Monday, January 05, 2009

Wedgwood RIP

I was sad to read this morning that the china firm Wedgwood (now Waterford Wedgwood) has gone bust, the latest victim of the credit crunch and its attendant woes.

For anyone given to taking an eschatological view of the current financial crisis, the demise of Wedgwood must seem particularly symbolic. After all, the Wedgwood company pretty much heralded the dawn of capitalism. Its foundation in 1759 ushered in the Industrial Revolution and its founder, Josiah Wedgwood, invented many of the techniques of industrial manufacturing and business management that are still used today.

Many of the problems faced by Wedgwood in the 18th century will still seem painfully familiar to 21st century business owners. Here's Josiah, for example, wondering in 1771 why his booming company hasn't got more cash in the bank:

"How do you think, my dear Friend, it happens that I am so very poor, or at least so very needy, as I am at the present time, when it appears by my accounts that I clear enough money by the business to do allmost anything with."

(It turned out the problem was that Wedgwood had no idea how much each of his products cost to make, with the result that he was charging too little for his fancy vases and tableware. As a result, he invented cost accounting, the practice of pricing things according to the cost of the labour and materials that go into producing them.)

I'm a big fan of Josiah Wedgwood, not because of his accounting expertise or because he helped to develop an economic model that benefits the few at the expense of the masses, but because he was an artisan first and a businessman second. If he was around today, he wouldn't be one of those talentless middle-managerial types who have to take an MBA to justify their existence. Wedgwood was a master potter in his own right, as is evident from this account of the opening day in 1769 of his brand new factory in Staffordshire, named Etruria:

'On the slopes behind the factory a great feast was laid out on trestle tables in the shade of the trees. The factory was nearly finished, covering seven acres of land, bounded by walls except on the canal. Land was marked out for Wedgwood's own house - Etruria Hall - and a village was being built for the workmen with houses for two dozen (and eventually two hundred) families. In the sunshine, surrounded by Wedgwood relations and old friends such as the Whieldons and the Brindleys, Wedgwood put on his 'slops', the old potter's smock. Sitting down at the wheel he threw six perfect copies of a black Etruscan vase, while [Wedgwood's business partner Thomas] Bentley turned the crank.'

Here's a picture of one of those 'first day' vases that Wedgwood casually threw that day on the lawn. Not bad, eh?



Image courtesy of Michael Shanks at Stanford University

In today's BBC news article about Wedgwood's demise, Robert Peston says that 'Waterford Wedgwood's collapse is a resonant event, that speaks of a noxious global squeeze on consumer spending. Almost everything that it manufactures is a nice-to-have rather than a must-have. And most of us are thinking twice about shelling out on nice-to-haves.'

I can't help but think Josiah himself would have found this kind of problem trifling. He was always finding ways to market his pottery and fund new ventures, churning out tonnes of cheaply-priced everyday tableware in order to raise cash to finance the development and production of his more exotic, luxury wares. He was also very good at identifying and seizing market opportunities. Jenny Uglow notes in her multi-biographical work The Lunar Men that 'when Wedgwood heard of the new craze for women bleaching their hands with arsenic in 1772, he promoted his sale of black basalt teapots to make a good contrast at the table.'*

It's thanks to Jenny Uglow's book - from which come all the quotes in this post - that I know anything about Wedgwood at all, and I highly recommend it to everyone. It focuses on the industrialists, engineers and thinkers who made up the 'Lunar Society', a group of proto-scientists who congregated in Birmingham in the latter part of the 18th century, and who together laid the foundations for modern British science, industry and innovation. It's an epic and fascinating read which brings the likes of Wedgwood, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestley - and their experiments, inventions and enthusiasms - vividly and brilliantly to life.

It's also because of the depth and brilliance of The Lunar Men that I'm finding Steven Johnson's new book about Joseph Priestley, The Invention of Air, rather unsatisfying, but that's a post for another time. For the moment, I'll just mourn the passing of one of Britain's oldest companies, and wonder if it means that capitalism has indeed come full circle. And if so, what's next?


* Women: doing idiotic and dangerous things in the name of beauty since time immemorial.

25 comments:

9/10ths Full of Penguins said...

What a great post!

I really enjoyed reading this one.

(And I hate all forms of pottery....)

Vicus Scurra said...

That was very informative and well researched. I may come back and read it one day.

patroclus said...

Aww, thank you Nine-Tenths. Vicus, I don't mind if you just look at the pictures.

GreatSheElephant said...

I read that as scatological and was wondering when you'd get onto a different type of porcelain.

Andrew Bruce Smith said...

Any piece that manages to get the word "eschatological" into it is worthy of attention ;-)

Fine stuff.

Did you see my Orwell piece? Let me know what you think:

http://www.iamone.co.uk/index.php/Bio/orwells-sound-of-silence.html

Billy said...

Maybe we'll see a return to mercantilism?

Clair said...

...and selfishly, the owner of Wedgwood owns The Independent too - that'll be another few journos on the scrapheap in addition to me.

But those are smashing vases.

One Fine Weasel said...

aw, now i won't be able to use my favourite joke anymore:

Q: what goes 'bellow bellow snort, can i have a wedgwood plate please?

A: a bull in a china shop.

*tumbleweed, doleful church bells, etc*

sorry.

Christopher Campbell-Howes said...

Good post, thank you - it's made my morning. More, please!

Sean McManus said...

Great post, thanks. The surprising thing about the current downturn is the number of big names that are going under, and the number of different demographic markets they cover. When both Woolworths and Wedgwood go under, there's something seriously wrong with the economy.

It's certainly making me think twice about ordering stuff online or pre-paying for orders.

thedonething said...

In response to your final thought, it seems that Wedgwood was thoroughly buggered pre-crunch.

Not because nobody wanted to buy pastel-coloured vases with reliefs of churches on them, even when they had loads of money.

Or because Wedgwood has been losing £50 million a year and now has a debt of £450 million.

But because the company name begins with a 'w', like Woolworth's and Whittard's.

Damn that pesky merger.

patroclus said...

GSE: I look forward to making a scatological/eschatological pun when the Armitage Shanks brand goes down the, er, pan.

Andrew: Thank you (and for the rewteet) - enjoyed your Orwell article, will comment on it shortly.

Billy: I'm favouring a return to local economies, having just come back from the farmers' market with a black pudding and some mixed fish bits. Who needs Tesco? (Although we did then go into Tesco to buy sweet potatoes imported from Up Foreign, to have mashed with the black pudding as per Nigel Slater's instructions, so the rural economy isn't quite there yet).

Clair: But does anyone actually read the Independent?

OFW: I have consulted my personal guru Michelle Ogundehin, and it appears you can update your joke to read 'bellow bellow snort, can I have a set of limited edition Tema e Variazioni plates from Fornasetti, please?' and you should be OK. A recession is no reason for bulls not to want to invest in statement pieces that will last a lifetime.

Dad: Thank you, Joseph Priestley will be next. Maybe.

Sean: It seems to me that the companies that are going under are ones with big debts that can no longer borrow or raise money to cover them. As most companies have big debts, it's not surprising that they're going bust across the board, no matter what business they're actually in. Right at the moment, it looks like small businesses with cash in the bank may be the saviours of the economy.

TDT: Yes, the last sentence was a bit glib. I look forward to the imminent demise of Waitrose, Wilkinsons and Wetherspoons, which should also cover all the demographic bases mentioned by Sean.

pleite said...

Bugger. Blogger and wordpress conspired to eat my comment, which even had a hilarious word verification quip in it, so I'm glad it was swallowed now as I think those quips have been banned.

Anyway, here's an article where Robert Skidelsky talks about what the future might hold: http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=10554

Jayne said...

I once viewed a house that was completely decorated Wedgwood blue - the carpet, walls, sofa, chairs table etc. With a white ceiling and, just in case you hadn't caught the theme, round plaster reliefs on the walls (2ft in diameter) showing historic scenes. With the eyes picked out in Wedgwood blue. It was like being trapped in a giant vase.

You see some sights house hunting in East London...

patroclus said...

Pleite: Thanks for that article, most of which went completely over my head, but I was struck by a quote from J.M. Keynes towards the end which ties in so nicely with the piece Andrew Smith (see comment above) wrote about George Orwell that I might have to write a little post linking the two.

Jayne: Good grief. Whatever must the owners have been thinking? I would like to say in Wedgwood's defence that they do/did make a lot of very nice stuff (see Jasper Conran's green chinoiserie, for example) and not just blue stuff with plaster cameos on it.

chuffy! said...

Marvellous. Off to order 'The Lunar Men' now. Also explains the full moon in this painting, by one of Wedgewood's pals. Not sure what Peter Stringfellow is doing in it though.

patroclus said...

You won't be disappointed, Chuffy!, it really is a marvellous book.

Jayne said...

They were clearly mad. The bathroom was all dark red/brown - bath, floor, walls, loo, towels etc. It was like being in the womb. I must admit to going to view it again and getting the poor bugger's hopes up but I just had to take my mum and a mate round because they didn't believe me when I described it.

patroclus said...

Hmm, so the bathroom was like a womb, and the rest of it like the inside of a funerary urn...do you think they maybe had a 'circle of life' theme going on?

Tim Footman said...

So please explain the descent from this economic/creative genius, to people dressed entirely from small ads in the Sunday Express magazine queuing up to have some old ponce tell how much it's worth "for insurance purposes"?

patroclus said...

Tim: I'm actually betting on musty old antiques becoming very fashionable again very soon. The whole retro/vintage craze can't have much longer to run, now that every single person seems to own a G-plan coffee table or an Arco lamp or a Barcelona (or Ibiza) chair.

rob-sp said...

Have ordered The Lunar Men for my book - and anticipated joy of the read. It's funny, the more I write, the more I want to read. But I run out of time. I'm still trying to finish Attention All Shipping - a very amusing read, but if only Charlie Connelly had left out a couple of the shipping areas!

And Chuffy's right. It appears Peter's spotted the camera.

Henry North London said...

Nice post

patroclus said...

Rob: I know what you mean - I find it very difficult to read a whole book nowadays, what with the internet constantly distracting me.

Henry North: Why thank you, and welcome!

Richard said...

I'm trawling around blogs I ought to have been reading for ages. I live in Crewe, just up the A500 and I was in Etruria the other day at the blood donor centre. It's a sad place now, has been for ages. Stoke is a place almost devoid of identity now. The new Wedgwood museum (I think the only bit of Wedgwood still in Etruria) has only just opened as well.

A few years back the locals redeveloped Trentham Gardens just down the road. It's now got hotels, a zoo and conference facilities etc. A great day out for all the family and all that. It's in the Potteries so you'd think they'd source all the crockery locally wouldn't you, it being the centre of the world ceramics industry and source of local pride. Did they bollocks. Korea.