Josiah Wedgwood, (baptized July 12, 1730, Burslem [now in Stoke-on-Trent], Staffordshire, Eng.—died Jan. 3, 1795, Etruria, Staffordshire), English pottery designer and manufacturer, outstanding in his scientific approach to pottery making and known for his exhaustive researches into materials, logical deployment of labour, and sense of business organization.
The youngest child of the potter Thomas Wedgwood, Josiah came from a family whose members had been potters since the 17th century. After his father’s death in 1739, he worked in the family business at Churchyard Works, Burslem, becoming exceptionally skillful at the potter’s wheel and, in 1744, an apprentice to his elder brother Thomas. An attack of smallpox seriously curtailed his work; the disease later affected his right leg, which was then amputated. The consequent inactivity, however, enabled him to read, research, and experiment in his craft. After Thomas refused his proposal for partnership about 1749, Josiah, after a brief partnership (1752–53) with John Harrison at Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, joined in 1754 with Thomas Whieldon of Fenton Low, Staffordshire, probably the leading potter of his day. This became a fruitful partnership, enabling Wedgwood to become a master of current pottery techniques. He then began what he called his “experiment book,” an invaluable source on Staffordshire pottery.
After inventing the improved green glaze still popular today, Wedgwood terminated his partnership with Whieldon and went into business for himself at Burslem, first at the Ivy House factory, where he perfected cream-coloured earthenware that, because of Queen Charlotte’s patronage in 1765, was called Queen’s ware. Well finished and clean in appearance with simple decoration, Queen’s ware became, by virtue of its durable material and serviceable forms, the standard domestic pottery and enjoyed a worldwide market.
On one of his frequent visits to Liverpool, he met the merchant Thomas Bentley in 1762. Because his enterprise had spread from the British Isles to the Continent, Wedgwood expanded his business to the nearby Brick House (or Bell Works) factory. In 1768 Bentley became his partner in the manufacture of ornamental items that were primarily unglazed stonewares in various colours, formed and decorated in the popular style of Neoclassicism, to which Josiah lent great impetus. Chief among these wares were black basaltes, which by the addition of red encaustic painting could be used to imitate Greek red-figure vases; and jasper, a fine-grained vitreous body resulting from the high firing of paste containing barium sulphate (cauk). For his ornamental vases, Wedgwood built a factory called Etruria, to which the manufacture of useful wares was also transferred about 1771–73 (there his descendants carried on the business until 1940, when the factory was relocated at Barlaston, Staffordshire). The most famous artist he employed at Etruria was the sculptor John Flaxman, whose wax portraits and other relief figures he translated into jasperware.
Wedgwood’s accomplishments were enormous and diversified. His wares appealed particularly to the rising European bourgeois class, and porcelain and faience factories suffered severely from competition with him. Surviving factories switched to the manufacture of creamware (called on the Continent faience fine or faience anglaise), and the use of tin enamel abated. Even the great factories at Sèvres, France, and at Meissen, Ger., found their trade affected. Jasperwares were imitated in biscuit porcelain at Sèvres, and Meissen produced a glazed version called Wedgwoodarbeit. Evidence of the popularity of Wedgwood’s creamware is found in the gargantuan service of 952 pieces made in 1774 for Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Other wares followed jasper’s introduction in 1775—rosso antico (red porcelain), cane, drab, chocolate, and olive wares—created by adding colouring oxides. Every kind of shape and function Wedgwood explored. His invention of the pyrometer, a device for measuring high temperatures (invaluable for gauging oven heats for firings), earned him commendation as a fellow of the Royal Society. Among the many brilliant scientists with whom he was friends or collaborated was Erasmus Darwin, who encouraged him to invest in steam-powered engines; thus, in 1782 Etruria was the first factory to install such an engine.
Wedgwood’s daughter Susannah was the mother of Charles Darwin.
This article was most recently revised and updated by Virginia Gorlinski, Associate Editor.