The clay that bound the Industrial Revolution

A plate from the "Frog" service created by Wedgwood for
Empress Catherine the Great. Now in the Hermitage Museum.
The Potter's Hand by AN. Wilson is an extraordinary novel. A family story of a man who shaped the modern world, and the phenomenal family he engendered that would help form the mind of a nation (descendants included Charles Darwin and Ralph Vaughan-Williams). Everyone's heard of Wedgwood china, but did you know that Josiah Wedgwood, as well as being a potter of genius, was one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution? Not only did he build potteries in the Midlands, he was one of the major names behind the expansion of decent roads, canals, and communication across Britain. Despite having an artificial leg (he had contracted smallpox as a child, and had a problem with one leg ever afterwards), he was irrepressible, with a gloriously fertile, inventive mind that was always thinking outside a Georgian box that seems incredibly contemporary.

Unable to source suitable clay from the UK, Wedgwood traded with the Cherokee nation, who had a good supply of perfect white clay that would be used for an enormous dinner service commissioned by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Wedgwood's nephew, Tom, was working in America as a rather unsuccessful actor, and on the eve of the American War of Independence went to meet the Cherokee. This sets up a fascinating insight into the rival loyalties of the settlers, the British, and the native Americans; issues that would continue to be of vital importance long post-Independence.

Wedgwood anti-slavery medallion
Through the story of Josiah Wedgwood and his extraordinary family, Wilson sets up a prism for the age. An astoundingly complex era, a period when the world underwent enormous changes that would make the modern world. With a deft blend of fact and fiction, and a sizeable knowledge of the Wedgwood legacy (A.N. Wilson's father was Managing Director of Wedgwood in the 1950's - there's an interesting article on his background here), this is an entertaining and informative novel, with many a "I never knew that before" moment.

Entrancingly written, slyly blurring the lines of fact and fiction, this is a fascinating novel about an extraordinary era, and a family who embraced the modernity of their world. Five stars.


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