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The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain by Tristram Hunt

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

Allen Lane Books, September 2021

A biography is shaped by the identity, interests and experiences of its author as much as by its subject. In this respect, no two biographies of a historical figure ever present exactly the same person – but the most interesting are surely those whose authors continue their subject’s story in life as well as on the page.

Publishers go to lengths to match appropriate subjects and authors and in this regard, The Radical Potter is a brilliant piece of publishing by Penguin Press’s Allen Lane imprint. As MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central 2010-2017, Tristram Hunt played a key part in saving the Wedgwood archive when attempts were made by Waterford Wedgwood’s then-owner, US private equity firm KPS, to sell off the Wedgwood Museum’s contents to meet its pension liabilities.

Following a successful campaign led by The Art Fund, the collection was safeguarded and put into the trust of the V&A – of which Hunt assumed the directorship in 2017. Prior to his parliamentary career, Hunt was an academic specialising in urban history, and his parallel career presenting documentaries on television and radio means that he’s no stranger to communicating ideas clearly and compellingly.

The best biographies also demonstrate how their subject’s life has influenced our world today, and in this respect, Hunt’s portrayal of Josiah Wedgwood is a revelation.

Born in 1730, Wedgwood entered his family firm of potters whilst still a teenager. The family were non-conformists and Hunt ascribes much of Josiah’s attitude to a Calvinist ethic of hard work. But for me, when I learned that the young Josiah lost the use of a leg following a childhood bout of smallpox, rendering him unable to perform physical tasks at the manufactory, his extraordinary transformation of the family firm and indeed the whole of consumer society in later life made complete sense.

More or less all great entrepreneurs have one thing in common: they overcame adversity at some point in their life, which drives them to succeed at all cost.

Wedgwood ceaselessly experimented with new technologies, workplace practices and supply chain innovation, and as a member of the Lunar Society, engaged in a lively exchange of ideas with other leading thinkers and practitioners of his day, from Erasmus Darwin to Matthew Boulton to Joseph Wright (notably, all Midlands-based, in contrast to a later shift of not only of concentration of power and wealth, but also ideas, to London).

But his true genius lay in his fascination with consumer society. He has been compared with Steve Jobs, and that is by no means far-fetched. He lived in an age of exponential change. A proliferation in global trade meant that horizons were expanded at all levels in society, more people were able to purchase consumer goods, and that the range of goods on offer was like nothing that had been seen before. This democratisation of purchasing power meant that by the mid-18th century, there was a shop for every 30-40 people in the south of England.

Together with his life-long friend and business partner Thomas Bentley (until Bentley’s death at the end of the century, the business had been called Wedgwood & Bentley), Wedgwood strove to take full advantage of the new consumer climate: “they understood, with awesome precocity, the psychological inflection points of consumer society and then proceeded to build a manufacturing and supply chain to provision it.”

Aiming at the aspirational middle classes as much as the elite, Wedgwood and Bentley were early adopters of what we think of as “modern” techniques of influencer marketing and product placement, gifting prototypes of their wares to the wealthy and influential, on the understanding that they displayed them either publicly or in prominent places in their homes.

In 1765, a major coup came in the form of a commission from Queen Charlotte, which other potters had turned down, deeming it too complex. But in an age where royalty were the ultimate influencers of taste, Wedgwood and Bentley immediately saw the bigger picture, accepted the commission and milked it for all the publicity they could get, leading to the must-have line “Queensware”.

Sure enough, an order from the ultimate US influencer George Washington followed. Later, following a deft piece of product placement at the British Embassy in Russia, Wedgwood would also accept a phenomenally complicated order for a 1,000-piece dinner service from Catherine the Great.

Wedgwood & Bentley’s showroom in London – which was on the corner of Great Newport Street and Long Acre / St Martin’s Lane, now just outside of Leicester Square tube station - became a destination for London’s fashion set, breaking new ground in terms of the retail experience. But, as with today’s luxury brands, this was just the shop window for a massive international operation, with the US, Russia and continental Europe becoming major markets for Wedgwood’s wares.

And Wedgwood was arguably the world’s first activist CEO. Along with Bentley, Adam Smith, William Wilberforce, Mary Anne Schimmelpennick and many other late 18th Century businesspeople and thinkers - driven by Enlightenment values of free markets and free individuals - he campaigned for both the abolition of slavery and female education.

Wedgwood was able to translate his ability to influence consumer trends and behaviour into effecting social change. At the firm’s own expense, he produced his now-famous abolitionist medallions to support the campaign to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and then proceeded to deploy his formidable marketing machine to the cause. The medallions were worn or displayed by tens of thousands across the UK, France and the US, with revenue going to abolitionist charities. This also helped to popularise the anti-saccharite movement, whereby followers abstained from sugar in protest at the means of production on the plantations.

It’s been said before that empire, with its focus on administration and coercive trade rather than innovation and free trade, killed off entrepreneurialism in Britain. Certainly, The Radical Potter leaves the impression that the 18th century had more in common with the 21st century than either the 19th century, with all its process, or the 20th century, with its corporatism.

Enlightenment values of free markets and free individuals, and the consumer society created by globalisation, certainly strike a chord today. The rise of literacy and the decline of the Church as an arbiter of society led to the cult of the individual, exemplified by endless demand for Wedgwood’s depictions of popular figures from philosophers to scientists to actors to royalty, as busts, medallions or on plates. It’s easy to underestimate how transformative a way this was of looking at the world, following centuries of dictation by feudal landlords and the Church.

Free-thinking individuals were able to effect social change – but The Radical Potter shows that so also were brands. Just as Generation Z are more likely to look to brands than policy makers to make a difference today, Wedgwood’s campaign against slavery was empowered by the large following and level of trust which the consumer placed in the Wedgwood brand.

And of course, Wedgwood’s most popular and enduring products were those inspired by Classical times, including his famous copies of the Portland Vase. Classical Greece and Rome were characterised by the dominance of rhetoric and debate, subsequently overshadowed by the Dark Ages – aspects of which the Enlightenment intelligentsia were keen to emulate.

In an era of exponential change, this provided a sense of stability – but it also highlighted continuity, demonstrating how we learn and inherit from our forebears, whilst at the same time progressing and pushing boundaries. This is certainly the lesson I took from what manages to be one of the most accomplished, readable and poignant biographies I’ve read.

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