Wedgwood-Darwin: Friendship to dynasty

From a leading mind of the Enlightenment to one of the 21st century's greatest sculptors, two families have shaped Britain for nearly 300 years.

On 13 August 2014, the itinerary of a cultural day-trip to London might have looked something like this: a visit to Tate Britain to take in Phyllida Barlow's ambitious installation; a trip to the National Portrait Gallery, where a portrait of Erasmus Darwin proudly hangs; a short tube journey to South Kensington to admire Josiah Wedgwood's stunning Portland Vase at the V&A; crossing the road to the Natural History Museum, where a marble statue of Charles Darwin presides over the grand entrance hall; and concluding with a performance of Vaughan Williams' Lark Ascending at the Royal Albert Hall.

Such a visit would take in the best of British culture over the past 300 years – not just art but also manufacturing, music, science and philosophy. But perhaps more impressively, it would also be a tour through the generations of a single dynasty of related individuals, whose impact on British culture over the past three centuries has been almost without rival. To find out the dynasty's origins, you have to travel back over 250 years, and a smallpox patient's chance introduction to a like-minded thinker.

A life-long friendship

Born in 1730 as the youngest of 11 children, Josiah Wedgwood survived a childhood bout of smallpox but was left with a permanently weakened leg. By 1762, he was seeing a surgeon called Matthew Turner, who was attending to his afflicted limb. Knowing of Wedgwood's interest in the sciences, Turner introduced him to a fellow 'natural philosopher', the physician Erasmus Darwin. The two men hit it off immediately, and their friendship developed further when the two campaigned together in support of the Trent and Mersey Canal scheme.

From 1765, the two men regularly attended meetings of the Lunar Society, an informal dining club of industrialists, scientists and thinkers. Wedgwood and Darwin formed a life-long friendship. When complications arising from his stricken knee left Josiah with no option but to have his right leg amputated, Darwin stayed with him throughout the procedure. And after the heartbreaking death of Josiah's business partner Thomas Bentley in 1780, Erasmus stepped in to help him run the business.

The closeness of the two men would become a family tie in the next generation, as Josiah's daughter Susannah Wedgwood married Erasmus's son Robert Darwin. Susannah and Robert's marriage resulted not only in the birth of Charles Darwin – one of the greatest scientists, and greatest Britons, ever to have lived – but also led to the two marriages that would become the core of the family for generations to come.

Families entwined

While Josiah Wedgwood's daughter Susannah was starting a family with Robert Darwin, his son Josiah II was starting a family of his own with Elizabeth Allen. Each of the families had six children: Susannah and Robert's children included Charles Darwin and his elder sister Caroline, while Josiah and Elizabeth's offspring included Josiah III and his younger sister Emma.

The two sets of siblings intermarried, first Caroline Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood III, and then Charles Darwin to Emma Wedgwood – who, at the time of their marriage, was both Charles's first cousin and his sister-in-law. The intermarriages have been blamed for the health issues that have plagued the family for generations, but they also cemented the connection between the families, and concentrated the Wedgwood fortune by ensuring each side of the family received a double inheritance.

Charles and Emma had ten children, among them prominent members of British society. Their second son, George Darwin, was the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge; while Leonard Darwin – by his own admission the least intelligent of his siblings – rose to become President of the Royal Geographic Society. In comparison, Caroline and Josiah III's contribution to the dynasty was relatively small, producing one child and one grandchild. Yet that grandchild became one of the most celebrated members of the Darwin-Wedgwood family: the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Extended relations

Further prominent individuals joined the family through marriage. John Maynard Keynes, the most influential economist of the 20th century, joined the extended family when his brother Geoffrey married Margaret Darwin, Charles Darwin's granddaughter. And when Elizabeth Pickstone named her son William Wedgwood Benn to acknowledge her distant connection to the dynasty, the name was passed on to her grandson, Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn – better known as the Labour politician Tony Benn.

The dynasty is alive and well today, although the Darwin-Wedgwood name is less visible. Notable active members of the family’s seventh generation include the celebrated poet Ruth Padel and sculptor Phyllida Barlow, who played a key role in shaping contemporary British art as tutor to Tacita Dean, Rachel Whiteread and Douglas Gordon. The eighth generation is already beginning to emerge: Skandar Keynes, an actor in the Chronicles of Narnia series, is the great-great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.

Generations of family history are preserved in the Wedgwood Collection, from a Jasper profile of Charles Darwin to stunning photographic portraits of Vaughan Williams. So while the Wedgwood family may be best remembered for its pottery, the Collection shows just how far-reaching an influence this extraordinary dynasty has had on culture in Britain – and beyond.

Donate to help save the Wedgwood Collection from being broken up and sold off. Every donation, large or small, takes us a step closer to saving this irreplaceable collection.

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