What is Wedgwood Etruria?

What is Wedgwood Etruria?

In 1759 Josiah Wedgwood opened a pottery in the North Staffordshire village of Etruria. This small industrial community is about five miles from Burslem, where earlier members of the Wedgwood family had been running a pottery business since around 1730.

By the mid-eighteenth century, there were over 200 potteries in that part of England, many specializing in creamware, a fine white earthenware made all over Europe at that time.

Wedgwood was already one of the most successful manufacturers when he turned his attention to making black basaltes. 

In an inspired move, he named the new line “Etruria” after the famous ancient Italian site, renowned for its beautiful black tableware. 

Wedgwood Earthenware became one of the most familiar and desirable products in Europe, made in a rainbow of colors, often with molded decoration.

By 1788, two years before his death

By 1788, two years before his death, Wedgwood had bought up all the other potteries in the immediate area, so that he would have complete control over both, the supply of clay and distribution of his wares. 

This ultimately resulted in an Industrial Revolution within an Industrial Revolution. 

The whole area around Stoke-on-Trent was soon transformed into England’s biggest industrial complex – “The Potteries“.

Over 100 million pieces were exported to America alone between 1800 and 1860. 

Following WWII, sales slumped due to competition from modern tableware, Pyrex and Teflon, and Wedgwood is now part of the Waterford Wedgwood group.

Josiah began making bone china

While those early Earthenwares were all suitable for use, it wasn’t until Josiah began making bone china in 1770 that his wares became collectible. 

The quality and clarity of the material were such that it could be used as a substitute for glassware with none of the fear of breakage or refraction of light, a real bonus at a time when fine tableware was made from porcelain – very expensive and highly breakable!

Cloisonné, monochrome, and two-color transfer printing on earthenware were Wedgwood’s first competitive edge over French table styles. In 1784 he patented the first transfer printed earthenware in red, two years before Sevres.

Wedgwood was very much a part of his time, an enlightened ‘Man of the Enlightenment, the likes of which we won’t see again.

Built Etruria Hall

By 1790 Wedgwood had built Etruria Hall, a grand home surrounded by twenty acres of gardens. Here he created unique works that today would be called “Art Pottery”. These formed part of his presentation to royalty and were based on ancient Greek forms. These are now highly desirable collectibles in their own right.

Jasper ware

His most famous invention is undoubtedly Jasper ware. In 1774 Wedgwood experimented with all manner of clays to try and emulate porcelain. He eventually found that a variation of this type, when fired at around 1200 degrees centigrade created the lustrous creamy colored material that was then painted with bright colored enamels.

The product was an immediate success and became one of his best-selling wares. Later versions were glazed to save on painting time. It is estimated that about 50% of Wedgwood’s production between 1789 and 1812 were jasper items. He also used it to print black figures on a cream ground.

English Art Pottery

This style marked the beginning of English Art Pottery. Something now eagerly sought after by collectors worldwide, especially if decorated with large colorful flowers or butterflies as these are usually factory variations rather than hand-painted pieces made for sale to the public.

Wedgwood’s success

It is said that Wedgwood’s success was based on his innovative approach to marketing. 

In the early years, he took a firm line on quality control and encouraged competition among his workers by giving them prizes for discoveries.

In 1775 Wedgwood wrote, “I am very desirous of becoming acquainted with every artist, of whatever kind or profession, whether sculptor, painter, architect or landscape-gardeners ….” 

He also had a close association with Turner & Revett of The Antiquities of Athens fame. A friendship that saw many pieces decorated in classic Greek design during the latter part of his career.

Introducing mechanization into all parts of the process brought down prices making his work affordable to the middle classes. This is one of the main reasons for its success.

Wedgwood retired in 1800, leaving his mark on an industry that is still thriving today. 

He died in 1805 at the age of 75 but left a legacy few can equal with profits from sales of his wares helping to build The Wedgwood Institute, which is dedicated to research into Cancer and other diseases.

Transfer Printing

Wedgwood used color transfer printing process on earthenware before it was perfected for china

Wedgwood was not the first potter to use color transfer printing on earthenware. That honor goes to Ralph Nicklin, an obscure London potter who tried and failed in 1774. Wedgwood’s success with two-color transfer printing was due mainly to his knowledge of chemistry, which he used both to mix pigments and paints and as a scientific aid for analyzing the effects of firing temperatures on clay bodies.

Wedgwood almost certainly learned about transfer printing from either William Hackwood or one of his workers – Hackwood had worked for Thomas Whieldon before moving to Burslem towards the end of 1776.

In early 1778 Wedgwood set up a small factory at The Crown Works where he began to experiment with transfer printing in earnest. He was influenced by the work of John Sadler, an artist well known for his innovative printmaking techniques who had developed a variety of stencils and screens for color printing.

Wedgwood perfected the technique

By June 1778 Wedgwood had ‘perfected’ the technique after much trial and error, as he related to Sir Joseph Banks: “I have now found out several methods … but I think it will be necessary to use one or two more colors than I first thought of.”

Wedgwood’s early transfers were made using paper printed with black oil-based pigments resting on an unglazed biscuit fired at low temperature (1200C). The brightly colored camel paint was applied to the biscuit, often with a brush, before firing.

Transfer printings of this kind were used to decorate many different types of pottery including earthenware for use in the home, creamware, and pearlware.


Creamware was an important part of Wedgwood’s business during the 1780s when he pioneered its distinctive coloring and decoration. Pearlware was another new development that appeared at about the same time (1782) using whiteware decorated with painted transfers under the glaze.

From 1783 onwards Wedgwood sometimes printed on bisque ware with oil-based paints, under his newly invented process called ‘resist’ printing. Where areas are covered by either wax or varnish, to protect them from the coloring process.

On special pieces, Wedgwood used oil paints under the glaze to create vibrant green and blue patterns with great subtlety of tone against a biscuit-colored ground. 

These colors were difficult to achieve using pigments from other sources, so when he could not get them from his usual suppliers Wedgwood turned to his friend William Allen who mined manganese near Bristol. 

In return, Wedgwood gave Allen 200 tons of clay each year. This is only a fraction of the amount gifted between 1775 and 1791 when he sent around 32,000 tons to various friends and business associates. 

Wedgwood’s research into the chemistry of clays was not just concerned with their suitability for making pottery; he also tested them for use in porcelain.

By 1780, Wedgwood had begun full-scale experiments with kaolin. The white clay was mined near Stourbridge and was essential in the manufacture, of true porcelain. 

He sent large consignments to Etruria, where it became an important raw material in his experiments with hard-paste porcelain production.

Early attempts at commercialization 

Despite early attempts at commercialization in 1789, when he made a small amount of high-quality soft paste. (So-called because it contained low levels of alumina) for Queen Charlotte’s birthday celebrations. Wedgwood never managed to produce porcelain that was commercially viable.

After the death of his partner, Bentley in, 1780, Wedgwood’s main business rival was Josiah Spode I, who set up a small manufactory at Stoke-on-Trent in 1781 or 1782. 

The close similarity between their products can often be seen. Spode used a creamware body while Wedgwood employed a pearlware one – this type of pottery has a white felspar-based body covered with a glaze containing tin oxide. 

This glaze has a slightly yellowish or cream color which makes it very suitable for under-glaze transfers.

French porcelain

At an early stage, Wedgwood looked to France for inspiration, and in 1773, after seeing Josiah Spode‘s ware, he wrote to Bentley: “I am confident that if we could procure some pieces of Lyon (printed) china it would be of infinite service to us; the colors are so lively and good.”

He imported French porcelain at first but, perhaps because of their high cost, Wedgwood soon began manufacturing his versions of fashionable French designs. 

This is clear on two dinner services made for Rockingham Castle between 1779 and 1783. 

The first service was designed by Robert Adam and decorated with the arms of the Marquis of Rockingham. While the second one is undecorated but has a border based on a design from Plate 31 in Vivares’ Nouveaux Elements de la Ceramique. 

In both cases, Wedgwood copied French designs almost exactly. Including their gilding.

At this time, there were no copyright laws in Britain, so Wedgwood and other manufacturers could and did copy each other’s work without hindrance. 

This allowed them to experiment with new shapes and decorations, and it can be seen clearly on two very different examples: a cream jug made for Caroline Neville in 1784, shows an early version of ‘jasper’ decoration first introduced by Wedgwood in 1789. 

This type of decoration is a transfer-printed pattern under a transparent glaze, usually on cameo paste. 

The second example, a teapot made for Sir Lawrence Dundas in about 1792, has a border based on the pattern used for the Rockingham service. But it was not copied from the earlier design as there are differences as well as similarities between them.

By using this type of pattern it is possible to build up a picture of the range of china being produced at Etruria during these years. 

For example, all of the examples illustrated here can be found recorded on invoices or order books held in the Wedgwood Archive and give valuable information about customers and the types of service they required.

This is very useful as few records remain to show what was produced and how it looked. 

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