Glazed and confused

Tristram Hunt reviews AN Wilson’s ‘The Potter’s Hand’, a fictional life that sets Josiah Wedgwood in his tumultuous times

© Joe McLaren

The Potter’s Hand, by AN Wilson, Atlantic Books, RRP£17.99, 512 pages

It was the work of seconds. At one moment a wet, grey lump of clay would be slapped on to the fast rotation of the wheel. As the left hand kept it centrally poised, the right hand would make a hole in the wet clay with the thumb, and then with a few sure pinches, coax and pinch it into such a shape … it felt like a completion of some celestial purpose: as if this lump of earth, from the moment of its first geological formation had been but half-finished until re-crafted by the hand of Josiah.”

The study of ceramics is typically about end results: the finish, design or glaze of a pot. The question is, “How does it look?” By contrast, AN Wilson’s intriguing novel of Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95) looks to the interiority of the process. It is a psychological investigation of the 18th century’s Steve Jobs – designer, manufacturer, lifestyle changer. In the process, Wilson offers a sweeping portrait of the European Enlightenment and the foundation of an intellectual dynasty destined to include Charles Darwin and Ralph Vaughan Williams in its ranks.

Wilson is known as a writer, critic and London literary figure. But he is also a child of the Potteries. His father Norman was one of the last great managers of the Wedgwood business and in the 1930s oversaw its move from Josiah’s Etruria site in Stoke-on-Trent to the village of Barlaston. In recent years Wilson has been a great campaigner for the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston – a magnificent collection under threat of being broken up because of obscure UK pensions legislation.

Perhaps to his own regret, Wilson was sent away to Rugby school, and educated out of the trade – the gentrification of industrial dynasties is a running theme of the novel. “The celebrated Josiah Wedgwood could not ask his three sons to work as apprentices in a trade,” writes Wilson. “He had made them into gentlemen, or semi-gentlemen, and he had thereby endangered the future of the firm.” But Wilson the southern aesthete still has enough “slip” in his blood to know his creamware, saggars and fettlers.

The story begins, in gruesome form, with an account of the amputation on “Owd Wooden Leg”, as Josiah would afterwards be known. Wilson then recounts the growth of the business, with its Queen’s ware, Frog Service and Portland Vase – underpinned by Josiah’s abiding belief in improvement, modernity and “a spread of reason and decency which would surely advance in conjunction with prosperity”.

Rightly, Wilson makes the case for the profound cultural impact of Wedgwood’s industrialisation of ceramics. For “within a decade of his production of creamware, there was hardly a respectable household in the kingdom which did not eat its dinner off well-glazed, delicate plates and pour its milk from jugs manufactured as like as not in Staffordshire”. But the great man’s purpose of spirit was never shared by his wife Sarah (known as Sally), and all the complexities of this highly fecund but unsympathetic union are surgically unpicked.

There is no escaping that Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) still sets the bar for Potteries literature. His skill was to spread out from the claustrophobic “Five Towns” on to a broader canvas – brilliantly connecting Burslem society to the savagery of the Paris Commune in The Old Wives’ Tale (1908).

Wilson similarly pursues a global setting, using Wedgwood’s quest for white kaolin clay in the Carolinas to introduce a sub-plot of Cherokee Indians and transatlantic exchange. For the story of Wedgwood is not just that of the industrial revolution – but also of the French and American revolutions. Like Bennett, Wilson can jump from the confines of the Trent and Mersey Canal to the crossing of the Delaware, complete with pen portraits of Tom Paine and George Washington.

Wedgwood and his products existed within a globalised economic and cultural setting, and Josiah’s entry into it was through the monthly Lunar Society meeting of industrialists and scientists at Matthew Boulton’s Birmingham home. Wilson’s work can sometimes read as a fictional accompaniment to Jenny Uglow’s marvellous account of dissenting provincial culture in The Lunar Men (2002). In both books, the gregarious naturalist and physician Erasmus Darwin dominates, assisting the diffident Wedgwood’s entry into polite society.

The finest of Wilson’s cameos is reserved for the pastoral, horsey artist George Stubbs. While Sally Wedgwood wanted the earthy Joseph Wright of Derby to paint the family portrait (which now hangs in the Wedgwood Museum), Josiah wanted Stubbs – setting up a compelling visual battle between the gentrifying and industrial sides of the dynasty’s psyche.

All of this intellectualism is held together by a strong narrative of the man and his era. And if this big novel occasionally feels more like Clayhangar (1910), Bennett’s epic about a family business, than the more succinct Anna of the Five Towns (1902), it is because the late 18th century was such an innovative, passionate, revolutionary era. Behind the calm equipoise of Wedgwood’s neoclassical designs, a global storm of ideas and inventions raged. It had a centre in Stoke-on-Trent and an icon in Wedgwood. Wilson brings it all to life.

Tristram Hunt is Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and senior lecturer in modern British history at Queen Mary, University of London

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