The Great Potters


 [This is taken from Samuel Smiles' Self-Help.]

Josiah Wedgwood
“Patience is the finest and worthiest part of fortitude, and the rarest too . . . Patience lies at the root of all pleasures, as well as of all powers.  Hope herself ceases to be happiness when Impatience companions her.”—John Ruskin.

“Il y a vingt et cinq ans passez qu’il ne me fut monstre une coupe de terre, tournee et esmaillee d’une telle beaute que . . .  deslors, sans avoir esgard que je n’avois nulle connoissance des terres argileuses, je me mis a chercher les emaux, comme un homme qui taste en tenebres.”—Bernard Palissy.


It so happens that the history of Pottery furnishes some of the most remarkable instances of patient perseverance to be found in the whole range of biography.  Of these we select three of the most striking, as exhibited in the lives of Bernard Palissy, the Frenchman; Johann Friedrich Bottgher, the German; and Josiah Wedgwood, the Englishman.

Though the art of making common vessels of clay was known to most of the ancient nations, that of manufacturing enamelled earthenware was much less common.  It was, however, practised by the ancient Etruscans, specimens of whose ware are still to be found in antiquarian collections.  But it became a lost art, and was only recovered at a comparatively recent date.  The Etruscan ware was very valuable in ancient times, a vase being worth its weight in gold in the time of Augustus.  The Moors seem to have preserved amongst them a knowledge of the art, which they were found practising in the island of Majorca when it was taken by the Pisans in 1115. Among the spoil carried away were many plates of Moorish earthenware, which, in token of triumph, were embedded in the walls of several of the ancient churches of Pisa, where they are to be seen to this day.  About two centuries later the Italians began to make an imitation enamelled ware, which they named Majolica, after the Moorish place of manufacture.

The reviver or re-discoverer of the art of enamelling in Italy was Luca della Robbia, a Florentine sculptor.  Vasari describes him as a man of indefatigable perseverance, working with his chisel all day and practising drawing during the greater part of the night.  He pursued the latter art with so much assiduity, that when working late, to prevent his feet from freezing with the cold, he was accustomed to provide himself with a basket of shavings, in which he placed them to keep himself warm and enable him to proceed with his drawings.  “Nor,” says Vasari, “am I in the least astonished at this, since no man ever becomes distinguished in any art whatsoever who does not early begin to acquire the power of supporting heat, cold, hunger, thirst, and other discomforts; whereas those persons deceive themselves altogether who suppose that when taking their ease and surrounded by all the enjoyments of the world they may still attain to honourable distinction,--for it is not by sleeping, but by waking, watching, and labouring continually, that proficiency is attained and reputation acquired.”

But Luca, notwithstanding all his application and industry, did not succeed in earning enough money by sculpture to enable him to live by the art, and the idea occurred to him that he might nevertheless be able to pursue his modelling in some material more facile and less dear than marble.  Hence it was that he began to make his models in clay, and to endeavour by experiment so to coat and bake the clay as to render those models durable.  After many trials he at length discovered a method of covering the clay with a material, which, when exposed to the intense heat of a furnace, became converted into an almost imperishable enamel.  He afterwards made the further discovery of a method of imparting colour to the enamel, thus greatly adding to its beauty.

The fame of Luca’s work extended throughout Europe, and specimens of his art became widely diffused.  Many of them were sent into France and Spain, where they were greatly prized.  At that time coarse brown jars and pipkins were almost the only articles of earthenware produced in France; and this continued to be the case, with comparatively small improvement, until the time of Palissy—a man who toiled and fought against stupendous difficulties with a heroism that sheds a glow almost of romance over the events of his chequered life.

Bernard Palissy is supposed to have been born in the south of France, in the diocese of Agen, about the year 1510.  His father was probably a worker in glass, to which trade Bernard was brought up.  His parents were poor people—too poor to give him the benefit of any school education.  “I had no other books,” said he afterwards, “than heaven and earth, which are open to all.”  He learnt, however, the art of glass-painting, to which he added that of drawing, and afterwards reading and writing.

When about eighteen years old, the glass trade becoming decayed, Palissy left his father’s house, with his wallet on his back, and went out into the world to search whether there was any place in it for him.  He first travelled towards Gascony, working at his trade where he could find employment, and occasionally occupying part of his time in land-measuring.  Then he travelled northwards, sojourning for various periods at different places in France, Flanders, and Lower Germany.

Thus Palissy occupied about ten more years of his life, after which he married, and ceased from his wanderings, settling down to practise glass-painting and land-measuring at the small town of Saintes, in the Lower Charente.  There children were born to him; and not only his responsibilities but his expenses increased, while, do what he could, his earnings remained too small for his needs.  It was therefore necessary for him to bestir himself.  Probably he felt capable of better things than drudging in an employment so precarious as glass-painting; and hence he was induced to turn his attention to the kindred art of painting and enamelling earthenware.  Yet on this subject he was wholly ignorant; for he had never seen earth baked before he began his operations.  He had therefore everything to learn by himself, without any helper.  But he was full of hope, eager to learn, of unbounded perseverance and inexhaustible patience.

It was the sight of an elegant cup of Italian manufacture—most probably one of Luca della Robbia’s make—which first set Palissy a-thinking about the new art.  A circumstance so apparently insignificant would have produced no effect upon an ordinary mind, or even upon Palissy himself at an ordinary time; but occurring as it did when he was meditating a change of calling, he at once became inflamed with the desire of imitating it.  The sight of this cup disturbed his whole existence; and the determination to discover the enamel with which it was glazed thenceforward possessed him like a passion.  Had he been a single man he might have travelled into Italy in search of the secret; but he was bound to his wife and his children, and could not leave them; so he remained by their side groping in the dark in the hope of finding out the process of making and enamelling earthenware.

At first he could merely guess the materials of which the enamel was composed; and he proceeded to try all manner of experiments to ascertain what they really were.  He pounded all the substances which he supposed were likely to produce it.  Then he bought common earthen pots, broke them into pieces, and, spreading his compounds over them, subjected them to the heat of a furnace which he erected for the purpose of baking them.  His experiments failed; and the results were broken pots and a waste of fuel, drugs, time, and labour.  Women do not readily sympathise with experiments whose only tangible effect is to dissipate the means of buying clothes and food for their children; and Palissy’s wife, however dutiful in other respects, could not be reconciled to the purchase of more earthen pots, which seemed to her to be bought only to be broken.  Yet she must needs submit; for Palissy had become thoroughly possessed by the determination to master the secret of the enamel, and would not leave it alone.

For many successive months and years Palissy pursued his experiments.  The first furnace having proved a failure, he proceeded to erect another out of doors.  There he burnt more wood, spoiled more drugs and pots, and lost more time, until poverty stared him and his family in the face.  “Thus,” said he, “I fooled away several years, with sorrow and sighs, because I could not at all arrive at my intention.”  In the intervals of his experiments he occasionally worked at his former callings, painting on glass, drawing portraits, and measuring land; but his earnings from these sources were very small.  At length he was no longer able to carry on his experiments in his own furnace because of the heavy cost of fuel; but he bought more potsherds, broke them up as before into three or four hundred pieces, and, covering them with chemicals, carried them to a tile-work a league and a half distant from Saintes, there to be baked in an ordinary furnace.  After the operation he went to see the pieces taken out; and, to his dismay, the whole of the experiments were failures.  But though disappointed, he was not yet defeated; for he determined on the very spot to “begin afresh.”

His business as a land-measurer called him away for a brief season from the pursuit of his experiments.  In conformity with an edict of the State, it became necessary to survey the salt-marshes in the neighbourhood of Saintes for the purpose of levying the land-tax.  Palissy was employed to make this survey, and prepare the requisite map.  The work occupied him some time, and he was doubtless well paid for it; but no sooner was it completed than he proceeded, with redoubled zeal, to follow up his old investigations “in the track of the enamels.”  He began by breaking three dozen new earthen pots, the pieces of which he covered with different materials which he had compounded, and then took them to a neighbouring glass-furnace to be baked.  The results gave him a glimmer of hope.  The greater heat of the glass-furnace had melted some of the compounds; but though Palissy searched diligently for the white enamel he could find none.

For two more years he went on experimenting without any satisfactory result, until the proceeds of his survey of the salt-marshes having become nearly spent, he was reduced to poverty again.  But he resolved to make a last great effort; and he began by breaking more pots than ever.  More than three hundred pieces of pottery covered with his compounds were sent to the glass-furnace; and thither he himself went to watch the results of the baking.  Four hours passed, during which he watched; and then the furnace was opened.  The material on ONE only of the three hundred pieces of potsherd had melted, and it was taken out to cool.  As it hardened, it grew white-white and polished!  The piece of potsherd was covered with white enamel, described by Palissy as “singularly beautiful!”  And beautiful it must no doubt have been in his eyes after all his weary waiting.  He ran home with it to his wife, feeling himself, as he expressed it, quite a new creature.  But the prize was not yet won—far from it.  The partial success of this intended last effort merely had the effect of luring him on to a succession of further experiments and failures.

In order that he might complete the invention, which he now believed to be at hand, he resolved to build for himself a glass-furnace near his dwelling, where he might carry on his operations in secret.  He proceeded to build the furnace with his own hands, carrying the bricks from the brick-field upon his back.  He was bricklayer, labourer, and all.  From seven to eight more months passed.  At last the furnace was built and ready for use.  Palissy had in the mean time fashioned a number of vessels of clay in readiness for the laying on of the enamel.  After being subjected to a preliminary process of baking, they were covered with the enamel compound, and again placed in the furnace for the grand crucial experiment.  Although his means were nearly exhausted, Palissy had been for some time accumulating a great store of fuel for the final effort; and he thought it was enough.  At last the fire was lit, and the operation proceeded.  All day he sat by the furnace, feeding it with fuel.  He sat there watching and feeding all through the long night.  But the enamel did not melt.  The sun rose upon his labours.  His wife brought him a portion of the scanty morning meal,--for he would not stir from the furnace, into which he continued from time to time to heave more fuel.  The second day passed, and still the enamel did not melt.  The sun set, and another night passed.  The pale, haggard, unshorn, baffled yet not beaten Palissy sat by his furnace eagerly looking for the melting of the enamel.  A third day and night passed—a fourth, a fifth, and even a sixth,--yes, for six long days and nights did the unconquerable Palissy watch and toil, fighting against hope; and still the enamel would not melt.

It then occurred to him that there might be some defect in the materials for the enamel—perhaps something wanting in the flux; so he set to work to pound and compound fresh materials for a new experiment.  Thus two or three more weeks passed.  But how to buy more pots?--for those which he had made with his own hands for the purposes of the first experiment were by long baking irretrievably spoilt for the purposes of a second.  His money was now all spent; but he could borrow.  His character was still good, though his wife and the neighbours thought him foolishly wasting his means in futile experiments.  Nevertheless he succeeded.  He borrowed sufficient from a friend to enable him to buy more fuel and more pots, and he was again ready for a further experiment.  The pots were covered with the new compound, placed in the furnace, and the fire was again lit.

It was the last and most desperate experiment of the whole.  The fire blazed up; the heat became intense; but still the enamel did not melt.  The fuel began to run short!  How to keep up the fire?

There were the garden palings:  these would burn.  They must be sacrificed rather than that the great experiment should fail.  The garden palings were pulled up and cast into the furnace.  They were burnt in vain!  The enamel had not yet melted.  Ten minutes more heat might do it.  Fuel must be had at whatever cost.  There remained the household furniture and shelving.  A crashing noise was heard in the house; and amidst the screams of his wife and children, who now feared Palissy’s reason was giving way, the tables were seized, broken up, and heaved into the furnace.  The enamel had not melted yet!  There remained the shelving.  Another noise of the wrenching of timber was heard within the house; and the shelves were torn down and hurled after the furniture into the fire.  Wife and children then rushed from the house, and went frantically through the town, calling out that poor Palissy had gone mad, and was breaking up his very furniture for firewood!

For an entire month his shirt had not been off his back, and he was utterly worn out—wasted with toil, anxiety, watching, and want of food.  He was in debt, and seemed on the verge of ruin.  But he had at length mastered the secret; for the last great burst of heat had melted the enamel.  The common brown household jars, when taken out of the furnace after it had become cool, were found covered with a white glaze!  For this he could endure reproach, contumely, and scorn, and wait patiently for the opportunity of putting his discovery into practice as better days came round.

Palissy next hired a potter to make some earthen vessels after designs which he furnished; while he himself proceeded to model some medallions in clay for the purpose of enamelling them.  But how to maintain himself and his family until the wares were made and ready for sale?  Fortunately there remained one man in Saintes who still believed in the integrity, if not in the judgment, of Palissy—an inn-keeper, who agreed to feed and lodge him for six months, while he went on with his manufacture.  As for the working potter whom he had hired, Palissy soon found that he could not pay him the stipulated wages.  Having already stripped his dwelling, he could but strip himself; and he accordingly parted with some of his clothes to the potter, in part payment of the wages which he owed him.

Palissy next erected an improved furnace, but he was so unfortunate as to build part of the inside with flints.  When it was heated, these flints cracked and burst, and the spiculae were scattered over the pieces of pottery, sticking to them.  Though the enamel came out right, the work was irretrievably spoilt, and thus six more months’ labour was lost.  Persons were found willing to buy the articles at a low price, notwithstanding the injury they had sustained; but Palissy would not sell them, considering that to have done so would be to “decry and abate his honour;” and so he broke in pieces the entire batch.  “Nevertheless,” says he, “hope continued to inspire me, and I held on manfully; sometimes, when visitors called, I entertained them with pleasantry, while I was really sad at heart. . . . Worst of all the sufferings I had to endure, were the mockeries and persecutions of those of my own household, who were so unreasonable as to expect me to execute work without the means of doing so.  For years my furnaces were without any covering or protection, and while attending them I have been for nights at the mercy of the wind and the rain, without help or consolation, save it might be the wailing of cats on the one side and the howling of dogs on the other.  Sometimes the tempest would beat so furiously against the furnaces that I was compelled to leave them and seek shelter within doors.  Drenched by rain, and in no better plight than if I had been dragged through mire, I have gone to lie down at midnight or at daybreak, stumbling into the house without a light, and reeling from one side to another as if I had been drunken, but really weary with watching and filled with sorrow at the loss of my labour after such long toiling.  But alas!  my home proved no refuge; for, drenched and besmeared as I was, I found in my chamber a second persecution worse than the first, which makes me even now marvel that I was not utterly consumed by my many sorrows.”

At this stage of his affairs, Palissy became melancholy and almost hopeless, and seems to have all but broken down.  He wandered gloomily about the fields near Saintes, his clothes hanging in tatters, and himself worn to a skeleton.  In a curious passage in his writings he describes how that the calves of his legs had disappeared and were no longer able with the help of garters to hold up his stockings, which fell about his heels when he walked.  {11}  The family continued to reproach him for his recklessness, and his neighbours cried shame upon him for his obstinate folly.  So he returned for a time to his former calling; and after about a year’s diligent labour, during which he earned bread for his household and somewhat recovered his character among his neighbours, he again resumed his darling enterprise.  But though he had already spent about ten years in the search for the enamel, it cost him nearly eight more years of experimental plodding before he perfected his invention.  He gradually learnt dexterity and certainty of result by experience, gathering practical knowledge out of many failures.  Every mishap was a fresh lesson to him, teaching him something new about the nature of enamels, the qualities of argillaceous earths, the tempering of clays, and the construction and management of furnaces.

At last, after about sixteen years’ labour, Palissy took heart and called himself Potter.  These sixteen years had been his term of apprenticeship to the art; during which he had wholly to teach himself, beginning at the very beginning.  He was now able to sell his wares and thereby maintain his family in comfort.  But he never rested satisfied with what he had accomplished.  He proceeded from one step of improvement to another; always aiming at the greatest perfection possible.  He studied natural objects for patterns, and with such success that the great Buffon spoke of him as “so great a naturalist as Nature only can produce.”  His ornamental pieces are now regarded as rare gems in the cabinets of virtuosi, and sell at almost fabulous prices. {12}  The ornaments on them are for the most part accurate models from life, of wild animals, lizards, and plants, found in the fields about Saintes, and tastefully combined as ornaments into the texture of a plate or vase.  When Palissy had reached the height of his art he styled himself “Ouvrier de Terre et Inventeur des Rustics Figulines.”

We have not, however, come to an end of the sufferings of Palissy, respecting which a few words remain to be said.  Being a Protestant, at a time when religious persecution waxed hot in the south of France, and expressing his views without fear, he was regarded as a dangerous heretic.  His enemies having informed against him, his house at Saintes was entered by the officers of “justice,” and his workshop was thrown open to the rabble, who entered and smashed his pottery, while he himself was hurried off by night and cast into a dungeon at Bordeaux, to wait his turn at the stake or the scaffold.  He was condemned to be burnt; but a powerful noble, the Constable de Montmorency, interposed to save his life—not because he had any special regard for Palissy or his religion, but because no other artist could be found capable of executing the enamelled pavement for his magnificent chateau then in course of erection at Ecouen, about four leagues from Paris.  By his influence an edict was issued appointing Palissy Inventor of Rustic Figulines to the King and to the Constable, which had the effect of immediately removing him from the jurisdiction of Bourdeaux.  He was accordingly liberated, and returned to his home at Saintes only to find it devastated and broken up. His workshop was open to the sky, and his works lay in ruins.  Shaking the dust of Saintes from his feet he left the place never to return to it, and removed to Paris to carry on the works ordered of him by the Constable and the Queen Mother, being lodged in the Tuileries {13} while so occupied.

Besides carrying on the manufacture of pottery, with the aid of his two sons, Palissy, during the latter part of his life, wrote and published several books on the potter’s art, with a view to the instruction of his countrymen, and in order that they might avoid the many mistakes which he himself had made.  He also wrote on agriculture, on fortification, and natural history, on which latter subject he even delivered lectures to a limited number of persons.

He waged war against astrology, alchemy, witchcraft, and like impostures.  This stirred up against him many enemies, who pointed the finger at him as a heretic, and he was again arrested for his religion and imprisoned in the Bastille.  He was now an old man of seventy-eight, trembling on the verge of the grave, but his spirit was as brave as ever.  He was threatened with death unless he recanted; but he was as obstinate in holding to his religion as he had been in hunting out the secret of the enamel.  The king, Henry III., even went to see him in prison to induce him to abjure his faith.  “My good man,” said the King, “you have now served my mother and myself for forty-five years.  We have put up with your adhering to your religion amidst fires and massacres:  now I am so pressed by the Guise party as well as by my own people, that I am constrained to leave you in the hands of your enemies, and tomorrow you will be burnt unless you become converted.”  “Sire,” answered the unconquerable old man, “I am ready to give my life for the glory of God.  You have said many times that you have pity on me; and now I have pity on you, who have pronounced the words I AM CONSTRAINED!  It is not spoken like a king, sire; it is what you, and those who constrain you, the Guisards and all your people, can never effect upon me, for I know how to die.” Palissy did indeed die shortly after, a martyr, though not at the stake.  He died in the Bastille, after enduring about a year’s imprisonment,-- there peacefully terminating a life distinguished for heroic labour, extraordinary endurance, inflexible rectitude, and the exhibition of many rare and noble virtues.

The life of John Frederick Bottgher, the inventor of hard porcelain, presents a remarkable contrast to that of Palissy; though it also contains many points of singular and almost romantic interest.  Bottgher was born at Schleiz, in the Voightland, in 1685, and at twelve years of age was placed apprentice with an apothecary at Berlin.  He seems to have been early fascinated by chemistry, and occupied most of his leisure in making experiments.  These for the most part tended in one direction—the art of converting common on metals into gold.  At the end of several years, Bottgher pretended to have discovered the universal solvent of the alchemists, and professed that he had made gold by its means.  He exhibited its powers before his master, the apothecary Zorn, and by some trick or other succeeded in making him and several other witnesses believe that he had actually converted copper into gold.

The news spread abroad that the apothecary’s apprentice had discovered the grand secret, and crowds collected about the shop to get a sight of the wonderful young “gold-cook.”  The king himself expressed a wish to see and converse with him, and when Frederick I. was presented with a piece of the gold pretended to have been converted from copper, he was so dazzled with the prospect of securing an infinite quantity of it—Prussia being then in great straits for money—that he determined to secure Bottgher and employ him to make gold for him within the strong fortress of Spandau.  But the young apothecary, suspecting the king’s intention, and probably fearing detection, at once resolved on flight, and he succeeded in getting across the frontier into Saxony.

A reward of a thousand thalers was offered for Bottgher’s apprehension, but in vain.  He arrived at Wittenberg, and appealed for protection to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus I.  (King of Poland), surnamed “the Strong.”  Frederick was himself very much in want of money at the time, and he was overjoyed at the prospect of obtaining gold in any quantity by the aid of the young alchemist.  Bottgher was accordingly conveyed in secret to Dresden, accompanied by a royal escort.  He had scarcely left Wittenberg when a battalion of Prussian grenadiers appeared before the gates demanding the gold-maker’s extradition.  But it was too late:

Bottgher had already arrived in Dresden, where he was lodged in the Golden House, and treated with every consideration, though strictly watched and kept under guard.

The Elector, however, must needs leave him there for a time, having to depart forthwith to Poland, then almost in a state of anarchy.  But, impatient for gold, he wrote Bottgher from Warsaw, urging him to communicate the secret, so that he himself might practise the art of commutation.  The young “gold-cook,” thus pressed, forwarded to Frederick a small phial containing “a reddish fluid,” which, it was asserted, changed all metals, when in a molten state, into gold.  This important phial was taken in charge by the Prince Furst von Furstenburg, who, accompanied by a regiment of Guards, hurried with it to Warsaw.  Arrived there, it was determined to make immediate trial of the process.  The King and the Prince locked themselves up in a secret chamber of the palace, girt themselves about with leather aprons, and like true “gold-cooks” set to work melting copper in a crucible and afterwards applying to it the red fluid of Bottgher.  But the result was unsatisfactory; for notwithstanding all that they could do, the copper obstinately remained copper.  On referring to the alchemist’s instructions, however, the King found that, to succeed with the process, it was necessary that the fluid should be used “in great purity of heart;” and as his Majesty was conscious of having spent the evening in very bad company he attributed the failure of the experiment to that cause.  A second trial was followed by no better results, and then the King became furious; for he had confessed and received absolution before beginning the second experiment.

Frederick Augustus now resolved on forcing Bottgher to disclose the golden secret, as the only means of relief from his urgent pecuniary difficulties.  The alchemist, hearing of the royal intention, again determined to fly.  He succeeded in escaping his guard, and, after three days’ travel, arrived at Ens in Austria, where he thought himself safe.  The agents of the Elector were, however, at his heels; they had tracked him to the “Golden Stag,” which they surrounded, and seizing him in his bed, notwithstanding his resistance and appeals to the Austrian authorities for help, they carried him by force to Dresden.  From this time he was more strictly watched than ever, and he was shortly after transferred to the strong fortress of Koningstein.  It was communicated to him that the royal exchequer was completely empty, and that ten regiments of Poles in arrears of pay were waiting for his gold.  The King himself visited him, and told him in a severe tone that if he did not at once proceed to make gold, he would be hung!  (“Thu mir zurecht, Bottgher, sonst lass ich dich hangen”).

Years passed, and still Bottgher made no gold; but he was not hung.  It was reserved for him to make a far more important discovery than the conversion of copper into gold, namely, the conversion of clay into porcelain.  Some rare specimens of this ware had been brought by the Portuguese from China, which were sold for more than their weight in gold.  Bottgher was first induced to turn his attention to the subject by Walter von Tschirnhaus, a maker of optical instruments, also an alchemist.  Tschirnhaus was a man of education and distinction, and was held in much esteem by Prince Furstenburg as well as by the Elector.  He very sensibly said to Bottgher, still in fear of the gallows—“If you can’t make gold, try and do something else; make porcelain.”

The alchemist acted on the hint, and began his experiments, working night and day.  He prosecuted his investigations for a long time with great assiduity, but without success.  At length some red clay, brought to him for the purpose of making his crucibles, set him on the right track.  He found that this clay, when submitted to a high temperature, became vitrified and retained its shape; and that its texture resembled that of porcelain, excepting in colour and opacity.  He had in fact accidentally discovered red porcelain, and he proceeded to manufacture it and sell it as porcelain.

Bottgher was, however, well aware that the white colour was an essential property of true porcelain; and he therefore prosecuted his experiments in the hope of discovering the secret.  Several years thus passed, but without success; until again accident stood his friend, and helped him to a knowledge of the art of making white porcelain.  One day, in the year 1707, he found his perruque unusually heavy, and asked of his valet the reason.  The answer was, that it was owing to the powder with which the wig was dressed, which consisted of a kind of earth then much used for hair powder.  Bottgher’s quick imagination immediately seized upon the idea.  This white earthy powder might possibly be the very earth of which he was in search—at all events the opportunity must not be let slip of ascertaining what it really was.  He was rewarded for his painstaking care and watchfulness; for he found, on experiment, that the principal ingredient of the hair-powder consisted of kaolin, the want of which had so long formed an insuperable difficulty in the way of his inquiries.

The discovery, in Bottgher’s intelligent hands, led to great results, and proved of far greater importance than the discovery of the philosopher’s stone would have been.  In October, 1707, he presented his first piece of porcelain to the Elector, who was greatly pleased with it; and it was resolved that Bottgher should be furnished with the means necessary for perfecting his invention.

Having obtained a skilled workman from Delft, he began to TURN porcelain with great success.  He now entirely abandoned alchemy for pottery, and inscribed over the door of his workshop this distich:-  

“Es machte Gott, der grosse Schopfer,
Aus einem Goldmacher einen Topfer.” 

Bottgher, however, was still under strict surveillance, for fear lest he should communicate his secret to others or escape the Elector’s control.  The new workshops and furnaces which were erected for him, were guarded by troops night and day, and six superior officers were made responsible for the personal security of the potter.

Bottgher’s further experiments with his new furnaces proving very successful, and the porcelain which he manufactured being found to fetch large prices, it was next determined to establish a Royal Manufactory of porcelain.  The manufacture of delft ware was known to have greatly enriched Holland.  Why should not the manufacture of porcelain equally enrich the Elector?  Accordingly, a decree went forth, dated the 23rd of January, 1710, for the establishment of “a large manufactory of porcelain” at the Albrechtsburg in Meissen.  In this decree, which was translated into Latin, French, and Dutch, and distributed by the Ambassadors of the Elector at all the European Courts, Frederick Augustus set forth that to promote the welfare of Saxony, which had suffered much through the Swedish invasion, he had “directed his attention to the subterranean treasures (unterirdischen Schatze)” of the country, and having employed some able persons in the investigation, they had succeeded in manufacturing “a sort of red vessels (eine Art rother Gefasse) far superior to the Indian terra sigillata;” {17} as also “coloured ware and plates (buntes Geschirr und Tafeln) which may be cut, ground, and polished, and are quite equal to Indian vessels,” and finally that “specimens of white porcelain (Proben von weissem Porzellan)” had already been obtained, and it was hoped that this quality, too, would soon be manufactured in considerable quantities.  The royal decree concluded by inviting “foreign artists and handicraftmen” to come to Saxony and engage as assistants in the new factory, at high wages, and under the patronage of the King.  This royal edict probably gives the best account of the actual state of Bottgher’s invention at the time.

It has been stated in German publications that Bottgher, for the great services rendered by him to the Elector and to Saxony, was made Manager of the Royal Porcelain Works, and further promoted to the dignity of Baron.  Doubtless he deserved these honours; but his treatment was of an altogether different character, for it was shabby, cruel, and inhuman.  Two royal officials, named Matthieu and Nehmitz, were put over his head as directors of the factory, while he himself only held the position of foreman of potters, and at the same time was detained the King’s prisoner.  During the erection of the factory at Meissen, while his assistance was still indispensable, he was conducted by soldiers to and from Dresden; and even after the works were finished, he was locked up nightly in his room.  All this preyed upon his mind, and in repeated letters to the King he sought to obtain mitigation of his fate.  Some of these letters are very touching.  “I will devote my whole soul to the art of making porcelain,” he writes on one occasion, “I will do more than any inventor ever did before; only give me liberty, liberty!”

To these appeals, the King turned a deaf ear.  He was ready to spend money and grant favours; but liberty he would not give.  He regarded Bottgher as his slave.  In this position, the persecuted man kept on working for some time, till, at the end of a year or two, he grew negligent.  Disgusted with the world and with himself, he took to drinking.  Such is the force of example, that it no sooner became known that Bottgher had betaken himself to this vice, than the greater number of the workmen at the Meissen factory became drunkards too.  Quarrels and fightings without end were the consequence, so that the troops were frequently called upon to interfere and keep peace among the “Porzellanern,” as they were nicknamed.  After a while, the whole of them, more than three hundred, were shut up in the Albrechtsburg, and treated as prisoners of state.

Bottgher at last fell seriously ill, and in May, 1713, his dissolution was hourly expected.  The King, alarmed at losing so valuable a slave, now gave him permission to take carriage exercise under a guard; and, having somewhat recovered, he was allowed occasionally to go to Dresden.  In a letter written by the King in April, 1714, Bottgher was promised his full liberty; but the offer came too late.  Broken in body and mind, alternately working and drinking, though with occasional gleams of nobler intention, and suffering under constant ill-health, the result of his enforced confinement, Bottgher lingered on for a few years more, until death freed him from his sufferings on the 13th March, 1719, in the thirty-fifth year of his age.  He was buried AT NIGHT—as if he had been a dog—in the Johannis Cemetery of Meissen.  Such was the treatment and such the unhappy end, of one of Saxony’s greatest benefactors.

The porcelain manufacture immediately opened up an important source of public revenue, and it became so productive to the Elector of Saxony, that his example was shortly after followed by most European monarchs.  Although soft porcelain had been made at St.  Cloud fourteen years before Bottgher’s discovery, the superiority of the hard porcelain soon became generally recognised.  Its manufacture was begun at Sevres in 1770, and it has since almost entirely superseded the softer material.  This is now one of the most thriving branches of French industry, of which the high quality of the articles produced is certainly indisputable.

The career of Josiah Wedgwood, the English potter, was less chequered and more prosperous than that of either Palissy or Bottgher, and his lot was cast in happier times.  Down to the middle of last century England was behind most other nations of the first order in Europe in respect of skilled industry.  Although there were many potters in Staffordshire—and Wedgwood himself belonged to a numerous clan of potters of the same name—their productions were of the rudest kind, for the most part only plain brown ware, with the patterns scratched in while the clay was wet.  The principal supply of the better articles of earthenware came from Delft in Holland, and of drinking stone pots from Cologne.  Two foreign potters, the brothers Elers from Nuremberg, settled for a time in Staffordshire, and introduced an improved manufacture, but they shortly after removed to Chelsea, where they confined themselves to the manufacture of ornamental pieces.  No porcelain capable of resisting a scratch with a hard point had yet been made in England; and for a long time the “white ware” made in Staffordshire was not white, but of a dirty cream colour.  Such, in a few words, was the condition of the pottery manufacture when Josiah Wedgwood was born at Burslem in 1730.  By the time that he died, sixty-four years later, it had become completely changed.  By his energy, skill, and genius, he established the trade upon a new and solid foundation; and, in the words of his epitaph, “converted a rude and inconsiderable manufacture into an elegant art and an important branch of national commerce.”

Josiah Wedgwood was one of those indefatigable men who from time to time spring from the ranks of the common people, and by their energetic character not only practically educate the working population in habits of industry, but by the example of diligence and perseverance which they set before them, largely influence the public activity in all directions, and contribute in a great degree to form the national character.  He was, like Arkwright, the youngest of a family of thirteen children.  His grandfather and granduncle were both potters, as was also his father who died when he was a mere boy, leaving him a patrimony of twenty pounds.  He had learned to read and write at the village school; but on the death of his father he was taken from it and set to work as a “thrower” in a small pottery carried on by his elder brother.

There he began life, his working life, to use his own words, “at the lowest round of the ladder,” when only eleven years old.  He was shortly after seized by an attack of virulent smallpox, from the effects of which he suffered during the rest of his life, for it was followed by a disease in the right knee, which recurred at frequent intervals, and was only got rid of by the amputation of the limb many years later.  Mr. Gladstone, in his eloquent Eloge on Wedgwood recently delivered at Burslem, well observed that the disease from which he suffered was not improbably the occasion of his subsequent excellence.  “It prevented him from growing up to be the active, vigorous English workman, possessed of all his limbs, and knowing right well the use of them; but it put him upon considering whether, as he could not be that, he might not be something else, and something greater.  It sent his mind inwards; it drove him to meditate upon the laws and secrets of his art.  The result was, that he arrived at a perception and a grasp of them which might, perhaps, have been envied, certainly have been owned, by an Athenian potter.”

When he had completed his apprenticeship with his brother, Josiah joined partnership with another workman, and carried on a small business in making knife-hafts, boxes, and sundry articles for domestic use.  Another partnership followed, when he proceeded to make melon table plates, green pickle leaves, candlesticks, snuffboxes, and such like articles; but he made comparatively little progress until he began business on his own account at Burslem in the year 1759.  There he diligently pursued his calling, introducing new articles to the trade, and gradually extending his business.  What he chiefly aimed at was to manufacture cream-coloured ware of a better quality than was then produced in Staffordshire as regarded shape, colour, glaze, and durability.  To understand the subject thoroughly, he devoted his leisure to the study of chemistry; and he made numerous experiments on fluxes, glazes, and various sorts of clay.  Being a close inquirer and accurate observer, he noticed that a certain earth containing silica, which was black before calcination, became white after exposure to the heat of a furnace.  This fact, observed and pondered on, led to the idea of mixing silica with the red powder of the potteries, and to the discovery that the mixture becomes white when calcined.  He had but to cover this material with a vitrification of transparent glaze, to obtain one of the most important products of fictile art—that which, under the name of English earthenware, was to attain the greatest commercial value and become of the most extensive utility.

Wedgwood was for some time much troubled by his furnaces, though nothing like to the same extent that Palissy was; and he overcame his difficulties in the same way—by repeated experiments and unfaltering perseverance.  His first attempts at making porcelain for table use was a succession of disastrous failures,--the labours of months being often destroyed in a day.  It was only after a long series of trials, in the course of which he lost time, money, and labour, that he arrived at the proper sort of glaze to be used; but he would not be denied, and at last he conquered success through patience.  The improvement of pottery became his passion, and was never lost sight of for a moment.  Even when he had mastered his difficulties, and become a prosperous man—manufacturing white stone ware and cream-coloured ware in large quantities for home and foreign use—he went forward perfecting his manufactures, until, his example extending in all directions, the action of the entire district was stimulated, and a great branch of British industry was eventually established on firm foundations.  He aimed throughout at the highest excellence, declaring his determination “to give over manufacturing any article, whatsoever it might be, rather than to degrade it.”

Wedgwood was cordially helped by many persons of rank and influence; for, working in the truest spirit, he readily commanded the help and encouragement of other true workers.  He made for Queen Charlotte the first royal table-service of English manufacture, of the kind afterwards called “Queen’s-ware,” and was appointed Royal Potter; a title which he prized more than if he had been made a baron.  Valuable sets of porcelain were entrusted to him for imitation, in which he succeeded to admiration.  Sir William Hamilton lent him specimens of ancient art from Herculaneum, of which he produced accurate and beautiful copies.  The Duchess of Portland outbid him for the Barberini Vase when that article was offered for sale.  He bid as high as seventeen hundred guineas for it:  her grace secured it for eighteen hundred; but when she learnt Wedgwood’s object she at once generously lent him the vase to copy.  He produced fifty copies at a cost of about 2500l., and his expenses were not covered by their sale; but he gained his object, which was to show that whatever had been done, that English skill and energy could and would accomplish.

Wedgwood called to his aid the crucible of the chemist, the knowledge of the antiquary, and the skill of the artist.  He found out Flaxman when a youth, and while he liberally nurtured his genius drew from him a large number of beautiful designs for his pottery and porcelain; converting them by his manufacture into objects of taste and excellence, and thus making them instrumental in the diffusion of classical art amongst the people.  By careful experiment and study he was even enabled to rediscover the art of painting on porcelain or earthenware vases and similar articles—an art practised by the ancient Etruscans, but which had been lost since the time of Pliny.  He distinguished himself by his own contributions to science, and his name is still identified with the Pyrometer which he invented.  He was an indefatigable supporter of all measures of public utility; and the construction of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which completed the navigable communication between the eastern and western sides of the island, was mainly due to his public-spirited exertions, allied to the engineering skill of Brindley.  The road accommodation of the district being of an execrable character, he planned and executed a turnpike-road through the Potteries, ten miles in length.  The reputation he achieved was such that his works at Burslem, and subsequently those at Etruria, which he founded and built, became a point of attraction to distinguished visitors from all parts of Europe.

The result of Wedgwood’s labours was, that the manufacture of pottery, which he found in the very lowest condition, became one of the staples of England; and instead of importing what we needed for home use from abroad, we became large exporters to other countries, supplying them with earthenware even in the face of enormous prohibitory duties on articles of British produce.  Wedgwood gave evidence as to his manufactures before Parliament in 1785, only some thirty years after he had begun his operations; from which it appeared, that instead of providing only casual employment to a small number of inefficient and badly remunerated workmen, about 20,000 persons then derived their bread directly from the manufacture of earthenware, without taking into account the increased numbers to which it gave employment in coal-mines, and in the carrying trade by land and sea, and the stimulus which it gave to employment in many ways in various parts of the country.  Yet, important as had been the advances made in his time, Mr. Wedgwood was of opinion that the manufacture was but in its infancy, and that the improvements which he had effected were of but small amount compared with those to which the art was capable of attaining, through the continued industry and growing intelligence of the manufacturers, and the natural facilities and political advantages enjoyed by Great Britain; an opinion which has been fully borne out by the progress which has since been effected in this important branch of industry.  In 1852 not fewer than 84,000,000 pieces of pottery were exported from England to other countries, besides what were made for home use.  But it is not merely the quantity and value of the produce that is entitled to consideration, but the improvement of the condition of the population by whom this great branch of industry is conducted.  When Wedgwood began his labours, the Staffordshire district was only in a half-civilized state.  The people were poor, uncultivated, and few in number.  When Wedgwood’s manufacture was firmly established, there was found ample employment at good wages for three times the number of population; while their moral advancement had kept pace with their material improvement.

Men such as these are fairly entitled to take rank as the Industrial Heroes of the civilized world.  Their patient self-reliance amidst trials and difficulties, their courage and perseverance in the pursuit of worthy objects, are not less heroic of their kind than the bravery and devotion of the soldier and the sailor, whose duty and pride it is heroically to defend what these valiant leaders of industry have so heroically achieved.

Of interest:



Original text by Samuel Smiles, edited and revised by D J McAdam © 2006.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.


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