Atlantic, £17.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Potter's Hand By AN Wilson

An epic novel of the Wedgwood dynasty reveals the hearts of all but one man: Josiah himself

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

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'