Our December Sip & Read Book Club Pick is 'The Radical Potter'

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·6 min read
In this article:
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  • Tristram Hunt
    British historian and ex-politician
  • Josiah Wedgwood
    English potter and founder of the Wedgwood company (1730–1795)
Photo credit: Victor Maze/Getty
Photo credit: Victor Maze/Getty

Welcome to the VERANDA Sip & Read Book Club! Each month, we dive in to a book and offer exclusive conversations with the authors behind each tale, along with a perfectly matched cocktail. This month's pick is Tristram Hunt's, The Radical Potter, a brilliant biography of the celebrated potter, entrepreneur, and abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood. Get caught up on our past book club selections here.



Very few pottery houses have reached the global fame that Wedgwood has. The company's acclaimed English ceramics have been adored by the likes of royalty—Empress Catherine II of Russia is said to have ordered hundreds of pieces—and design enthusiasts alike for centuries. While some may not recognize the name immediately, there's no doubt most people have seen the brand's signature blue jasperware showcased in exhibitions at renowned museums or even decorating the entry table at their grandmother's home. But what people don't know about the pottery manufacturer is the sheer genius and audacity of its founder, Josiah Wedgwood.

Josiah Wedgwood wasn't just a visionary potter. Rather, he was a pioneering businessman and cultural tastemaker whose forward thinking was often viewed as radical as the patterns he created. Tristram Hunt, historian and director of the Victoria & Albert Museum, shines a light on the complex individual who changed the way we live and work in The Radical Potter. Here, Hunt offers an inside look into his writing process and what his favorite piece of Wedgwood are.

What inspired you to write a book on the life of Josiah Wedgwood?

Tristram Hunt: The inspiration came from my time as Member of Parliament for Stoke-on-Trent, where the legacy of Josiah Wedgwood remains all around the city. Yet for all the historical glory, the state of the actual Wedgwood pottery business was far from healthy. As the firm battled insolvency and takeover, in 2010, a terrible quirk in pension law meant that the Wedgwood Museum and all its riches were threatened with sale. As a newly elected MP, I naturally joined the campaign to stop this calamity. During that four-year battle to save the Wedgwood Collection, I came more and more to appreciate the dexterity and elegance of Josiah Wedgwood’s work, the range of his production, the richness of his friendships and the breadth of his intellect. So I wrote this book to explore how a singular, radical, determined potter had unleashed such energy across 18th-century Britain and, in turn, transformed the production of ceramics itself.

Can you talk about what the research process was like?

TH: Thankfully, there exists a phenomenal archive of Wedgwood material – most especially, his letters to his business partner Thomas Bentley; his Experiment Books, detailing the processes behind the development of new ceramics; his Pattern Books, charting new designs; and his Occasional Books, which contain a wide range of thoughts from geology to the history of ceramics to thoughts on natural philosophy and husbandry. These are all now housed at the V&A Wedgwood Collection archive at the Wedgwood factory site in Barlaston, just south of Stoke-on-Trent. But I always believe in connecting the place to the past, so I spent a lot of time walking the streets of Stoke-on-Trent and getting a feel for Wedgwood’s environs. And then, of course, there is the pottery so I also had many a happy hour looking, really looking at his remarkable vases, dinner services, cup and saucers, bowls, medallions, etcetera at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the V&A Wedgwood Collection, the Lady Lever Gallery, the State Hermitage Museum, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and wherever else I could find it!

The Radical Potter is such a befitting title as it speaks to both Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery and his political beliefs. In your opinion, what made his pottery stand out during this time? How did his political stance inform his work?

TH: Wedgwood’s pottery stands out both in design terms and aesthetic sophistication. His brilliance was the ability to manufacture at scale remarkable works of everyday beauty, which allowed, for example, his creamware dinner services to replace Chinese porcelain in the European and then global market. Mass production of high-quality ware at expensive but nonetheless realistic pricing allowed him to reshape the taste for ceramics. Above all, Wedgwood kept updating his styles and products, from rococo to neo-classical designs, from black basalt to lilac Jasper. Most of the time, Wedgwood kept his radical politics away from his factory output, but just occasionally – with medallions celebrating the French Revolution or teapots supporting democracy campaigns – he let his real self speak through the pots.


As a way to support the abolitionist movement, Josiah Wedgwood designed the Emancipation badge. What role did it play in the movement? Was it openly worn and known by people at this time?

TH: By the 1780s Wedgwood had become convinced of slavery’s inherent evil by, ‘what has come to my knowledge of the accumulated distress brought upon millions of our fellow creatures by this inhuman traffic.’ Elected onto the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, he used his profound gifts of design and marketing to create a medallion which became the defining symbol of anti-slavery activism. Composed of white jasper with a black relief and mounted in gilt-metal, it depicts an enslaved male African on half-bended knee raising up his shackled arms. On the edge of the tiny medallion is inscribed the challenge, ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’

Produced and distributed at Wedgwood’s own expense, it was known as the Emancipation Badge. ‘Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair,’ recalled the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson. ‘At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honorable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.’ This display of humanitarian sentiment and anger at the continuation of the slave trade played a highly significant role in the successful campaign leading to abolition in 1807.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Josiah Wedgwood when writing this book?

TH: I think it was the discovery of just how important the funds supplied by his wife, Sally Wedgwood, were to the development of his business. By my estimates, the marriage brought £4 million ($6 million) in today’s money into the family coffers, which came at a vital point in the growth of the company, when funds were tight and cash-flow under pressure. It was a really significant intervention which I do not think we have appreciated enough before.

What is your favorite piece or pattern by Wedgwood? Do you collect Wedgwood yourself?

TH: I am very drawn to some of Wedgwood’s early pottery: the wonderfully creative yellow and green glazes, with teapots and sugar bowls fired in the shapes of cauliflowers and pineapples – a riotous medley of rococo and baroque designs, which have a freedom and energy which the later, neo-classical works sometimes lack. Personally, I try to collect much later work made by the Wedgwood business, notably the designs by Eric Ravilious for the company in the mid-20th century.

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