Underrated: The case for Josiah Wedgwood

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In 1863, nearly 70 years after Josiah Wedgwood's death, William Ewart Gladstone described him as "the greatest man who ever, in any age or country, applied himself to the important work of uniting art with industry". If all that the name Wedgwood conjures up for you is visions of those rather dull white-on-blue bas-relief commemorative plates, this probably seems an extravagant claim; and perhaps even seeing the scale and beauty of his work, in the V&A's new exhibition "The Genius of Wedgwood", wouldn't convince you otherwise.

The truth is, though, that Wedgwood was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century. In the field of ceramics alone his achievements were vast. Before him, pottery had been little more than a cottage industry; Wedgwood perfected a system of division of labour, enabling him to produce pottery on a larger scale than ever before, and to ensure a new uniformity of quality. With Wedgwood ware, as the Dictionary of National Biography rhapsodises, "lids fitted, spouts poured, handles could be held." It could fairly be said that Wedgwood transformed the quality of life in Britain, at least for the nation's "Middling classes".

To pigeonhole Wedgwood as a successful manufacturer is to do him an injustice, though. He was a patron of the arts - he gave employment to Stubbs and Reynolds - and politically progressive: an advocate of universal suffrage, an active member of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade (for whom he produced the celebrated medallion of the chained slave with the slogan "Am I not a man and a brother?"). He was also a supporter of the French Revolution, producing two medallions commemorating the Fall of the Bastille.

Today, commercial success and political radicalism don't often go together; but for Wedgwood, they were inseparable - both products of the Enlightenment ideals of reason and progress. His circle of friends was mostly drawn from the Lunar Society, a Birmingham-based literary society which for intellectual intensity rivalled anything London or Edinburgh could offer. Among its members were the chemist Joseph Priestley, the steam-pioneer James Watt and the physician and early evolutionary theorist Erasmus Darwin. (Wedgwood's favourite daughter, Susannah, married Darwin's son, producing Charles Darwin.) Through them, he may well have met Benjamin Franklin and William Herschel.

But Wedgwood was never a cold-blooded rationalist. His voluminous correspondence to his business partner and closest friend, Thomas Bentley, is characterised by cheerful affection and understated humour - a typical passage is his lament that he would love to visit Bentley, "but am alas tyed-down to this rugged Pott-making spot of earth". Wedgwood's genius wasn't simply in cups and saucers, but in his whole life.

n 'The Genius of Wedgwood' at the V&A, London, 8 June-17 Sept (0171-323 8988); 'Josiah Wedgwood: the Man and his Mark' at Stoke-on-Trent City Museum, 18 June-1 Oct (01782-202173)