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wedgwood biography glistens - book review

updated tue 26 oct 04


Frank Gaydos on sun 24 oct 04

Wedgwood: The First Tycoon
By Brian Dolan, Viking, 396 pp, $24.95

Reviewed by Thomas J. Brady

Would that Josiah Wedgwood had lived another two or three decades so =
that Brian Dolan could have written even more about this truly =
fascinating 18th-century British potter.

Wedgwood was born in 1730 to a family long and undistinguished in the =
pottery business in Burslem, England. Because he was the youngest son =
and therefore did not inherit his father's business, he signed on as an =
apprentice at age 14.

But through his constant experiments in chemistry, he made numerous and =
consistent breakthroughs in improving the pottery he created from the =
fertile clay fields of Burslem.

Many of the improvements had to do with glazes, but another was his =
development of Jasper Ware, a typically light-blue, unglazed porcelain =
usually adorned with white cameo inlays and for which he is still =
well-known. Probably his most famous individual work was a re-creation =
of the ancient Roman Portland Vase.

Wedgwood was also forever improving his methods of business. He was one =
of the first merchants to have a showroom for his wares in London as =
well as traveling salesmen. He also offered free delivery and money-back =
guarantees, and generated worker loyalty by providing health insurance =
and pension plans.

When he died in 1795, Wedgwood left a fortune of 600,000 pounds, which =
Dolan estimates at $100 million in today's dollars. As wealthy as that =
is, Dolan writes, one should really think of Wedgwood more in terms of a =
billionaire by today's standards.

Dolan, an associate professor of anthropology, history and social =
medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, even injects =
elements of adventure. He describes Wedgwood emissary Thomas Griffiths =
on his travels through Indian country in colonial America in search of =
kaolin, a white clay that enabled the potter to develop Jasper Ware.

Wedgwood had two especially noteworthy achievements. One was being =
commissioned by England's Queen Charlotte to make a tea set that came to =
be known as Queen's Ware. As a result of its creation, he was appointed =
Her Majesty's potter.

The second great achievement was the 950-piece dinner and dessert =
service - the Green Frog Service - commissioned by Russia's Catherine =
the Great, which was so expensive to produce that Wedgwood made only 200 =
pounds profit. He nevertheless reaped a wealth of publicity.

Not only was Wedgwood the premier potter of his time, he was also a =
philosopher friendly with scientist Joseph Priestley and a politically =
astute businessman who championed building a canal that served his =
Etruria factory especially well. He was also a Fellow of the Royal =
Society - not to mention grandfather of naturalist Charles Darwin.

Wedgwood is a marvelously told tale of a true Renaissance man who took =
clumps of clay and molded them into objects of beauty and culture for =
the masses.

And he made a fortune in the process. Now, that's a potter of vision!

Frank Gaydos

Garlic is to food what insanity is to art.

Dorothy Feibleman on mon 25 oct 04

WW made most of his money on tolls from waterways, road schemes and he
married well. He was also clever.

No comment about contemporary ww, hope it improves, but with the way people
seem to get laid off, and all the skilled people retire generally in
Stoke, I guess it is just running shoe/car/cad program dead products made
by engineers and not artists that will spew out white stuff that the
chinese can make cheaper on the same cad programs.

mailtoandrew@FSMAIL.NET on mon 25 oct 04

Hello Frank,

Thank you for highlighting the book about Wedgwood which Ill certainly get
hod of.It was only a few weeks ago I submitted a post about this quite
remarkable man.

Just a couple more points that may be of interest:

The dinner service commissioned by Catherine the Great can be seen at the
Hermitage Museum in St.Petersburg. Each piece is decorated with a hand
painted scene of the English countryside, and a little green Frog!

The first china clay pit operated by Josiah Wedgwood is still being
worked, and is therefore the oldest working china clay pit in the world.