Wedgwood's early years

Wine and water ewers, jasper, about 1785

Wine and water ewers, jasper, about 1785

At the time when Wedgwood grew up, the local industry was developing rapidly and beginning to penetrate foreign markets. When he started his own business in 1759 there was already an impressive local pool of ceramic skills for him to draw upon. If ever there was a man born in the right place at the right time, that man was Josiah Wedgwood.

Wedgwood developed new types of pottery by applying scientific method to the process of experiment, recording his findings with great care and continually striving for more precise control over all the processes of production. However, he pursued technical improvements not for their own sake but to enable him to make wares in the style of contemporary interior decoration. He saw that he could make new types of pottery to appeal to the most fashionable and expensive markets, far beyond the ambitions of previous Staffordshire potters.

The 1760s saw a major change in taste. The publication of archaeological discoveries like those at Pompeii and Herculaneum was revealing to excited Georgian eyes the reality of Roman and Greek art. Architects like Robert Adam were cleverly adapting the style for everything from palaces down to knife-boxes. This design movement is nowadays known as Neoclassicism. From the commercial point of view, it meant that there was a ready market for decorative objects that would suit fashionable rooms of this kind. Wedgwood was one of several manufacturers who saw an opening for new types of product. Matthew Boulton's work in gilt bronze, Eleanor Coade's artificial stone, and the porcelain of Derby were all competitors in different ways.

This was a new world for a Staffordshire potter. Wedgwood needed detailed information on the latest design and on the classical civilisations which were its sources. He found the solution by going into partnership in 1769 with his best friend Thomas Bentley (1730-1780), a cosmopolitan Liverpool merchant. Bentley's background in textile dealing had probably developed his nose for fashionable taste. The Wedgwood and Bentley partnership concentrated on wares for interior decoration, while Wedgwood had another partnership with his cousin Thomas for producing tableware. It was the so-called 'ornamental' partnership with Bentley which created the wares that have made Wedgwood a household word to this day. Bentley selected shapes, found designers, courted high society and scouted London for the latest trends to enable the firm to keep ahead of its competitors.

The factory set up to produce the 'ornamental' wares was called Etruria, the ancient name for Tuscany. This was the region where beautiful vases were being dug out of tombs. In Wedgwood's time it was assumed that they had been made there, although we now know that the best were imports from Greece. The Lady Lever collection consists almost entirely of the 'ornamental' side of Wedgwood's output, produced in partnership with Bentley until the latter's death in 1780, and thereafter in the name of Wedgwood alone.

One of Bacchus' satyrs and a triton follower of Neptune sit on the handles of this pair of jugs, indicating that one is for wine and one for water. The designs were copied from plaster casts which the firm bought in London in 1775. They had been taken from an original French design by the sculptor Sigisbert Michel (1728-1811).