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The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.
The Bruges Group spearheaded the intellectual battle to win a vote to leave the European Union and, above all, against the emergence of a centralised EU state.

Bruges Group Blog

Spearheading the intellectual battle against the EU. And for new thinking in international affairs.

The radical potter


The radical potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the transformation of Britain, by Tristram Hunt, hardback, 352 pages, ISBN 978-0-241287897, Allen Lane, 2021, £25

This is a splendid study of the great Staffordshire potter Josiah Wedgwood. It is deeply researched and profusely illustrated. Tristram Hunt is Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and an experienced historian, author of, among other books, The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels.

Prime Minister William Gladstone stated, "Wedgwood was the greatest man who ever, in any age, or in any country …. applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry." Hunt writes that "with Thomas Newcomen, Richard Arkwright and James Watt he was one of the founding figures of the Industrial Revolution."

Wedgwood knew that the advent of industry caused the wondrous transformation in the fortunes of Stoke-on-Trent. As he wrote, "A well directed and long continued series of industrious exertions, both in masters and servants, has so changed, for the better, the face of our country, its buildings, lands, roads, and … the manners and deportment of its inhabitants too."

New modes of transport transformed the prospects of industries in the Midlands and the north. The Midlands canal network drastically reduced the costs of distributing Burton ales, Cheshire cheese, Stoke ceramics, and Birmingham metalware,

Wedgwood pioneered new ways of producing pottery. After months of trial and error, practical adjustments and chemical analysis, his most important contribution to ceramic history emerged from the Staffordshire kilns: the trademark lilac, blue, white, yellow and sea-green of jasperware.

Of Wedgwood's famous jasperware medallion of a slave asking 'Am I not a Man and a Brother?', Hunt writes, "the commanding correlation of word and image made Wedgwood's medallion an exceptionally potent tool in the campaign. For all our twenty-first-century concerns with its racialized depiction of the African slave and denial of agency, the cameo deserves to be remembered as one of the most radical symbols in modern history and one of Wedgwood's most significant contributions to material culture."

Wedgwood was one of the 'Lunar Men' - "On the Sunday nearest the full moon, coming from Nottingham, Derby, Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham, and places in between, this Lunar Society of natural philosophers, mechanics, geologists, chemists, doctors and potters started to gather at Boulton's Soho House to share, as Lovell Edgworth put it, 'the first hints of discoveries, the current observations, and the mutual collisions of ideas'. The latest advances in mineralogy, astronomy, medicine, zoology and aeronautics were debated and interrogated between like-minded male friends."

The Society's meetings and papers, knowledge sharing, and experimentation provided much of the intellectual capital for the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Jenny Uglow concluded her brilliant account of The Lunar Men - "They knew that knowledge was provisional, but they also understood that it brought power, and believed that this power should belong to all of us."

Hunt summed up: "to Wedgwood and his friends, this age of discovery involved the systematic taming of nature and the marshalling of science for the progress of mankind. Behind the jasper tea sets and the basalt urns, almost embedded within them, was the passionate commitment to Enlightenment rationalism which underpinned Wedgwood's ceramic breakthroughs, business endeavours and creative ability. … many of the transformative forces of the age of Enlightenment - democracy, revolution, the 'subject of freedom' - found their craftsman in Josiah Wedgwood and the material culture he shaped."

His great company ended tragically. In 1987 the company was merged with Waterford Crystal. The Potteries workers were laid off, the factories closed, while absentee directors took millions in salaries and bonuses, and offshored production to Indonesia. In 2009, the company's remaining assets were sold to the US private equity firm KPS Capital Partners, leaving to the receivers £748 million in debt and the pension liabilities of thousands of ex-Wedgwood workers. 

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