An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 201

Clinton Howell Antiques - October 3, 2022 - Issue 201

An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture

A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts

I recently finished reading, "The Radical Potter", a book by Tristram Hunt about Josiah Wedgwood, the man who built by the time of his death in 1795 the most successful pottery business in Britain and in the world. Wedgwood was a member of the Rational Dissenters, a Protestant sect that believed in reason, education and the freedom of conscience. He was a man of the people who was bent on dominating the world of pottery. He was, despite losing half of one leg, indefatigable in spirit, energy and in developing ideas. Few challenges that he faced, and there were many on every level of his life and business, were left unmet and almost all successfully. From developing clay colors, to devising his workshops, to inventing a kiln thermometer, to promoting the building of a canal to selling to Catherine the Great and to copying the Portland Vase--Wedgwood is almost exhausting to read about. 

It is easy to see in retrospect that Wedgwood and his contemporaries were creating the modern factory. Mass production was the goal through interchangeable laborers and newly developed machinery which gave manufacturers the ability to pump out goods and dominate markets. (It wasn't quite that simple as they also had to create those markets.) Their factories required consistency in regulated days off and workday hours--novel ideas at the time. Workers in the Lancashire cotton mills, for example, specifically the Luddites. objected to all of it and set out to destroy the machinery which required their regular attendance. In the subsequent riots, troops were called out and shot and killed a number of workers. It gave Wedgwood pause, but not for long as he felt his work was neither coercive nor exploitative. But along with mass production came labor unrest. 

Britain's road to being the dominant trading power in the world hinged on men like Wedgwood. Others like him ,such as Matthew Boulton (hardware and metals manufacturer) Samuel Watt (steam engine) Samuel Bentham (ship builder among other things) and many, many others figured out ways of either making their wares for less money or for adapting their goods in new and different ways--Watt's steam engine was put to use in myriad ways with all sorts of machinery.  (The first woodworking factory was designed by Samuel Bentham and Marc Brunel and had steam driven tools used for creating block pulleys for ships which needed thousands of them.) Although the 19th century is often credited as the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it was the men like Wedgwood, working in the second half of the 18th century, who could be said to be the ones who delivered the daylight to that dawn.