Poor old Josiah Wedgwood...clumsy, bluff, blinkered, tactless, oblivious to his family's emotions and capable of showing more tenderness towards a lump of clay on the potter's wheel than to his long-suffering wife Sal, yet how much I ended up admiring the man by the time I had finished A.N.Wilson's novel The Potter's Hand.
It is 1774 and Josiah, whose Etruria pottery works lead the way around the world, has been commissioned to produce a thousand piece dinner service for Catherine the Great. But first find your ingredients, and with the U.K.'s prime source of china clay in Cornwall impounded by a rival, it is to the New World and the Americas that Wedgwood must turn, sending his nephew Tom to buy clay from the Cherokee.
If the Cherokee are tribal, the same can be said for the Wedgwood clan, and I had not realised quite what an influential dynasty they were until enlightened by A.N.Wilson. Darwins abound and some Vaughan- Williamses creep in too but this is the latter part of the eighteenth century and there is plenty of history going on around them. The American War of Independence and the Boston Tea Party, major industrial progress with Richard Arkwright and the Spinning Jenny, James Watt and the steam engine and Joseph Priestley and his discovery of 'dephlogisticated air'...oxygen to the rest of us, and I know I always moan that 'We never did that in history at school' when I read books like this, but we most certainly did all of that.
The canvas is vast, the brush strokes various as A.N.Wilson weaves in that history along with the cultural world of art and music and alongside family life, and the entrepreneurial skills of Josiah Wedgwood, a man with the broadest of visions not only for production but for the marketing skills on which he founds his empire...
'But none of them seemed to have any instinctual sense, as he. Josiah possessed, of the business. By this word Wedgwood meant not simply the making of pots, the transport of pots, the sale of pots. He meant everything! He meant the part which his own activities, both as a potter and as a merchant and as a citizen and as a man of science, played in the face of the changing world.'
The name Wedgwood remains synonymous with the matte finish blue and white Jasperware with the applied white relief decoration that Josiah perfected. Our vase has been around for years, and I'll bet some of you may have a piece here and there too. A little bit of digging suggests that the company name is apparently still going strong under the umbrella of Waterford Crystal, now the home of Royal Doulton as well.
Josiah's piece de resistance would surely be his replica of the Roman Portland Vase...
The original now displayed in the British Museum ...
...and yes, I do recall being a bit unimpressed with it as a schoolchild on a museum expedition, and yes, I do promise to be much more interested the next time I see it, which I will make a point of doing on my next London trip whenever that may be. Then I will have to whizz across to the V&A because that is apparently the home of the Wedgwood replica, painstakingly copied by our man over a period of four years before he had perfected the technique required to reproduce that original, which 'had worked an enchantment on his heart' and which he had been loaned for the purpose.
It's all in the novel, as is Josiah Wedgwood's family excursion to Cornwall at which my ears pricked up.
A few weeks after I had finished The Potter's Hand I was nosing around the library here in Tavistock when I came across a book on the mines of South Devon. Mines have a particular interest for me at the moment as I continue my thinking about The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane, and giving some consideration to what may lie beneath my feet as a I walk here in the Tamar Valley.
....and that verified by the old tithe map displayed in the village church.
As I flicked through the pages of the book and saw so many familar place names, and whilst realising that our local area owes so much of its mapped and named identity to the long-vanished mining industry hereabouts, the name Willsworthy and then Wedgwood jumped out at me...
'The earlist reference to Willsworthy Mine...a copper lode on an estate belonging to Mr Tolcher of Plymouth..from this copper mine at Sampford Spiney four tons at least of cobalt was taken, of which 1700lbs was sent to London and sold...the cobalt was impregnated with hairs and tresses of the purest silver...'
Sampford Spiney a small village on the Dartmoor outskirts of Tavistock, the mine itself at nearby Huckworthy Bridge, and Josiah was there...
'In 1775 Josiah Wedgwood, the potter visited the mine on his way to Cornwall, being accompanied by Mr Tolcher, then a lively, if somewhat querulous, old gentleman of ninety years of age. The mine was idle at this time but Wedgwood obtained from Mr Tolcher several specimens of 'what he called cobalt - but I could never bring any colour out of it.'
It sounds as if Josiah may have thought he had been 'had' but I doubt locals would have risked reputations with someone quite so famous, and the presence of cobalt was apparently an established fact. Its presence had caused quite a stir in the scientific world of the day and who can imagine what that lode of 'rich arsenical cobalt ore combined with native capillary silver...alongside a rich yellow copper ore...' may have looked like.
Can't you just see those colours in your mind's eye... I want to make a quilt, or knit some Concord gauntlets immediately.
And so The Potter's Hand has taken me on some fascinating diversions all tempered by A.N.Wilson's afterword wherin he explains and justifies the liberties he has taken with history and dates, facts and characters. This a necessity, he suggests, in order to create a prism through which to view 'Wedgwood's attitude to the convulsions in the world.' In other words, this isn't gospel, it is fiction, yet it does indeed emerge as a wonderful 'act of homage to one of the great men of our history.'