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.”
Wedgwood’s white whale was porcelain, or “white gold”: the delicate import, most famously from Jingdezhen, China, that was ardently collected by European royalty, decorating a pavilion for Louis XIV’s extramarital trysts at Versailles and a Polish king’s palace in Dresden. Unable to crack the foreign formula, Wedgwood and his collaborators instead refined the already-established local creation of creamware to make it “queen’s ware,” “pearlware” and other proprietary, poetically named variations, exporting them with great success around the globe.
Though Wedgwood had a Wonka-like fear of spies, his potbanks became popular guided tourist stops for the cultural elite; and he was a pioneer of the celebrity endorsement, which in that era meant nobles or royals — though he later supported the American revolutionaries. His most triumphant commission was probably for Catherine the Great of Russia: a 944-piece Frog Service, adorned lovingly with English landscapes and landmarks (and frogs). The result was not just schmancy dinnerware but a “cultural manifesto.”
One of the many pleasures of “The Radical Potter” is its meticulous catalog of the china-buying public’s tastes, some whimsical — marvel as the goofy cauliflower motif is surpassed by the exotic pineapple — others bizarre or sinister. “Helpfully, the fashion for ladies to wear white gloves during the tea service and even bleach their hands porcelain-white with arsenic also increased demand for black-basalt teaware,” Hunt writes of one 1770s fad, “as the darkness of the basalt highlighted the cleanliness of the hostesses’ wardrobe or the purity of their genealogy.” When people started losing their minds over vases, Wedgwood clocked the “epidemical madness” and created a whole new settlement, Etruria, named for a region of ancient Italy, to satisfy demand for the neo-Classical.
The exchange between nations prompts many felicities of language — who but linguists knew that “porcelain” derives from Venetian slang for “little piglet,” itself a nickname for a certain kind of shell? — and rampant punning, whether or not intentional. Wedgwood’s father “failed to make much of a mark.” When Josiah’s beloved best friend and business partner died, Hunt’s subject was — yes — “shattered.” Will your eyes glaze over reading about the importance of Britain’s naval prowess to the ceramics trade? Perhaps, but on balance this is as dishy a biography about dishes as can be imagined.