In praise of Josiah Wedgwood

The newspapers are right this morning to mourn the passing of the Wedgwood company. It is another sad casualty of this vicious Credit Crunch.

Josiah Wedgwood has long been a hero of mine. As an industrialist I often looked to him for inspiration. He seemed to have it all. He was an innovator, developing new glazes, better furnace controls and better factory organisation. He was a great marketer, realising the value of celebrity endorsement and the need to engage the thought and taste leaders of the day with his products. He was a pioneer of better transport and logistics for access and exit from his factory at Etruria, favouring the then modern canal. He provided employee housing, recognising the need for a settled and motivated workforce, capable of high quality workmanship. He knew how to raise efficiencies through smarter working. Above all he understood the power of beautiful design and decoration, turning to classical designs. In his later years he was determined to produce a copy of the Portland Vase.

He was famous for the royal patronage of Queen Charlotte, which led to Queen’s ware, and to the interest of the Empress Catherine of Russia in his work. His blue Jasperware is still being sold to this day, from his use of barium sulphate in the firing. His black basalt range was another classic which has survived 250 years. This year we will remember him as well for the work of Charles Darwin, whose money came in part from his links to the Wedgwood family, which made possible his researches.

The modern Wedgwood company still has title to the fabulous designs and glazes that Josiah pioneered. I do not believe they are all without value. Something should be rescued from the collapse. I realise the last Wedgwood product I bought was sometime ago, when they produced a reproduction Clarice Cliff vase. I thought the originals were too expensive for me. I wanted to keep flowers in mine, so a fresh modern version of the original style was just what I needed. They then ceased to make any more reproductions from the amazing Clarice Cliff range, where they hold the title to the designs. Perhaps someone else can if and when they buy that part of the business. it seemed like a missed opportunity.

A modern Wedgwood should move with the times, responding to the different needs of people. Some in the press imply it was bound to die because it makes old fashioned dinner and tea services people no longer need. We live in a country with a rising population, who all need to eat food off plates and drink out of mugs or cups. The new owners of Wedgwood need to blend the best of the old and new as Josiah himself did. Josiah sold 2000 year old styles in sets that matched contemporary needs. Today we need a Wedgwood owner that loves the best of the inherited designs, glazes and shapes, and adds to them the magic of modern marketing that can capture the market that is there for good ceramics, and the best of modern design.

Meanwhile, this is another casualty of the recession. The business model clearly needed improvement, but the Credit Crunch has claimed yet another iconic victim. It shows just how deep and dangerous this crunch has become.

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18 Comments

  1. APL
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    JR: “Some in the press imply it was bound to die because it makes old fashioned dinner and tea services people no longer need.”

    Ah, old fashioned! The curse of Blair’s New Labour & ‘Cool Britiannia’.

  2. Steve Swales
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    John

    I was listening to the reporting of the demise of Wedgewood’s UK operations and there was a memorable reference to how the company had failed, despite its recent investment in a £10million visitor centre.

    It reminded me of C Northcote Parkinson’s observation that once a company starts to invest in flashy offices, it’s entrepreneurial phase is long past.

    This recession, like so many before it, is going to leave behind many such memorials to corporate vanity.

  3. alan jutson
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I visited the Wedgewood works about 5 years ago, and whilst struck by the history and stunning designs of its products, the factory did not look at all efficient, with a huge amount of wasted space, it had the feel of a business which was just ticking over.

    Whilst therefore very sad that such a historic Company should have now failed, it really does not come as much of a surprise if what I saw was the norm, and it had been operating that way for years.

    There is always a place for excellent design and quality goods, but they still have to be made in a cost effective way if you are going for volume, and need volume to survive.

    If you are simply going for very high quality or selective design in a very limited market, then you can to a degree, get away with a slightly less efficient production operation, as the higher margins will compensate (again to a degree).

    Whilst we do have some fine china, I have to admit that it was bought many years ago, It has not been added to, as the design has since ceased.

    Fine china tends to be used less often (by most people if they have it), so less breakages, less replacements.

    Another sad loss to our heritage, but let us hope it survives in some way.

    • APL
      Posted January 6, 2009 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      Wedgewood, is not the only one such as this, the Murano glass producers in Venice are now little more than tourist attractions.

      I would love a Murano glassware set, but at £150 per glass, I am afraid they are a little out of my reach.

      • alan jutson
        Posted January 6, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        Went to the Murano factory (visitors tour) in Venice 38 years ago.
        Have a very small set, at that time 6 small glasses and a decanter was about £5.00.
        Not to eveyones taste, but reminds us of our Honymoon and youth.

  4. rugfish
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:20 am | Permalink

    It’s a real shame it’s going. I love Wedgwood and I detest those cheap imports which everyone seems to buy from the likes of IKEA and ARGOS which are fit for nothing other than the bin after a few months.

    When you buy something of quality it holds among other things such as beauty and wonder at the craftsmanship, a feeling of respect for the article. This is why our “best china” was always something mother got out for guests whilst ordinarily the ‘family dinner service’ was bought from a store of lesser quality than would carry a Wedgwood tea or dinner service, and the Wedgwood vase would be in a cabinet. Wedgwood is and always will be a national treasure for this reason, and I doubt any archaeologists will be digging up plates from IKEA in future but a Wedgwood find will certainly always remain a most treasurable item no matter if it happens to be a bit worse for wear.

    What’s wrong with people these days, don’t they know quality when they see it? Can’t be bothered to reach into their pockets, have some stuff in their homes to respect, treasure and pass on? – No, I guess it’s the buy now pay later throw it away and buy some more society we live in where nothing is saved unless your a mug ( excuse the pun ), who shops in the likes of IKEA and ARGOS.

    Incidentally, Josiah Wedgwood didn’t do too bad for a bloke with one leg who couldn’t operate a potters wheel did he!

    I hope you’re right Mr Redwood. I hope someone has the money and the sense to see that Wedgwood will never die, that it’s time will never be over and that it’s products will always remain a British treasure.

    Someone NOW ( like the media ), should be encouraging people to buy Wedgwood for investment purposes and telling people that the days of cheap stuff your mother wouldn’t dream to use for visitors is over.

    • rugfish
      Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Incidentally, you can buy a DECENT service for around 300 quid and if you look after it, it will last a lifetime ( Unlike GORDON BROWN who’s policies are like a bull in a china shop )!

  5. Peter McGrath
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:35 am | Permalink

    And without Josiah we would not have had his son Josiah, who persuaded a reluctant Dr Robert Darwin to allow Charles to join HMS Beagle as gentleman naturalist.

    As Darwin later wrote: “The voyage of the Beagle has ben the most important event of my life and has determined by whole career.”

  6. Acorn
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Well said JR, Wedgwood was an inspired leader. The Acorn household still has the Wedgwood Florentine dinner service we received as a wedding present in 1972. It only comes out on special occasions. The most scary moment with it; “… can these plates go in the dishwasher”.

    I wonder how Josiah would have handled the business nowadays? A different government inspector / regulator / box ticking apparatchic, turning up on his factory floor, for every business day of the year?

    BTW. See following link, be thankful that we have the BBC to spin the “good news”, NuLabour style. As BOM quoted recently, “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” (George W Bush).

    http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/

    http://burningourmoney.blogspot.com/2009/01/new-year-message.html

  7. Michael Taylor
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Wedgewood was also one of the flotilla of Quaker industrialists of that time, who brought his faith in the power of human decency to bear on the industrial and economic problems of his age.

    It would be nice to think that some of those same qualities could be mobilized once again to help Britain through these dark times.

    It would also be nice to think that the Conservative party gave some thought to how this could be encouraged. Capitalism and social concern both found an outlet in Quaker commercial organizations, with the need for a commercial return being understood as an essential precondition for the (equally necessary) social aspect of economic activity.

    What do the Quakers believe about business? Here are two favourite quotes:
    ‘Business in its essence is no mere selfish struggle for the necessities of life, but ‘a vast and complex movement of social service.’ However some may abuse its methods for private ends, its true function is not to rob the community but to serve it.’

    And. . .

    ‘. . . the refusal to put up with the second best; a capacity to take infinite pains with other people; espcially . . . the constant effort to seek higher standards beyond the traditional practices or those provided for in regulations.’

    People like Josiah Wedgewood lived by these creeds. Can we somehow incorporate these attitudes into modern Conservative thought?

    • John Wedgwood Pound
      Posted February 2, 2009 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Michael – I do not disagree with thr thrust of your analysis, but have to correct you on a point of fact – Josiah Wedgwood was not a Quaker. He was a Unitarian, his father had been an Anglican, but his mother Mary Stringer was the daughter of a Unitarian preacher. Many Wedgwoods 18th century Burslem becamse non-conformists.

      • Michael Taylor
        Posted February 2, 2009 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

        Well, it’s your family, so I’ll take your word for it. Also I seem to remember that (Richard Holmes?) biography of Coleridge that he was initially financed for a brief stint as a Unitarian preacher by one of the family. On the other hand, I must tell you that there are a fair number of Quaker-influenced websites which lay claim to Josiah Wedgewood as a Friend.

        Mind you, the Christians also took Constantine as a brother . . .

  8. marksany
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure Wedgwood’s designs will continue to be made. In China, India or Indonesia by someone who bought the intellectual property at a knock-down price.

  9. mikestallard
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    In proletarian times, I regret, the supply of quality goods to the aristocracy has to end.
    Eat your heart out, William Morris.
    Meanwhile, back at the local Comprehensive, “kids” are dressed up in black blazers and bright shiny ties at if they were at Grammar School. If they keep their noses clean and don’t get caught, they drift into “Uni” for a course which equips them never to get their hands dirty and, above all, never to do a “chav” job.
    They are far, far too good ever to work in a mere pottery!

  10. Acorn
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Another great day for our nations wind turbines tomorrow guys. Forecast to generate a mere 13% of there installed capacity, on the coldest day of the year so far.

    At least we will not have to pay the buggers the £53 per MWh subsidy for the offshore ones, (on top of what they get from National Grid setlement).

    Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing, the bill from your electricity supplier will not tell you how much they (i.e. you) are being mugged for this Ponzi scam.

    http://www.bmreports.com/bsp/bsp_home.htm

    • APL
      Posted January 7, 2009 at 8:29 am | Permalink

      Acorn: “Another great day for our nations wind turbines tomorrow guys. Forecast to generate a mere 13% of there installed capacity, on the coldest day of the year so far.”

      We obviously need Parliament to sit, with a few speeches from Mandleson, Milliband, Jakkie & Brown (who is getting on with the job), we would be assured of a sustained gale force blast sufficient to get those turbines turning.

      If that isn’t sufficient to keep us all warm, we could always gather round the turbine towers and keep each other warm by having a good ‘ol sing song.

      Perhaps Zak will come along and pass around some green pea soup, just to keep our Eco spirits up.

  11. Bazman
    Posted January 6, 2009 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Withnail:
    You must you must. The poop will boil through the glaze. We’ll never
    be able to use the dinner service again!

  12. Tears for Tier 1
    Posted January 7, 2009 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    A very good summary on a Conservative Blog.

    I wonder how Anthony Wedgwood-Benn has described the demise of his family business on his blog? If at all.

    Tony Benn, the non-conformist sign-post of the people, looking forward never looking back and never, ever, ever being a weather-cock.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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