Michael Cardew was born in London in 1901. His parents had a summer home in Devon and used to take him to the Fremington Pottery where they bought pots from Edwin Beer Fishley. He loved these pots, much preferring them to the more formal table ware at the family's winter residence in Wimbledon. When Mr Fishley died, he realized that the pots he loved were gone forever; no one else made pots like them. He studied at Oxford University, and in his breaks, visited W Fishley Holland, Edwin Beer Fishley's grandson, at the Braunton Pottery. William readily agreed to teach him to throw for one pound a week. He heard about the St Ives Pottery, and on leaving Oxford went to join Bernard Leach as a student.
Cardew stayed at St Ives until 1926 when he took over a disused pottery near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, five miles from Cheltenham. At Winchcombe Pottery he was joined by Elijah Comfort, Sidney Tustin, and in the following few pre-war years by Charlie Tustin and Ray Finch.
In 1939 he left Winchcombe Pottery in the capable hands of Ray Finch and set up a new pottery at Wenford Bridge, on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.
During the war Cardew was a Pottery Instructor in Achimota College in what is now Ghana - a Government backed venture that was to supply the whole of West Africa with good quality pottery, but was a dismal failure. Back home in 1945 he sold the Winchcombe Pottery to Ray Finch and then the following year he returned to Africa to set up a pottery at Vumë on the Volta river. This venture was to last until 1948 when a combination of ill-health and civil unrest drove him home to England.
Ivan McMeekin, an Australian, had been looking after Wenford Bridge, and on his return to England Cardew made him a partner. McMeekin carried on in Cornwall while Cardew potted at Kingwood Pottery in Surrey. The items made here differed very much from his African pieces due to the materials available in Surrey that were not to be found in Africa. He made mainly slip-decorated wares at Kingwood, but the shapes were in his now very recognizable style. In 1949 he returned to Wenford Bridge, and the Kingwood pieces, marked with a 'K' in a circle, are somewhat rare.
In 1950 he was appointed Pottery Officer in Nigeria. He started the Abuja Pottery, a training centre for native potters, and would spend ten months of each year there, and two months at Wenford Bridge, which was looked after by his partner, Ivan McMeekin.
His work in Nigeria was a Civil Service appointment - he was a British civil servant when he started, but after 1960 when Nigeria gained its independence he was a Nigerian civil servant - and when he reached the age of sixty-five he had to retire. He visited both Abuja and Vumë after his retirement. He carried on working at Wenford Bridge, and was joined there by his son, Seth, in 1971. Many fine potters were students at Wenford Bridge, including Svend Bayer, Clive Bowen, Michael OBrien and Danlami Aliyu.
Cardew taught by example, using few words. If handles were the topic of the day he would take his student to a board of pots and say "You start at that end, I'll start at this", and the student would watch the way Cardew worked the handles and copy him. He did not criticise his students' work, but would give lavish praise when he thought a pot was good. This is in contrast to the Leach Pottery practice of breaking pieces that did not come up to standard. Cardew was a naturally talkative man, but seldom offered an opinion about something he didn't like. The students, of course, knew what silence implied.
Cardew's stoneware and slip decorated earthenware pots are distinctive. His work was exhibited widely, and he was awarded many honours before his death in 1983.
He is remembered for his instructional book Pioneer Pottery and his unfinished autobiography A Pioneer Potter, edited by his son Seth and published after his death. Pioneer Pottery has been re-printed and is now available.
|Pioneer Pottery by Michael Cardew|
|Winchcombe Pottery: the Cardew-Finch Tradition by Ron Wheeler and Helen Brown|
|Bernard Leach, Hamada and Their Circle by Cornelia Wingfield Digby and Tony Birks|
In 1950 the Nigerian authorities asked Michael Cardew to become 'Pottery Officer' with the aim of improving the quality of the local work. He spent most of the next fifteen years there, having set up the Pottery Training Centre at Abuja.
There were exhibitions of Abuja pottery in London in 1958, 1959 and 1962, and another in Lagos in 1960. Cardew and some of the African potters, notably Ladi Kwali, gave lectures and demonstrations in various parts of the world and Philip Rosenthal sponsored a European tour for them in the mid-1960s.
Upon Cardew's retirement from the Nigerian Civil Service in 1965 the running of Abuja was taken over by Michael "Seamus" OBrien. OBrien was a student of Cardew's, but had a background in painting rather than pottery. He had to learn on-the-fly - a task made more difficult when he was told that the educational subsidy for training would stop and the pottery would have to make a profit.
OBrien stayed until 1972 continuing Cardew's tradition of encouraging the potters to make their own interpretation and decoration for the simple basic shapes he had taught them. He managed to solve, or partially solve, some of the technical problems that had beset Cardew, and further problems with efficiency were also solved during OBrien's tenure. He was concerned that the potters earned five shillings a day, and led a fairly easy life, while farmers were earning two shillings a day and had to find £2-10s once a year to pay their taxes. It was taking the kiln gang - six or seven men - three weeks to cut sufficient wood for a firing. One day he took the laziest man aside and sawed wood with him - one at each end of a bow saw - and they finished the day with enough wood for a firing. The period allowed for the gang to do the work was subsequently reduced from three weeks to three days. In this and other ways OBrien managed to make the pottery pay its way, or appear to pay its way to the satisfaction of the government.
The Abuja pottery, now known as the Dr Ladi Kwali Pottery, Suleja, is still government owned, still active, but without the dynamism that made it famous in its early days. The role of oil in the Nigerian economy made keeping the pottery viable less important. Development is to be found in some of the work by potters who once worked at Abuja and have now set up their own workshops.
|Abuja potters and their marks:|
|Dr Ladi Kwali||LK||(died about 1983)|
|Tanko Mohammud||ATM||(became Pottery Officer)|
|Hassan Lapai||HLP||(became Pottery Officer)|
Bawa Ushafa was the senior potter at Abuja and was one of the first trainees. Kande Ushafa became a trainee in 1963.
|Further Reading:||Nigerian Pottery in an African Context by Michael OBrien|