I recently read “A Pioneer Potter” by Michael Cardew (1901 – 1983) and “The Last Sane Man” by Tania Harrod and am glad to feel better acquainted with the man we might call our “pottery grandfather” (Cardew taught Rupert Spira, who taught us).
I quickly came to enjoy the two voices speaking from such different perspectives: Cardew, a passionate and charismatic maverick; a product of upper middle class colonial Britain – which explains his omissions and contradictions – in contrast to Harrod, a modern, authoritative academic who helpfully filled in the gaps.
When Cardew decided to make pottery his career the concept of “Studio Potter” barely existed. His model was Bernard Leach, with whom he trained for several years in St. Ives, but the spark that ignited his passion was Fremington Pottery in Devon which he visited many times as a child with his family.
Many years in the middle of his life were spent in Africa, initially supposedly as part of the war effort, making roof tiles, water coolers, plates etc. In Africa, through sheer necessity, he learnt far more about ceramic materials than most modern potters know; having to find the right kind of rocks and grind them up himself to make glazes. I’ve got huge respect for his determination and resourcefulness, but suspect he wasn’t a practical man. My heart started to sink every time he packed a kiln (and they were always huge kilns with hundreds of pots in them) because it seemed that the majority of his firings were disastrous – not like one of our bad firings where some things might be a bit under or over fired, but 90% of the pots would be completely blackened or fall to pieces as soon as they were touched. The thing that made him a good potter (and what he communicated best to his pupils) was his appreciation of form and decoration. It’s probably no coincidence that James and I feel that that is also what Rupert passed on best to us.
I was interested to discover that Cardew learned to do handles at Freminton Pottery, later passing on the technique to Leach, who’s Japanese training hadn’t included pulled handles -a traditional British pottery technique. Many potters today pull handles but I think James’s are particularly nice to hold and I like to think of the skills being passed down, almost like an inherited gene.
I’m not sure what Cardew would have made of us or our pots; I gather he was a stern critic of other potters’ pots and as a person, charming and charismatic but often intimidating and difficult. I suspect he would have been scornful of our commercially prepared materials and gas kiln and am somewhat relieved that we won’t be the subjects of his judgement.