Books and Arts
Ambitious, obsessive and empirical, Wedgwood raged at his “dilatory, drunken, Idle, worthless workmen”, then set about reforming them.
Before the Industrial Revolution came the “industrious revolution” in household productivity.
Wedgwood wrote that he wanted “to make such Machines of the Men as cannot Err”.
He trained and chivvied, tweaked and experimented, building new factories for his pots and a model village for his workers.
Vases in their thousands, then in their tens of thousands, began to emerge from the Wedgwood production line.
The history of pots matters because they do.
Pick one up and in its lines you can trace trade routes and chronicle empires.
The rise and fall of Rome can be charted in the words of its historians, but it is observed more accurately in the rise and fall of the Roman pot trade.
At its imperial peak Roman ceramics — cheap, trademarked, perfect — were shipped everywhere from Africa to Iona; after Rome fell it would take centuries for European pottery to recover such excellence.
Examine a cup made under China’s Han dynasty, meanwhile, and you will see not just fine design but an advanced bureaucracy.
A single piece can be inscribed not just by the six craftsmen who made it, but by the seven officials who inspected it.
Pots contain worlds.
In his lifetime some of Wedgwood’s most popular products were his medallions: little ceramic circles embossed with profiles of famous figures, such as Aristotle, John Locke and Voltaire.
Peer at a piece of Wedgwood, and you can still be astonished by the brilliance of the individual engravings — by the curl lying on this king’s neck, or the realistic line of that philosopher’s nose.
Yet as Mr Hunt’s elegant biography shows, to focus on these exquisite details is slightly to miss the point.
Wedgwood’s genius lay not in the creation of individuality, but in the erasing of it.
He wanted to make machines of men, and he did.
And then his machine-men churned out umpteen more manufactured men in their turn, Voltaires and Aristotles rolling off the production line in their hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, until the world was astonished no more.