This novel is, in Andrew Wilson's words, "an act of homage to one of the great men of our history": an inventor, designer, entrepreneur, supporter of the French and American Revolutions, campaigner against the slave trade, founder of the English ceramics industry and, above all, a great potter. The reader is thrown immediately into the gruesome and agonising amputation of Josiah Wedgwood's right leg, as he bites on a gag, numbed only by doses of laudanum. He clutches the hand of his wife "so tightly that she thought he would crunch her bones".
With the help of a wooden leg, Wedgwood stumps through this story, overseeing the first manufactory which brought workers together on one site. He pioneered, with Bridgewater and Brindley, the canals that carried Cornish clay to Staffordshire and transported finished ware to market in London.
Wilson has a huge canvas across which to tell his story. Wedgwood knew, or was known to, almost everyone of any significance in the late 18th century: Pitt, Franklin, Washington, Voltaire, Catherine the Great, George III, Wilberforce, Thomas Paine, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and his particular friend, Erasmus Darwin, George Stubbs, Joshua Reynolds, Joseph Wright of Derby – and Thomas Bentley, his partner, who created a world market for Wedgwood's ware. But it is the effect of this stellar life on Wedgwood's family that most concerns Wilson.
He divides the narrative between the growing Wedgwood tribe in Staffordshire and Josiah's nephew, Thomas Byerley, erstwhile actor and writer manqué. Wedgwood commissions him to travel from New York into Cherokee country on the eve of the American War of Independence, to try to secure a source of the white kaolin Wedgwood needs to make fine china – since the supply from Cornwall has become mired in legal and patent wrangles.
Wilson gives us memorable set-pieces: the night-time raid on a Cherokee village and the resulting massacre that separates Byerley from the Cherokee woman he loves; a scalping, with the victim "screaming like a stuck pig"; Byerley's participation in the crossing of the frozen Delaware by Washington's makeshift army to outflank the British Redcoats; Catherine the Great's opening of the first crate of the Frog Service that she has commissioned from Wedgwood; the sight and smell of smallpox; the realities of London prostitution.Wilson explores the minds and emotions of his central characters, their attitudes to love and desire, sex and social status. Each character is portrayed with clarity and sympathy.
The only exception is Wedgwood himself, seen through his actions, at arm's length. We are given only one glimpse of his brilliance as a potter, transforming a lump of clay on a wheel into a graceful bowl with one squeeze of his thumb. Here is the Potter's Hand, but not the Potter's Mind.We do not approach the core of Wedgwood's genius: his brilliant and original eye for design, his painstaking experiments in glazes and firing temperatures as he created first Creamware and then Jasper and Basalt ware, and which led to perhaps his greatest work: his recreation in ceramics of the Portland Vase.
Wedgwood's death mirrors this reluctance to enter the great potter's mind. He locked and bolted himself in his room to await death. He pours grains of opium into an elegant little glass of laudanum and waits for "the familiar figure from whom he had been limping as fast as his peg leg could carry him ever since the pox had tried to snatch him half a century before. Mother on the Portland Vase. Death, holding out her hand and welcoming him to the Underworld."
Mark Fisher was Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central until 2010; his guide to 'Britain's Best Museums and Galleries' is published by Penguin