Dr John Wall was a man of his century. This was an age of expansion for England, of new trades, especially with the East. Dr Wall was a physician, entrepreneur, interested in a wide variety of subjects, active and energetic, as well as philanthropic. At first, he made his reputation as a fine doctor. He helped to found a charitable hospital in Worcester and was known for his care of the poorer people. He established Worcester as a well-known spa town and from his earliest years he had a great love of art and was himself an accomplished artist. He was also the founder and inspiration for the Worcester Porcelain Factory.
Dr Wall was born on 12th October 1708 in Powick, close to Worcester. His father was a tradesman in the town, who was once the Mayor of Worcester. Young John attended the King’s School in Worcester and when he was 18, he gained a scholarship to Oxford. Here, he took his B.A., was elected Fellow of Merton College five years late and achieved an MA the following year in 1736. While here, he studied the classics, Philosophy, Mathematics and Algebra. He became well known in literary circles.
In addition to this, he studied medicine and after passing his M.B. degree, he began practising as a doctor in Worcester in 1936. This must have been a busy time for him as he was also courting Catherine Sandys, whose father was the uncle to the 1st Baron Sandys. They married in 1740 and settled in a grand house, 43, Foregate Street, Worcester, which is still standing.
His medical practice was vast. He might be away for several days travelling as far as Kidderminster, Ludlow and Stratford. (It was upward of 32 miles as the crow flies) to Ludlow). He would have travelled either on horseback or in some kind of horse-drawn vehicle – and there was a very real risk of highway robbery, lame horses, poor roads and none existent lighting together with crowded inns.
It was said that three-quarters of the Worcester population were his patients, and he was said to have “unremitting attention to the poor”. Yet he still had time to help found the Worcester Infirmary, a charitable hospital, in Silver Street. The hospital became renowned for the treatment of scarlet fever and diphtheria, two terrifying and common diseases at that time. The hospital didn’t accept everyone though.
A patient needed a recommendation from one of the hospital subscribers and they had the rules read out to them every week! Also excluded were expectant mothers, people who were dying or of unsound mind, and no one with an infectious disease. Patients were forbidden to smoke, swear or play cards or dice, and on occasion, patients were evicted for bad behaviour. In view of the rule about infectious diseases, it seems odd to us that the hospital became famed for its success in treating scarlet fever and diphtheria, both bacterial infectious diseases. But the state of medical knowledge in that era anteceded many of the things we now take for granted.
He made some notable medical achievements, including the first post-mortem which demonstrated that patients with angina showed sclerosis of the arteries.
Worcester as a spa town
Dr Wall analysed the waters of Malvern water and wrote a pamphlet with no less than 158 pages – remarkable because as a contemporary wit wrote:
“The Malvern water says Dr John Wall
Is famed for containing just nothing at all.”
The purity of the water, encouraging people to come to Worcester to take the pure waters, no doubt also helped the prosperity of Worcester and its inhabitants.
The Worcester Porcelain Company
Throughout his busy life, he turned to art for relaxation. He was self-taught and his work achieved a sufficiently high standard to be exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 and in 1774. He tended to favour classical and allegorical subjects. So, his quest for the perfect porcelain was in keeping with his love of beautiful things as well as his practical bent, a perfect conjunction of art and science!
Dr Wall turned his keen analytical mind to the problem of finding attractive and durable porcelain. He and his friend William Davies, apothecary, experimented with various clays using a domestic oven to fire their work. Success eluded them, but having a mind open to other ways to achieve his ambition, he joined with Benjamin Lund, a Bristol potter, who had a secret ingredient.
Dr wall persuaded a group of businessmen to finance the buying of premises and equipment for the large new factory, funding the Worcester Porcelain company which was established in 1751. This date is immortalised in the Worcester marks.
The Secret Ingredient
Dr Wall bought Lund out, together with his formula for producing a fine clay which had good translucency and withstood boiling water. The secret ingredient was soapstone found in clay in Cornwall. He also had the licence to remove this special clay from Cornwall made over to the Worcester company. This came at the right time with the developing trade with China, and by using their unique formula which included the key ingredient of soapstone. This was a huge commercial advantage over their competitors. In the early years, they concentrated on tea services, also pots, pickle dishes and sauce boats, with a few vases.
Tea consumption had risen four-fold in recent years, so there was a huge market just waiting for them. Tea drinking became a very acceptable and elegant social practice in the society of that time.
A further challenge was the time it took to decorate these pieces. In 1756, Robert Hancock joined the company and he devised a system to print the designs on the pieces which saved a huge amount of time and expense. In just three years, they were producing the best English blue and white tableware.
Dr Wall continued his interest and involvement in the porcelain works from the inception of the factory until he died in 1775. Collectors know this period as the “Wall Period”.
It is interesting to note various influences upon the style. In the beginning, the very early simpler pieces give way to more elaborate and ornate articles as time went by. The Chinese, the Japanese were dominant in the earlier years reflecting upon the trades with the east, opening up the tea market. Later, there are influences from Meissen and Sevres decoration, all of which were catalysts for changes in colour and design. Most of the work was designed for general use, although there were some very elaborate designs.
Dr wall retired from the factory in 1774 and died two years later after a long illness. He was 67 years old. For many years, he had suffered from gout, yet despite illness, he never failed in his cheerful attitude, his courtesy and his attention to the needs of others. It was especially in his later years that he was able to indulge his love of painting. He prepared designs for some of the stained glass in the chapel of Oriel College in Oxford.
His wife bore him 4 children, two of whom became doctors.
He is buried in Bath Abbey and his epitaph reads:
“After a life of labour, for the good of others. Nature gave him talents; a benevolent heart, directed by the application of them to the study and practice of a profession most beneficial to mankind; and by an uncommon genius for historic painting (an amusement worthy of his enlarged mind) he has produced many lasting pieces of evidence of the noble simplicity of his sentiments, and the extensiveness of his abilities. Husbands, fathers, friends and neighbours saw in him a living pattern of their duties and ever must remember the various excellencies of that heart, the loss of which they now lament.”