Politics

Josiah Wedgwood lived through turbulent times. Neo-classical thinkers promoted the concepts of liberty and republicanism which had been established in classical times, and further nurtured in the renaissance. This led to debate and revolution across the late 18th century western world.

However, despite a high standing in the Staffordshire community, Wedgwood did not take an active role in the politics of the day. This was perhaps because he was a dissenter - a holder of anti-establishment beliefs and non-follower of the Church of England. Thus he was precluded from public office, teaching and going to university. Josiah preferred to enlist the support of powerful patrons and to demonstrate his opinions through his products.

18th century trade in pottery and porcelain with France was exceptionally difficult as both were prohibited. As early as 1772 Josiah had been trying to influence English politicians to enter into negotiations for a new trade treaty. He played a useful part in the subsequent discussions providing technical and commercial advice to William Eden, later Lord Auckland.

Wedgwood's political sympathies were generally Whig and he was amongst the admirers of the radical politican Charles James Fox. It was to Fox, then negotiating the commercial treaties with both France and Spain, that Josiah turned to reduce the duty on earthenware exported to Europe. However Fox was dismissed from office in 1783 and the negotiations dropped. A treaty was eventually signed at Versailles in September 1786 and Wedgwood marked the event with the production of two commemorative plaques modelled by John Flaxman. It was, he wrote to Richard Lovell Edgeworth: ‘The most fair, & liberal treaty we have with any nation, therefore the most likely to be lasting'.

Josiah became involved in a General Assembly on behalf of the Staffordshire manufacturers. In 1785 he took the chair at the first executive committee meeting of the General Chamber of Manufacturers of Great Britain, formed at his suggestion. Caught between the parochial interests of the manufacturers and the political lobbying of the professionals, Wedgwood was: ‘Buffeted and Teased beyond human patience', as he described it in 1787.

Wedgwood was the only non-political figure named in a contemporary collection of satirical versus about members of Parliament, where it states: ‘Be Wedgwood damned. And double-damned his wares'.

Two great revolutions rocked Josiah's era. The first was in Britain's North American colonies, who rebelled to be free of parliamentary control. Reports of the Boston Tea Party reached London in January 1774. Lord North's government wavered firstly between a desire to punish the offenders and the need to conciliate; and secondly between a determination to govern and an understanding of the impracticalities of doing so at such a distance. Wedgwood freely admitted that he was uncomprehending: ‘All the world are with the Minister & against the poor Americans'. What Josiah described as ‘the present most wicked & preposterous war with our brethren & best friends' was rapidly losing support. The American invasion of Canada in August 1775 ended in failure at Quebec, hardening public opinion against the rebels, though Josiah's opinion remained the same. In 1778 he wrote to Thomas Bentley: ‘bless'd my stars & Ld. North that America was free'. He produced a portait medallion of the American leader, George Washington.

The second erupted in France in 1789, and, in common with many Englishmen of liberal views and opinions, Josiah initially welcomed the French Revolution. In July of that year he wrote to Erasmus Darwin: ‘I know you will rejoice with me in the glorious revolution which has taken place in France'.

However, with news of the violence of the revolutionaries he altered his opinion. Meanwhile he had adapted a medallion to the requirements of the movement, together with portrait medallions of the popular figures involved. Other medallions celebrated the fall of the Bastille. Whatever Josiah's private sympathies his commemorative wares were commercially successful.

Josiah's concerns were also directed to social issues. From about 1787 until his death he actively participated in the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, regularly attending the meetings. Josiah was a close friend of both Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce principal voices in the abolition movement. Perhaps Wedgwood's greatest legacy to the anti-slavery cause was the production, at his own cost, of the slave cameo. The distribution and circulation of these medallions was central to the whole ethos of the movement as they publicly acknowledged the wearer's support.

Thomas Clarkson described the uses of the slave medallion: ‘Some had them inlaid in gold on the lids of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in the ornamental manner as pins for the hair'....‘the taste for wearing them became general, and thus a fashion, which usually comprises itself to worthless things was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom'.

 

Images

Medallion marking the French Revolution. France, holding a staff topped with a cap of liberty on the

Medallion marking the French Revolution. France, holding a staff topped with a cap of liberty on the