Wedgewood and his friends. The were the most brilliant group in England, and quite possibly the most eccentric. Some are forgotten today- but some of them changed the world.
Josiah Wedgewood was born in the Staffordshire village called Burslem in 1730. Burselm was then still rural; the country still encraoched on the village, and places and properties were still spoken of in rural terms- Mill Field, Sneyd Green, and Lane End. But it was a scarred and ravaged countryside, where potters dug their clay from beside their mud and wattle hovels, hacked their coal from the surface seams of the district, and, with more thought of convenience than of beauty, dumped their waste beside their kilns. Born into the squalor and dirt of a peasant industry, Wedgewood was also born poor. The thirteenth child of a mediocre potter, his natural companions had been the sons and daughters of the local Staffordshire potters: his education, like theirs, had been sketchy and short-lived: with them, he had started to work at the age of nine.
Yet in his maturity Wedgewood numbered some of the greatest men of his age amongst his friends and correspondents. His commercial success, his scientific discoveries, and his patronage of the arts had opened up a new world to him. He knew rich manufacturers, university scientists, and famous artists. He was the Queen’s Potter and possessed the entree to the fashionable society of ambassadors, aristocrats, and connosieurs. He moved with the same ease amongst the scarlet-robed peers of the realm at Westminster as he had done with the rough potters amidst the discarded saggers and unclean streets of Burslem. He had triumphed over his origins.
Yet as much as he valued his fashionable London friends his closest ties were with his friends in the Midlands, whom he had met in his youth and who formed one of the most fascinating groups in the history of the English-speaking world. At the end of the eighteenth-century these active, liberal, often radical groups proliferated throughout the English provinces- at Liverpool, Warrington, Bristol, and Norwich. But the Midland group that Wedgewood knew was by far the most distinguished.
Gifted, intelligent, and odd, it was a curious mixture of brilliance and eccentricity. Brilliant in its achievements, it numbered amongst its members James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine; Joseph Priestly, the joint discoverer of oxygen; and Matthew Bolton, the famous Birmingham manufacturer. Eccentric in its individuality, it included such figures as Erasmus Darwin, the great doctor, author, and chemist; Thomas Day, the solemn author of The History of Sandford and Merton; Richard Lovell Edgeworth, the lively diarist; and Anna Seward, the lovesick poetess. ( to be continued)…