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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition