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Edmund de Waal

Feat of Clay

The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew - Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture
By Tanya Harrod (Yale University Press 457pp 30)
Cardew: throwing shapes

There is an image of the potter Michael Cardew in old age, almost as wrinkled as Auden, gaunt and with sunken cheeks, dressed in a medieval-looking shirt with cut-off arms, wearing shorts, throwing a pot on a kick-wheel. He has wet clay plastered up his arms, and his hands are in mid-flight and are as wild as any conductor's. He is surrounded by young students and he looks completely and utterly enthused, in the grip of the compulsion to make and talk and inspire. The photograph seems to suggest that making a pot is simply not enough - discipleship is called for. In Tanya Harrod's magnificent biography of Cardew she traces his complicated trajectory from the romantic attempt to revive a folk-tradition of country pottery in the Cotswolds through his 25 years of experiment in West Africa to his later life as counter-cultural seer in Cornwall. The people who fell into his orbit were rarely unchanged by his charisma, the fierceness of his arguments, or, indeed, by his pots. One of the great strengths of this book is that these pots are taken seriously and described with care. His epiphany, during the West Country holidays of his Edwardian childhood, was an encounter with slip-decorated pottery, a vernacular tradition of jugs and dishes that seemed to encapsulate warmth, kindness, generosity - and liberation from school and convention. This openness, the volume of the big-bellied pitchers or the calligraphic pull of fingers through a glaze, was the driver in his life. How could you make things that you could use which emanated freedom?

Cardew came from a literate and musical upper-middle-class family. His father was a damaged man, depressive and inconstant, a civil servant with a modest income, trapped by the expectations of his class. He had one great strength - his devotion to musical Sunday afternoons playing Mozart and Brahms with his children. Cardew was a classicist at Oxford but spent his vacations learning to throw. He met Bernard Leach at St Ives and was invited to join the small team there. Pots took over. He was challenged by his uncle, the rector of Exeter College: 'What makes you so interested in pottery? Is there any future in it? Will you be able to earn your living at it? Are you going to make new shapes?' Cardew survived two years with Leach and established a pottery at Winchcombe in the Cotswolds. In contradistinction to the precious vases of other Arts and Crafts potters, self-conscious and singular, he made everything. Harrod recounts the range of shapes drawn in his first kiln book:

There were small bowls (quite a variety), plates, beakers, mugs and tankards, candlesticks, oval pudding basins ... jam jars, bulb bowls, lidded pots and casseroles, jugs of all sizes, 'picnic bottles' for cider, ladles, egg cups, egg bakers with pulled handles, coffee and tea pots and what he called 'bedroom sets' - a large jug and basin, a jam jar for a tooth brush, a soap dish in three parts, a 'sponge' dish and a chamber pot ... the emphasis was on function and day-to-day living.

It was also a Stakhanovite attempt to remake the world by hand, to replace the 'horridness' of industrial facture in its entirety. He revelled in his own inefficiency and the partialness of his technical knowledge, claiming a connection with creativity:

The routine - coal bank-up, coal, coal-cordwood-faggots. It was a shambles! That vast heap of glowing charcoals - in spite of quenching it went on burning for days. I suppose there is a connection between good potting & inordinate waste of heat? Perhaps - can't see the necessity: 'Art as Waste?'

Harrod is highly attuned to the cost of this waste. It was dependent from the very first on Cardew's use of other labour, and here she describes his social myopia well. A local lad, Sidney Tustin, joined the pottery aged 14, clay washing, mixing slips, cutting wood - and polishing Michael's shoes when he went country dancing on Wednesdays. He wasn't encouraged to make pots - a fact that Tustin remembered bitterly in old age. But the greatest cost was to his family. In flight from the memory of a love affair with another schoolboy, Cardew felt himself a 'maimed soul', emotionally vulnerable. His marriage to the deeply unconventional Mariel Russell and the chaotic upbringing of their three sons are quite shocking - not the Spartan surroundings, the living in a wooden hut without running water or electricity, or the earth closet in the orchard, but the haphazard decisions over schooling, the randomness with which one son is sent away. There is a tempestuousness to this that Harrod brings alive brilliantly, the fissile nature of Cardew's imperative to provide for a family and to run away. He left the Cotswolds for Cornwall - a 'desire to live and work in the land of his ancestors, using its local materials and coming closer to the Cornish language' - and then Cornwall for West Africa.

The heart of this biography is Cardew in Africa. He went to the Gold Coast to escape and to earn money, appointed as a 'really practical working Ceramicist who can do research in glazes and design as well as organise commercial production', and he fell in love. It was love for the place - the food, the red earth, the warmth - and for Clement Kofi Athey, a twenty-year-old man who had come to work at the nascent pottery studio. This relationship altered 'his loyalties and commitments irrevocably'. He worried that he was becoming Baron Charlus, but it was the principal love affair of his life.

Here we see Cardew attempting, with his 'Oxonian drawl', to get his pupils to throw 'decent shapes'. The clay was 'a shocking affair, very unplastic and short', which led his pupils to make 'all sorts of hard, sharp, thin, angular shapes and rims'. Rather as if he was teaching at Bedales, instead of being faced as he was with vast orders (a quarter of a million cups for gathering latex for the rubber industry, 1,000 salt-glazed drain pipes, fifty electrical insulators), his concern was for the warm, generous pots he believed were everyone's birthright.

His lack of knowledge undid him again and again - the litany of misfortune is exhausting. But his decision to search for raw materials, to root himself in this place and make a go of it, was admirable. He was, writes Harrod, 'part excited schoolboy, part colonial administrator, part neophyte technician, an artist trying to run a factory'. This is where Harrod, a cultural critic as well as a historian of craft, is most revelatory. Her research is impressive. She brings the political accommodations of colonial and post-colonial life, and ideas of national identity, authenticity, and the value and meaning of work into relief. What did it mean to be a white man trying to reinvent and articulate hand-craft African traditions?

The final section of the biography is 'Michael as Magus', covering the 18 years of potting, writing and travelling at the end of his life. The series of young men arriving at his door becomes a little wearisome - I can say this as I turn up too - but Harrod skewers the counter-cultural moment with a welcome acerbity as well as affection, concluding that 'Michael's prejudices and passions appear like a map in this new territory'. Her biography is as passionate as its subject. It is wonderful.

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Edmund de Waal is a potter and author of The Hare With Amber Eyes (Chatto). His next exhibition is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and opens in February 2013.

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