They were the most brilliant group in England, and quite possibly the most eccentric. Some are forgotten today, but some of them changed the world….
Eighteenth century England. Gifted, intelligent, and odd, it was a curious mixture of brilliance and eccentricity. And the people around Josiah Wedgwood were a singular society. Famous for their science and forgotten for their literature, posterity had judged them correctly, but it has usually judged them singly. As a group they are far more interesting. For studying them together one sees through the arid wastes of commercial success and beyond the jargon of scientific discovery to the warm, human temperaments, bounded together by ties which transcended religious differences and overcame political ones to become one of the most powerful agents of progress and reform that provincial England could provide.
Such a group drew others to it. Among them came William Withering, the botanist; John Baskerville, the printer; James Brindley, the engineer; George Stubbs, the artist; James Keir, the chemist; and men such as Thomas Bentley and Dr. William Small who lack the convenient label of achievement but who, by the very width of their interests, were typical of this group of friends. For thrown up by an expanding world and a changing society, they were tied together by a passionate interest in science, a lively concern for literature, and a determined search after progress and improvement. They left an astonishing heritage, astonishing not only for its importance but for its variety.
Indeed, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this fascinating group of men was the diversity of their interests. The only comparable eighteenth-century coterie, Dr. Johnson’s circle, was essentially literary, and its members- Goldsmith, Reynolds, Garrick, Boswell, Sheridan, Burke, Fox, Adam Smith, and Gibbon- had little interest in science. Wedgwood’s friends were much more versatile.
Drawn mainly from two separate circles- the literary Lichfield Group and the scientific Lunar Society- they had achieved an integration of the arts and sciences which seems alien to the specialization today. For amongst them, a working knowledge of science was endemic and an active interest in the arts almost as widespread. Even James Watt, the lonely, gaunt, angst-ridden technocrat, obsessed with science and its application, blossomed to other interests in this versatile circle. According to Sir Walter Scott, “no novel of the least celebrity escaped his perusal, and that gifted man of science was…as shameless and obstinate a peruser of novels, as if he had been a very milliner’s apprentice of eighteen.”