Josiah Wedgwood: Tycoon of Taste

Tristram Hunt

“The Steve Jobs of pottery” is how Tristram Hunt, Director of the V&A, sees eighteenth century design pioneer, Josiah Wedgwood. Inventor, entrepreneur and uncompromising perfectionist, Wedgwood’s ambition changed the face of the decorative arts in Britain forever. Inspired by the latest fashion for classicism, Wedgwood created wares in his Stoke factories for both the masses and the aristocracy, whilst using his designs to support the most morally charged cause of his day – the abolition of slavery. However, it was his obsession with equalling the great icons of the classical past that led to his boldest accomplishment – the Portland Vase, which now lives in the V&A collection.

As one of the key figures behind the campaign to save the Wedgwood Collection for the nation in 2014, Tristram Hunt speaks with passion and wit about the life and legacy of the self-proclaimed ‘Vase-Maker General to the Universe’.

Sign up or Login to comment and join the discussion.

Wedgwood was both a very magnetic and engaging individual. But he was also, in a sort of almost Steve Jobs kind of way, an obsessive perfectionist.

And he was known as ‘Auld Wooden-Leg’, because he lost his leg and he would storm through the pot bank on his wooden leg, with his stick, smashing ware that didn’t meet the right quality threshold.

He was hard as hell, he wanted to be the Master Potter to the Universe.

And he time and again made sure his workers were working to his level of perfection. When we think of the decorative arts of Britain, we immediately turn to Josiah Wedgwood who helped to design Britain, a change maker and a tastemaker.

Josiah Wedgwood turned this rude, uncultivated craft, as it was called, into this global industry, marrying art, design and technology. And he made Stoke-on-Trent the epicentre of pottery production in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

It was almost inevitable that he would end up in the pottery business. His father was a potter, his uncles, but there was a genius about Wedgwood. He had seen so many businesses go bankrupt trying to create the brilliant translucent porcelain. So, he produces creamware, which is a mass-production pottery, which isn’t as translucent but fills the consumer market.

And after a while he feels he’s sort of flooded the market with this and needs a new innovation. And so, he immerses himself in the classicism of the eighteenth century. He studies the great Egyptian designs which were so fashionable, he embraces Romanticism.

But he’s a scientist. So, he goes back to the experiments, he goes back to his kilns, he goes back to looking at the ingredients of pottery. And after many trials and error, he comes up with his great innovation, one of the great innovations in ceramic production – jasperware.

So, jasperware begins as this celebrated blue Wedgwood design. It has almost the translucent qualities of porcelain but is much more malleable and adaptable. And Wedgwood’s brilliance was not only technical, but in terms of marketing, in terms of feeling the sense of where British consumer culture was going.

And so, he knows that to sell his material it’s very important to have royal patronage. And so, he works incredibly hard to have Queen Charlotte support his production so that it can bear the title ‘Queensware’. That means it’s got the royal stamp of approval, that means being able to sell it then into the mass market is much easier – if you bag the royal or the aristocrat, getting the middle market is so much easier.

And so, on one hand he wants the royal patronage, and on the other hand he was quite a radical figure. He’s interested in the American Revolution, he’s interested in the French Revolution. He mixed in radical circles, that brought him in touch with the Campaign for the Abolition of the Trade in Slaves.

And Wedgwood immediately wanted to support the abolitionist cause. And so, he supported it in the best way he knew how, which was through design. And he produces this celebrated medallion, almost like a button that today you’d wear as a kind of CND badge or a Labour Party badge. And it had the depiction of an African slave in chains saying, “Am I not a man and a brother?”, in jasperware.

This was mass-produced, this was worn by those who supported the abolitionist cause, and it became a great icon. Every button we see today, for campaigns against ‘Make Poverty History’, or ‘Me Too’, or whichever cause, in terms of the material culture of that, I think you can see an enormous debt to Wedgwood’s medallion “Am I not a man and a brother?”. And Wedgwood was very proud of that.

It was another mark in his dominance of decorative arts. One of the great fads of the 1770/1780s was a new desire for vases, everybody needed a vase. Some of that is bound up with the rediscovery of Italy and Greece, the impulse that would produce Lord Elgin and the Parthenon sculptures coming back to Britain. So, there was a fashionability about archaeology, about the rediscovery of the classical inheritance.

One of these great icons of the classical past was the Portland Vase, which was dug up, and comes back to Britain, and goes to sit in the British Museum. And it was called the Portland Vase because it was owned by the Duke of Portland. And it was regarded as the most beautiful item within the classical tradition. And so, for Wedgwood, here was the greatest challenge of all, could he make a modern Portland Vase, could he make a ceramic vase from Stoke-on-Trent, to rival the great classical production of the past?

And so, he set himself to do it, time and time again, and it was a torturous process, but what emerged from it was this testament to all his technical proficiency and skills. And it became a great celebrity moment to see the vase, and it was a ticketed item to go and see this phenomenal piece. And it elevated Wedgwood further. He was on his pathway now to being the master potter, to being the royal potter, to being a fellow of the Royal Society, and above all a man who helped to design Britain.

When we think of the decorative arts, we immediately turn to some of the greatest ceramic production in the world. And Josiah Wedgwood sits proudly and firmly within that.

With thanks to…

Art Fund

Victoria and Albert Museum

Wedgwood Museum



Alamy Stock Photo

British Museum

Getty Images

Metropolitan Museum, New York

The Potteries



9 Lives

Audio Network


Full list of images shown:

Statue of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) at Winton Square

Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England UK

steven gillis hd9 imaging / Alamy Stock Photo


Josiah Wedgwood

Artokoloro Quint Lox Limited / Alamy Stock Photo


Potters work in pottery factory

Archive Films Editorial / Getty Images


General Map of England

Daniel de la Feuille, 1734

Geographicus Rare Antique Maps

Public Domain


Wedgwood Etruria potteries

Hanley, Staffordshire, c.1753

Oxford Science Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images


Potter at work at the Wedgwood’s Etruria factory

Hand-coloured engraving, c.1830

Photo 12 / UIG / Getty Images


Young Wedgwood at the Bench

From: The Boy’s Own Paper, c.1879-1880

whitemay / Getty Images



Chelsea Factory, London, c.1755

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Canada

CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain



Josiah Wedgwood’s Factory, c.1764-1765

Victoria and Albert Museum

HENI Talks footage


The Death of Seneca

Jacques-Louis David, 1773

Public Domain



Book of the Dead of Hunefer, frame 3, c.1450 BC

British Museum

Museum no. EA9901,3

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


The Bard

Thomas Jones, 1774

National Museum Wales


Brick House Works, Burselm

Josiah Wedgwood’s second factory

Artist unknown, n.d.

The Potteries


Wedgwood at work

Butterworth and heath, c.1880

Print Collector / Getty Images


Tray of Josiah Wedgwood’s jasper trials, 1773

Photo ©Wedgwood Museum / WWRD



Josiah Wedgwood and Sons, c.1780-1800

Victoria and Albert Museum

HENI Talks footage


Shop window full of Wedgwood pottery

Engraving, London, 1823

Universal History Archive / UIG via Getty Images


The Wedgwood Rooms

From: Rudolph Ackermann (1809) The Repository of arts, literature, commerce, manufactures, fashions and politics, London: Sherwood & Co., p.103

Public Domain


Queen Charlotte

Johan Joseph Zoffany, 1771

GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo


Josiah Wedgwood

Joshua Reynolds, 18thCentury



Washington Crossing the Delaware

Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Metropolitan Museum

Public Domain


Liberty Leading the People
Eugène Delacroix, 1830


Church Mission Society, c.1799

Universal History Archive/ UIG / Getty Images


The Abolition of the Slave Trade

Attributed to Isaac Cruikshank

Published by S.W Fores, London, April 10 1792

Public Domain


The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society

Design by William Hackwood or Henry Webber, 1795

Public Domain


‘Am I not a man and a brother?’

Designed by William Hackwood

Wedgwood porcelain medallion, c.1787

AF Fotografie / Alamy Stock Photo


Medallions featuring the emblem of the society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade

William Hackwood, 1787

Presented to the V&A by Art Fund with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, 2014

© Art Fund. Photo: Phil Sayer


Person wearing anti-nuclear badges on their jacket

Martin bond / Alamy Stock Photo



Chelsea Porcelain Factory, c.1760

age fotostock / Alamy Stock Photo


Vase and cover

Chelsea Porcelain Factory, c.1759-1768

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Vase, stand and cover

Jacques-François-Joseph Saly

Derby Porcelain Factory, 1774-1780

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Chesterfield Vase

Chelsea Porcelain Factory, c.1762-1763

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Vase and cover

Design by Angelica Kauffman

Gilded by Thomas Soare

Derby Porcelain Factory, c.1783-1784

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Wedgwood, c.1815
Sean Pathasema / Birmingham Museum of Art

(CC BY 3.0)



The Pegasus Vase

Designed by John Flaxman

Modelled by William Hackwood

Factory of Wedgwood, c.1768

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


The Temporary Elgin Room in 1819

Archibald Archer, 1819

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


The Portland Vase

Roman, c.1-25 AD

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


‘First Edition’ copy of the Portland Vase

William Hackwood and Henry Webber

Josiah Wedgwood’s Factory, c.1790

Victoria and Albert Museum

HENI Talks footage


Trade card of Wedgwoodpotter


Anonymous, n.d.

British Museum

(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


Josiah Wedgwood, English industrialist and potter

W. Holl, 1753

Oxford Science Archive / Print Collector / Getty Images


Recently Watched

Watch Next Video

Richard Westmacott’s Pediment Sculptures for the British Museum

Richard Westmacott’s Pediment Sculptures for the British Museum 13:53 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer reflects on the story and inspiration behind Sir Richard Westmacott’s pediment sculptures.

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light

Brian Clarke: The Art of Light 13:02 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

A portrait of pioneering architectural artist Brian Clarke.

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Post-Punk Prodigy

Jean-Michel Basquiat: Post-Punk Prodigy 11:57 mins
play_arrow PLAY NOW

How did the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat anticipate our experience of the digital?