It can be confusing that two of the biggest figures in the history of English pottery happen to have the same name. Josiah Spode (1733-1797) and Josiah Wedgwood (1730 -1795) were almost exact contemporaries, and they both had a profound impact on the development of Staffordshire potteries.
It becomes even more confusing when you realised they like calling their sons Josiah as well, and these sons took on the businesses their fathers started.
This article focuses on the two Josiah Spodes (I & II) who perfected two very important products in the development of English ceramics: underglaze printing on earthenware; and fine bone china - a very practical and beautiful porcelain.
Josiah Spode I was born to poor parents near Stoke on Trent. His father died when he was six and young Josiah went out to work almost immediately. After almost ten years of menial labour in a local pottery works, he was accepted as an apprentice with the leading local pottery manufacturer in Staffordshire, where he spent five years learning all the principles needed by a competent potter.
After marrying a local haberdasher and celebrating the birth of their first son, Josiah, Spode managed to rent his own potworks in 1761 aged 28. By 1776 he had made sufficient progress to purchase his own site.
In 1778, young Josiah (now 23 years old) went to London to open a showroom and shop to sell his father's wares. This presence in London enabled young Josiah to gauge the needs of the public and pick up on the latest fashions.
In 1784 Spode perfected a new technique that allowed potters to print patterns from hand-engraved copper plates on to unglazed, biscuit earthenware. While the wealthy had turned to Georgian and neo-classical designs, less well-off society wanted what the upper class once had, and Spode's printed copies of Chinese patterns gave him an advantage over his competitors. His greatest rival, Josiah Wedgwood, had promised his blue painters that he would not adopt transfer printing in blue while he was alive, which gave Spode the upper hand for at least another half century.
By 1797, Spode had completed his pioneering work to perfect the formula for what became known as 'bone china'. His big step forward was in using mainly china clay (kaolin) (25%) and Cornish stone (25%) with an approximately equal weight of calcined ox bone (50%) - and very little else. The stone is a feldspathic flux that acts as a bond for the other materials.
The key characteristics of bone china are:
- translucence; and
As the firing temperature for bone china is lower than for 'true' Chinese porcelain, the range of colour available for firing is much larger.
After Spode I's death in 1797 his son, Josiah Spode II, marketed it very successfully across high society. He adapted many richly decorated designs, which looked magnificent, illuminated by candlelight on the tables of the wealthy. In 1818 as the Royal Pavilion at Brighton neared completion, Spode II was commissioned to created several special items that can be seen at Buckingham Palace to this day.
Josiah Spode II (1755-1827), marketing genius and son of the founder.
Spode is best known for table services but he also made a huge range of more ornamental objects like vases, scent bottles, incense burners, lamps, candlesticks, bowls and disk accessories. However, Spode made very objects that were purely ornamental without any practical function. Perhaps this was a throwback to his impecunious youth though the market for busts, figures and medallions was also smaller.
It is agreed that Spode was the leading manufacturer of porcelain throughout Europe during the first few decades of the 19th century and owed much of his success to the marketing genius that was his son, Josiah Spode II.