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3.9 out of 5 stars
3.9 out of 5 stars
The Potter's Hand
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on 16 August 2017
This is a beautifully written fictional account of the rise and rise of Josiah Wedgewood. Of course, the historical details are all accurate and fascinating. It may be lengthy but really good books are welcome in such length!
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on 12 March 2017
all ok
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 August 2012
The man of clay that AN Wilson throws onto his storytelling wheel in "The Potter's Hand" is the great Josiah Wedgwood, but this is much more than a historic telling of his life. Indeed, Josiah already has a thriving business at the start of the book. What Wilson does particularly impressively is to put Wedgwood's achievement and works into the context of the politics and social philosophy of the times, sandwiched between the two great revolutions in American and France. In order to do this, Wilson has to play slightly loose with artistic licence by altering dates and time lines a bit, but it works well. He also balances the real historic figures with several key figures of his own invention and where the historic figures don't quite fit with his narrative, he alters their ages and invents "facts" to the benefit of the fictional narrative.

Wilson's approach is a broad one, following a number of sub-plots throughout the book. Indeed, poor old Josiah often seems to float around on the edge of his own story for much of the book as Wilson concentrates on his nephew, Tom Byerley, who would run the family business after the period of this novel, and the entirely fictional characters of Caleb and Heffie Bowers and Blue Squirrel, a Cherokee girl that Tom meets while seeking to negotiate the supply of American kaolin to meet the order for the Catherine the Great. Also central to the book is Wedgwood's oldest daughter, Sukey, whose later children included Charles Darwin.

The result is a novel of ideas ranging from colonialism, slavery, the welfare of workers, class, religious belief, industrialisation and, with Charles Darwin's grandfather, the lecherous old Dr Darwin as the family doctor, early thoughts on evolution.

This impressive and thoughtful breadth of approach does come a cost though. I never really felt that I got to know Josiah as a character throughout the book. Wilson doesn't really explore the depth of his genius or innovation to any great extent. Sure we are told but never really shown. Also the various sub plots can lay frustratingly latent for long periods of the book, particularly the fascinating story line of the fictional Blue Squirrel. Her story alone would have made for a compelling novel but here gets a little lost. There are also some troubling conflicts between some of the ideas. Blue Squirrel is, in her own way, touched by the skill and one might even say genius of Josiah which seems to underplay his role and for all the hugely interesting early thoughts on evolution, the undoubtedly great Josiah is the result of high levels of family inter-marriage which seems to run counter to the survival of the fittest ideas that are emerging.

At other times though the conflicts themselves are fascinating. There's irony that the Frog Service produced for Catherine the Great depicted rural idealistic scenes of Britain at a time when the producer is doing much to destroy this with the beginnings of the industrial revolution.

There's also a slight tendency towards famous name dropping. To a large extent this is inevitable as Josiah knew and interacted with a wide range of people who we know of today - Stubbs, Coleridge, Watt, to name but a few. However some of these seem to be slightly forced into the narrative in ways that don't add a great deal to the central story.

The quality of the writing is superb though and Josiah Wedgwood was a fascinating man at a pivotal historic period and Wilson brings these two together well. You get a strong sense of the personal struggles of family life. It's a wonder that anyone achieved anything given the doses of laudanum that they were all taking for various ailments. If you are looking for a broad stroke historic novel that addresses the great ideas of the time, then this will be very much your cup of tea, served in a doubtless exquisite Wedgwood tea service. I would have found it more compelling though if there had been a stronger central core to the book, be that Blue Squirrel, Sukey or even the old man himself.
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on 8 November 2012
I didn't realise immediately that the author of this book had such important connections with Josiah Wedgwood. A.N.Wilson's father was Managing Director of Josiah Wedgwood Ltd. Wilson knows the distinctive Potteries accent and this gives such credibility to the minor characters: Caleb and Effie. But also to Old Wooden leg himself who at intimate moments speaks the dialect. A.N.Wilson has a reputation for thorough research which means I trust him in this story. Josh's relationship, as a very superior tradesman, with the aristocrats in London and in Staffordshire is one of the most valued aspects of this wonderful story. The book is quite densely printed so thanks Amazon Kindle for enlarged printing enabling me to get through it quickly and easily
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on 22 September 2013
Living in north Staffordshire I was looking forward to this book, but I found it oddly disappointing. Several things jarred with me
The overuse of local dialect was an irritant, some folk out there will have difficulty in understanding it fully.
I know it was written in modern times, but the use of the "F" word and the rather poorly described sex scenes were wholly unnecessary.
The interludes where the action jumped forwards 20 years made it all the more confusing.
On the positive side it gave a good account of the man Josiah Wedgwood and the spirit of the age.
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on 3 January 2013
This novel is based on the later years of Josiah Wedgwood’s life. His leg was amputated so he was known by most of his workers as ‘Old Wooden Leg’, but his disability had little impact on his energy, drive or imagination. A brilliant potter himself, he established a company that became a by-word for quality and innovation. This novel is a mixture of family saga, history and adventure yarn and Wilson knows his source, his father being the managing director of the Wedgewood Pottery.

This is a splendid story, huge in its scope, which improves the understanding of the age while giving insight into the principal characters. This was the Age of Reason, and also the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Both are well-presented and explained in this fine book. Some readers may find the absence of speech marks, or the strong Staffordshire accent, distracting, but these are minor quibbles in a major work. More important is the fine writing. For example, at the death of one of Josiah’s many children, Sukey takes up her Oboe:
‘The reedy oboe’s voice, a sad deep-throated bird, filled the silent house ..... Words could not have lifted them. The oboe skipped, sang, led onwards all who heard it with sounds which did not give hope, but which defied despair.’ Great stuff.
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on 5 May 2013
Methinks hays missed his point a few tarms, but it edd do fu mea, owreate

Cos kick a Bowe ?
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on 27 December 2012
A.N.Wilson's historical novel about the family of Josiah Wedgwood, intrigues with its rich analysis of material success and emotional failure. You can trust A.N.Wilson with facts which otherwise might fade into fiction. It is an adventure and a revelation.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 September 2013
This novel begins with a gruesome description of Josiah Wedgwood having his leg sawn off in 1768. It then segues to Voltaire and a letter he wrote seven years later to Catherine the Great, recommending her to commission Wedgwood to make that famous 1,000 piece dinner service for her, each piece hand painted to show a different British building or landscape. The next chapter takes us to America at the beginning of the War of Independence, where Wedgwood's nephew, Tom Byerley, receives a letter from his uncle requesting him to give up his career as an indifferent actor in New York to go south to the Carolinas to secure from the Cherokee Indians a large amount of the white kaolin which Josiah needs for his exquisite pottery. Then back to Josiah's apprenticeship, his marriage to his cousin Sally, and her unhappiness about her gifted but coarse and clumsy bed-fellow of a husband loving his work and his business partner, Thomas Bentley, more than he loved her. He does not comprehend the reason for her manifest anger, but knows his marriage is not what it should be (though we will find that it mends as they grow older).

I found this darting backwards and forwards in Part One of the book irritating (there is none of it in Parts Two and Three, except at the very end of Part Three; and two Interludes between the three parts also dislocate the chronology). And every now and again there is a certain amount of repetition: the book could have been shorter. And while the author frequently makes us decipher transliterations of the Staffordshire accent and dialect, he also puts into the mouths of some of his characters obscene swearwords ("f***ing Jesus", for example) which seem to me to be of our time rather than of theirs. I also felt uneasy that extended, important and vivid episodes in this essentially historical novel are about key people who are invented by him. But an author has the right to do this, especially if he warns us, as he does in his Afterword, that that is what he has done. So these are perhaps minor quibbles.

For the book does brilliantly chronicle the story of the extended Wedgwood tribe (a family tree would have helped). At the centre of it is Josiah, ever creative in his pottery, an energetic entrepreneur, financier of canals and of turnpike roads, retaining his simple nature among it all, ever optimistic, ever a friend of Reform and of Reason, and a supporter of the American Revolution. When he becomes old and weak, the book has a dying fall (in tone as well as, I think, in quality). His sons, though partners, have become "gentlemen", and the running of the firm falls to his nephew, Tom Byerley. He is the second-most important figure in the story, and we see him grow from his callow and promiscuous youth, to be tempered by his dramatic experiences among the Cherokees and in the American War, to become a mature and responsible but much conflicted young man. We meet notable people like Erasmus Darwin (his son would marry Josiah's daughter, his grandson would be Charles Darwin), George Stubbs, John Flaxman and Samuel Coleridge. The novel is full of historical and cultural references and allusions (sometimes almost to the extent of showing off) by a writer who is steeped in the 18th century in all its aspects. Sometimes he introduces his own philosophical reflections and aesthetic opinions. He writes beautifully about Nature in an England that was still a green and pleasant land.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 February 2017
This is a genial, fluent, engaging historical novel based on the life of the great Josiah Wedgewood, a household name in the ceramics business then, as now, about his family and associates. It takes in the politics of the time, slavery, the American Revolution and the early industrialisation of Britain. Wilson has written many books about the 19th century, but here he's seems just at home in the 18th, lightly working into his narrative many relevant historical touches that inform, adding persuasive colour without ever being intrusive. Although much of this novel follows historical fact, there are some invented characters, and the timing of some historical events have been altered for artistic purposes.

Josiah is a solid, eccentric, loveable, inspired, socially clumsy character. He provides the structure of the novel rather than its heart; it feels as if Wilson respects him but is not inspired imaginatively by him. But he's good at depicting Josiah's prickly marriage to Sally, their deep union which they find difficult to express in daily intimacy. He's a good father too, but makes the mistake of bringing his sons up to be gentlemen, inadvertently making them unfit to take up the business and work in the ceramics factory. His sharp, practical and spirited daughter Sukey, one of the main characters in the novel, might have been able to take up the reins but her gender prevents this. It appears that Sukey is destined to marry Josiah's nephew Tom, but there is no love between them, and she, at risk of being left on the shelf, settles for someone quite different, producing a son, the famous Charles Darwin (which nicely rounds off the book).... Tom, an actor, sows his wild oats in America, where he travels to buy kaolin from the Cherokee. There he falls in love with a fiercely independent young woman, Blue Squirrel, an invented character, who, later in the story, feeling mistakenly that he has betrayed her and her people in the American rebellion, sets out across the ocean to seek him out and exact revenge... A third strand in this interwoven story centres around Caleb, an upright, single, celibate man who has been secretly in love with Josiah's wife all his life; he transports Josiah's goods up and down the canals and lives with his promiscuous sister Heffie (she has an amusing fling with George Stubbs, the painter, who has been commissioned to paint the Wedgewood children), and he becomes fascinated by Blue Squirrel... These are the novel's main narrative strands and they are all handled with ease, humanity and humour. What Wilson is particularly good at is evoking the intimacy of love and marriage. A fine example of this can be found on pages 152-3, which beautifully describe Tom and Blue Squirrel's love-making. Here Wilson shows how to write a sex scene that captures its essence without intrusive sexual details, and that takes real skill, poetry and insight. There are several examples of this kind of intimacy in the novel.

The novel is bookended by two famous works of ceramic art. The thousand piece dinner service made for Catherine the Great, and the Portland Vase. The dinner service made Josiah's name and reputation; each plate, adorned with notable and exquisite hand-painted scenes, was a vision of Britain at its best, of estates and grand houses and rustic idylls, before the Industrial Revolution. The Portland Vase, which Josiah, towards the end of his industrious life struggled to make a dozen copies of, drew on classical themes and explored in its fine reliefs the ambiguous nature of love.

This is a good, old-fashioned, highly readable, long novel that draws deeply on 18th century history, mainly in England, but also in North America, that teams with interesting characters from the highest to the lowest, that is full of humanity, never sentimental, that's informative, and very English. It reminded me quite a lot of A S Byatt's novel 'The Children's Book', which is set later in history and concerns itself with art, which also has several interweaving narrative strands. Byatt's novel, however, is a deeper, more complex and richer novel and lights up for me, at least, the limitations of Wilson's art in this book - hence the four rather than five star rating.
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