A transporting and comfortable biography of a pioneer of pottery
Josiah was born the youngest of a dozen children in a primitive, religious iteration of the business. He traveled seven miles round trip to school when he was 6 – take this, TikTok toddlers – and was encouraged to question authority. The loss of a leg (weakened by smallpox, further damaged in a traffic accident, and eventually amputated and replaced with a wooden prosthesis) helped to forge his character, like that of Captain Ahab. Unable to work behind the wheel, Wedgwood would gravitate instead to the design and reform of work: “a practical manager,” writes Hunt, who compares him to Steve Jobs, “overseeing his pot banks with steely professionalism. “
The Wedgwood White Whale was porcelain, or “white gold”: the most famous, delicate import from Jingdezhen, China, which was eagerly collected by European royalty, decorating a pavilion for extramarital dating. Louis XIV in Versailles and a palace of the Polish king in Dresden. Unable to decipher the alien formula, Wedgwood and his collaborators instead refined the already established local creation of cream jars into “queen’s objects”, “pearl objects” and other exclusive variations with poetic names, exporting them with great success all over the world.
Although Wedgwood has a fear of spies similar to Wonka’s, his jar banks have become popular sightseeing stops for the cultural elite; and he was a pioneer of celebrity endorsement, which at that time meant nobles or members of the royal family – although he later supported American revolutionaries. Probably her most triumphant commission was for Catherine the Great of Russia: a 944-piece frog service, lovingly adorned with English landscapes and monuments (and frogs). The result was not just schmancy tableware, but a “cultural manifesto”.
One of the many pleasures of “The Radical Potter” is its meticulous catalog of the tastes of the porcelain buying public, some whimsical – wonder the wacky cauliflower pattern is overtaken by the exotic pineapple – others bizarre or disasters. “Fortunately, the fashion for women to wear white gloves while serving tea and even to bleach their white porcelain hands with arsenic has also increased the demand for black basalt tableware,” Hunt writes of ‘a fashion of the 1770s, “as the darkness of the basalt underlined. The neatness of the hostesses’ wardrobes or the purity of their genealogy. When people began to lose their minds over vases, Wedgwood timed the “epidemic madness” and created a whole new colony, Etruria, named after a region of ancient Italy, to satisfy the demand for neoclassical.
The interchange between nations arouses many linguistic pleasures – who other than linguists knew that “porcelain” derives from Venetian slang for “little piglet,” itself a nickname for a certain type of seashell? – and endemic puns, intentional or not. Wedgwood’s dad “failed to make a lot of branding.” When Josiah’s best friend and beloved business partner passed away, Hunt’s topic was – yes – “broken.” Will your eyes be frozen as you read the importance of British naval prowess to the ceramics trade? Maybe, but overall it’s as chic a biography as you can imagine on the dishes.