Tuesday - 22 July 2014

Lunatics whose madness was really sheer genius

28 February 2003Written by ATG Reporter

The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made The Future by Jenny Uglow, published by Faber & Faber. ISBN 0571196470 £25 hb

FIRST a lashing for Faber’s press office, whom I contacted in early January for a review copy of Jenny Uglow’s remarkable book on the Lunar Society of Birmingham, the Antique Trade Gazette’s particular interest being in one of the society’s members, Josiah Wedgwood. Request denied, which is a first for this column. I was told that the review list was closed – The Lunar Men was published last September – and, astonishingly, that the book was too expensive to expand or extend the list and the Gazette would be sent a copy when it went into paperback. So, I bought the book myself and will be sending a copy of this review to the chief executive of Faber & Faber, Stephen Page, together with my invoice.

Uglow’s book is an exhilarating, vivid and fabulously researched account of a group of 18th century polymaths who met every month at each other’s homes in Birmingham on the Monday nearest the full moon, so chosen because they would have light to ride home (hence the name), and where, as at other clubs, they would laugh, argue and drink well into the night.

Unlike other clubs, the Lunar members were the friends who launched the Industrial Revolution and who worked together all their lives, sharing their inventions, their political passions and their thirst for knowledge and power. Their names have the ring of history. The founding five were Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, doctor, inventor and poet, a man so enormously gifted and fat that he had to cut a semi-circle in his dining table to fit his stomach; Matthew Boulton, engineer and flamboyant entrepreneur who built the first great ‘manufactory’ in Birmingham, a city where many men “came on foot and left in chariots”; the anxious James Watt, of steam-engine fame, who complained of “being quite ate up with milligrubs”; the brilliantly innovative and one-legged young potter Josiah Wedgwood; and Joseph Priestley, the dissenting preacher man with the stutter, who isolated oxygen.

This titanic group, along with many others, including the Derby clockmaker John Whitehurst and the chemist John Keir, inventor of a cheap industrial process to produce the alkali used in the manufacture of soap, built canals, launched balloons, invented soda water and reprographic machines, named plants, gases and minerals, supplied the world with creamware dinner services, Blue John vases and heavy-duty mining equipment. All the while they experimented with primitive copy machines, eight-legged wooden horses, sidereal clocks, horizontal windmills and even speaking machines.

The index reference on Josiah Wedgwood alone is dizzying; partnership with Whieldon, canals, search for materials, portrait medallions, jasper, the Frog dinner service, flint glass, ceramic pyrometer, and, specifically, Chapter 5, Pots and Chapter 17, Vases, Ormolu, Silver and Frogs. The chapter Derbyshire Explorata tells of the discovery of Treak Cliff, which was and is the only place in the world where the beautiful banded purple fluorospar Blue John can be found. Darwin wrote to Wedgwood and Boulton: “I have been into the Bowels of old Mother Earth and seen Wonders and learnt much knowledge… am going to make innumerable Experiments in aquaeous, sulphureous and metallic Vapours.”

This book is powerfully narrated and marvellously littered with engravings and pictures. It gives a vivid impression of the times, and the author paints warm and funny pictures of the family lives of the central characters – the friends who changed the future, or Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, as the US subtitle was altered to – junior high style. Is £25 expensive for this 600-pp book non-fiction work of exceptional quality and depth? Definitely not.

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Written by

ATG Reporter

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