Wedgwood: An introduction

Wedgwood is one of the most recognisable names in British ceramics. For over 260 years the company has set trends, producing fashionable, desirable ceramics for a broad range of consumers. The company's founder Josiah Wedgwood I (1730 – 95) has been celebrated as a pioneer in manufacture, design and marketing, capitalising on a rapidly changing consumer market in the 18th century. Owing to the many skilled people who have worked for the company from its foundation in 1759 to the present day, the name 'Wedgwood' has come to stand for uniting art and industry, often most recognised by the iconic blue and white of Jasperware.

Josiah Wedgwood I

Dark oil painting of a man in a short wig in an elaborate gold frame
Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood I, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782, England. Museum no. WE.7851-2014. © Fiskars

Josiah Wedgwood I declared in 1769 that his aim was to become "Vase Maker General to the Universe". He was a man of great ingenuity, determination and ability, and the remarkable success of his ceramics company is often attributed to these qualities. Josiah I came from a family of potters, and their business was one of many family-run potteries in North Staffordshire. At the age of 14, Josiah I was apprenticed to his brother Thomas at the Churchyard Works, the pottery founded by his great-grandfather, where he trained for five years to become a master potter.

In the 18th century, Britain was undergoing enormous change, and Staffordshire was developing as a major centre of ceramic production – so much so that the area became known as The Potteries. With the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution originating in the heart of the Midlands, a young Josiah I witnessed this rapid change and established his own business in 1759.

By this time, the region's potteries were shifting from the production of traditional Staffordshire red and black earthenware goods, salt-glazed stoneware tableware, and slip-decorated wares to focus on a new product: cream-coloured earthenware. This ceramic offered a cheaper alternative to porcelain production, which by this time was being made by a number of manufactories at Bow in London, Plymouth and Bristol who had mastered the art of porcelain production at huge financial cost to themselves and their customers.

Brown wooden tray with rectangular and circular white shapes in it
Tray of Queen's ware trials, by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1765, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.4119-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Like many of his competitors, Josiah I shifted his production towards creamware. He took an unusually rigorous approach to the material, carrying out a series of almost 5,000 glaze and body trials to perfect the colour and finish of his creamware, diligently recording notes and ingredients lists in his 'experiment book'. In doing so, he created a refined version of this widely used material and produced creamware that could rival porcelain in its design and decoration, yet cost far less to make. Creamware was versatile and relatively affordable – features key to its commercial success – and it became a staple product for Wedgwood with hundreds of fashionable styles being produced.

White tea set on grey and black background
Early creamware tea set, by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, about 1762 – 65, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum nos. WE.7528-2014, WE.7600-2014, WE.7602-2014, WE.7601:1,2-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Potter to Her Majesty

Josiah I's company was already on its way to commercial success when a major commission came about. In 1765 an order came from St James's Palace, London, for a creamware tea set 'with a gold ground & raised flowers upon it in green' for Queen Charlotte. Along with the tea set, Josiah sent a crate of samples of his other wares, including vases and improved cream-coloured earthenware. This bold tactic resulted in further orders and led to a crucial marketing opportunity in 1766: 'To this manufacturer the Queen was pleased to give her name and patronage, commanding it to be called Queensware, and honouring the inventor by appointing him Her Majesty's Potter'. Creamware had become Queen's ware, and Josiah I capitalised on his growing reputation with his new title, 'Potter to Her Majesty', which he added to invoices and orders.

Hand-written letter on old, yellowing paper
Bill for purchases made by the Duke of Bedford from Josiah Wedgwood, 1786. Museum no. L41-7309. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Staffordshire pots in this period were not typically marked by their maker, but Josiah I began stamping the base of his wares as a mark of authenticity and quality. He adopted other marketing strategies to entice consumers, such as free delivery from his factory to London and free replacement of items broken in transit. Recognising the importance of a retail presence in fashionable hotspots, as well as showrooms at prominent addresses in the capital, Wedgwood opened shops in Bath and Dublin, Ireland.

Beyond ceramics, Josiah I demonstrated his interest in improving every aspect of his operations. He played a critical role in the campaign to build the 'Grand Trunk' or Trent and Mersey Canal, completed in 1777, which would link Staffordshire directly to the major ports of Liverpool and Hull. Despite Staffordshire's geographical isolation, its ceramics were distributed not just locally but also internationally, via a growing network of turnpike roads and canals that offered key links from the Midlands to other trade routes. The cost of moving raw materials and the loss of fragile pots carried on poor-quality roads cut significantly into profits. Importantly, the newly built canal passed directly by Wedgwood's new purpose-built factory at Etruria (named by Josiah I and today located in the heart of the city of Stoke-on-Trent), which incorporated the latest working practices in the industry, from housing for his workers, to a carefully designed factory layout with a logical and efficient sequence of production.

The invention of Jasperware

Having achieved major commercial success, Josiah I continued to experiment, resulting in his most important contribution to ceramic history – the invention of Jasperware. As he had done with his Queens ware, Josiah I carried out thousands of experiments to perfect his recipes and techniques for this revolutionary type of stoneware. Jasperware could be produced in a wide range of fashionable colours and became a visual marker for his company, suitable for detailed classically-inspired designs which perfectly suited the fashionable neoclassical interiors of the day.

Wooden tray with coloured shapes ranging from orange to green to blue and purple
Tray of Jasper trials, by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1773, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.7599-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1787, Josiah I became involved with the Society for the Purpose of Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, which led to him produce a series of Jasperware medallions depicting a kneeling enslaved man in chains with the motto 'Am I Not a Man and a Brother?'. Given Wedgwood's commercial focus, it is revealing that these medallions were not for sale, but were made for handing out at the Society's meetings in support of the cause. The medallions became an early protest symbol, and a way for supporters of abolition to publicly demonstrate their views, worn mounted into hairpins or buttons.

Josiah I's role in the abolition campaign saw him come into contact with leading abolitionists of the day including Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 97), Thomas Clarkson (1760 – 1846) and William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833). The story of the medallion has been the focus of a V&A research project which saw the medallion reimagined for the 21st century, with a new medallion designed by young people from Stoke-on-Trent and produced by Wedgwood in Jasperware.

black vase with handles either side with a white relief design of people and trees
First edition copy of the Portland vase, Jasperware, by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1790, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.8000-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Josiah I's final years were dominated by his mission to make a copy of the Portland Vase, a Roman cameo glass vessel. Recreated in his famous Jasperware, the project took Josiah I almost five years and countless trials, tests and experiments. The creation of the first editions of the vase were marked by an exhibition in 1790, with Josiah I concluding that, "My great work is the Portland Vase". The image of the vase featured on the company's backstamp for many years.

The next generations

Despite the potential for the loss of clear direction following the death of Josiah I in 1795, the early 19th century remained a time of innovation for the Wedgwood company. This period saw the introduction of bone china, lustre decoration and the first underglaze-blue printed patterns. However, by the 1840s the firm's financial situation was increasingly precarious. From 1842, under the leadership of Josiah I's grandson Francis Wedgwood (1800 – 88), the company formed partnerships with John Boyle and later Robert Brown who helped raise capital for modernisation and product development. The disposal of assets, including Etruria Hall and a large part of the estate, saved the company from financial ruin and enabled Wedgwood to exhibit at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Soup tureen in blue and white with a peony flower decoration
Tureen decorated in Peony pattern, by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, Queen's ware, about 1820, Stoke-on-Trent, England. Museum no. WE.8492-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Under the management of Francis Wedgwood's sons Godfrey (1833 – 1905), Clement Francis (1840 – 89) and Laurence (1844 – 1913), the company forged new links with art schools and embraced a burgeoning art pottery tradition that enhanced its output and reputation in the latter half of the 19th century. During the 20th century Wedgwood navigated further financial turbulence caused by tough competition, the impact of international instability and the outbreak of war. Key designers at the company during this period included the artists Alfred and Louise Powell, and the painter and designer Daisy Makeig-Jones.

Designs on paper for colourful vases and bowls, a bowl and jar with cover, multicoloured
Clockwise, left to right: Etruria catalogue featuring designs for Fairyland lustre, about 1920. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Fairyland lustre chalice bowl, designed by Daisy Makeig-Jones, manufactured by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1923. Museum no. WE.9652-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Fairyland lustre 'Ghostly wood' jar and cover, designed by Daisy Makeig-Jones, manufactured by Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1916 – 32. Museum no. C.70A-1988. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The takeover by a new generation of Wedgwoods in the 1930s, with Victor Skellern as art director and Norman Wilson as technical and production manager, resulted in a period of resurgence both financially and artistically, with the architect Keith Murray and the sculptor John Skeaping among those initiating new design approaches. Under the guidance of Josiah Wedgwood V (1899 – 1968), the company left the smoke-filled city of Stoke-on-Trent and the traditions of Etruria for a modern, purpose-built factory in rural Barlaston, a few miles south of the city, reaffirming Wedgwood's commitment to making high quality and well-designed modern wares as well as honouring the company's history.

Ridged green bowl on a black and grey background
Shape 3802 vase, design by Keith Murray for Josiah Wedgwood and sons, 1935. Museum no. WE.9670-2014. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Wedgwood in the 21st century

In 2009, the high-profile collapse of the Waterford Wedgwood Royal Doulton Group (WWRD) threatened the future of the Wedgwood story. In 2015, the Wedgwood company was purchased by the Finnish consumer goods company Fiskars (itself the custodian of the heritage family brand Fiskars, founded in 1649). Today, production of 'prestige' wares such as hand-painted and limited edition objects continues, and Jasperware is still made by a small team of skilled workers at the Barlaston factory, while the rest of the company's output is produced in Indonesia.

Wedgwood's connection with artists remains as important today as in the 18th century, and the company continues to collaborate with contemporary artists and designers including Vera Wang, Jasper Conran, and Sheila Bridges.

Header image:

Portrait of Josiah Wedgwood, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1782, England. Museum no. WE.7851-2014. © Fiskars