine they marched into studios like eager kindergartners to create their own ceramics. Perhaps these hobbyists whose uneven, sometimes Seussian efforts fill Instagram “shelfies” — Seth Rogen, I’m talking to you — could find #inspo in a new biography of the 18th-century potter Josiah Wedgwood. It encourages the rest of us to look at our crockery more critically.

. . .

And production of the veddy English Wedgwood, which used to occur in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, is now largely outsourced to Asia, the very continent it was founded to compete with.

. . .

Josiah was born the youngest of a dozen children into a primitive, churchy iteration of the business. He walked seven miles round-trip to school by the age of 6 — take that, TikTok tots — and was encouraged to question authority. The loss of one leg (weakened by smallpox, further damaged in a road accident and finally amputated and replaced with a wooden prosthetic) helped form his character, like Captain Ahab’s. Unable to labor at the wheel, Wedgwood would gravitate instead to design and labor reform: “a hands-on manager,” writes Hunt, who compares him to Steve Jobs, “overseeing his potbanks with a steely professionalism.”

. . .

More seriously, Hunt offers convincing evidence that Wedgwood, . . . , was a committed if somewhat armchair abolitionist, alert to the horrors of the triangular trade that undergirded his commerce, especially the sugar that was also known as “white gold.” His widely circulated and copied cameo featuring a kneeling slave with the motto “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” though regrettably generic, “deserves to be remembered as one of the most radical symbols in modern history,” Hunt argues. (Incorporated into snuffbox lids, bracelets and hair pins, it could also be seen as an early example of virtue signaling.)

On top of everything, Wedgwood was a devoted family man: “uxorious” to and solicitous of his wife and third cousin, Sarah, he helped to home-school their brood even though there wasn’t a pandemic at the time. (. . . ) Alas, he didn’t live to see the birth of his grandson: Charles Darwin.

For the full review, see:

Alexandra Jacobs. “A Master of Making Fine China, and a Firebrand Too.” The New York Times (Monday, October 25, 2021): C6.

(Note: ellipses, added; italics, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Oct. 24, 2021, and has the title “A Transporting and Cozy Biography of a Pottery Pioneer.”)

The book under review is:

Hunt, Tristram. The Radical Potter: The Life and Times of Josiah Wedgwood. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.

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