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Thursday, 30 October 2008

A Visit With Mr Wedgwood

The Author, left, and Wedgwood


By Richard Carreño
As a hostess, my late mother was china agnostic. Spode. Minton. Wedgwood. Whatever. But not as for decorative pottery. Her cuppa was Wedgwood's Jasperware, the well-known bas-relief pattern in robin's-egg-blue. She particularly favored scenes by George Stubbs. She fancied horses.
There's no longer a Mr. Spode of Spode china fame (the last Josiah Spode associated with the company died in 1893). But there is a Mr. Wedgwood, and when I learned that he was in town, bending the ear of anyone who wanted to learn about the 249-year-old-year-old company founded by his great-X8-grandfather Josiah Wedgwood in 1759, I decided to have a word with him. Also, to have him autograph my mother's Jaspar, which I now own. (I got the Spode and Minton, too).

'Ah, a Stubbs!' he declared, obliging me with signature on one of my pieces.

Actually, 'Mr. Wedgwood' is the Rt. Hon. Piers Anthony Weymouth Wedgwood of Barlaston (just 'Piers' to you and me). There's another thing about Wedgwood, a fit, 54-year-old six-footer who sports what readers of the Sunday comics might recognize as a Prince Valiant hairdo: he actually lives in Philadelphia. More precisely, in Chestnut Hill.

Why Philadelphia? It has nothing to do with business, he told me recently over cocktails at a Center City drinking spot. But rather his wife, the former Jean Quinn, a Philadelphian who he met in Chicago in the 1980's. Later, after many years in London, Philly finally won out as their hometown.

'Philadelphia has been very good to me,' he said, a winking nod to Lady Wedgwood. 'She's the woman of my dreams.'

Actually, Wedgwood has some other connections to the city, as well, and spins, yes, another Ben Franklin anecdote. Turns out the Franklin met Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), the company's founder, on one of Ben's sojourns in London. Wedgwood also remembered that his grandfather, Josiah Wedgwood, the umpteenth, a Labour MP, visited here in 1939 to warn Americans about the 'gathering storm' of war in Europe. Three years later, 1942, Winston Churchill bestowed Wedgwood with a peerage, elevating him to the House of Lords. (Thanks to primogeniture, that's how Piers Wedgwood of Philadelphia became a Lord).

Wedgwood told me that what most excites him now is whether current excavations at the President's House site at Independence Mall will turn up 'shards' of Wedgwood china. Company history cites Martha Washington as an early customer.

Today, from his Philadelphia perch, Wedgwood travels the world as a spokesman and good-will ambassador for Waterford Wedgwood plc. (The Irish crystal maker bought Wedgwood china in 1986).

It wasn't always meant, however, for Wedgwood to be associated with his eponymous company, now, along with Spode, among the world's most prestigious ceramic firms. (N.B. The Royal Warrants from the Queen that both Wedgwood and Spode proudly flourish).

At first, Wedgwood wanted to be a soldier.

After an early youth in South Africa (he was born there 1954), the youngish Wedgwood wound up in London in the 1970's. He did something or other (a job, that this) at the now-defunct Playboy Club; sold sets of Encylopediae Britannica in South London (something like South Philly, for wont of a better parallel universe); and then moved on, with a buddy, to knock about European capitals.

After this and that, he did, finally, find his calling as a military man, enrolling in 1972 at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and winding up in the Royal Scots Regiment. Sandhurst's the same place where Prince William cut his eye-teeth, and so, at the end of the day, one gets the idea that Wedgwood got a pretty posh upbringing, as well.

In 1980, after tours in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Berlin, and in Edinburgh, where he chummed around with the Queen and her sister, Margaret, as a sort of an aide-de-camp (at Holyrood Castle and Balmoral Castle, both in Scotland), he resigned his commission and became a civilian.

Well, not exactly a typical civilian, that is.

In the 1970's, Wedgwood's father, Hugh had died, and Wedgwood, then Lord Wedgwood (that primogeniture thing kicking in), had already decided to turn to politics by taking his seat in the House of Lords. By the 1980's, Wedgwood told me, he was more earnest about his work, defined by defense and trade matters. (The Lords, incidentally, is like U.S. Senate, but without any power. There is a per diem, however).

Wedgwood's excursion into politics came to an abrupt end in 1999, thanks to Tony Blair, Britain's PM at the time. 'New Labour,' as Blair's cohort was called, wanted to cull the Lords, especially of its Conservative Party members. Unlike his grandfather, Wedgwood was a Tory, and he was on Blair's hit list. By 2000, Wedgwood was out of his political job.

But it was all good. In April 2000, Wedgwood segued into being executive director and 'international ambassador' of his namesake firm, at a new salary, according to BusinessWeek.com, of about 126,000 euros. Wedgwood was already helping out the company in a lesser position, 'cutting my teeth in North America in perpetual motion,' as he explained it.

'Perpetual motion' seems pretty much still part of his life. At the time of our conversation, Wedgwood was preparing for one of his regular trips to Australia.

He was also preparing for the 250th anniversary of the company's creation, to be celebrated next year.

This, at a time, he freely admits, when Wedgwood faces 'immense challenges.' Faced with the cheaper Asian imports (Hello! Pottery Barn), a tanking worldwide economy, and greater informality in home entertaining, promoting the upmarket Wedgwood brand has had its difficulties.

Ultimately, Wedgwood is optimistic. 'We keep dancing until the music stops.'
(Richard Carreño is an editor of Junto.blogspot.com. Another version of this article appeared in the Weekly Press).