Michael Cardew flagon

Michael Cardew flagon

Michael Cardew flagon - 8" (203 mm) high. Early to mid-1920s.

Cardew, Michael

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.

Further Reading:
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


Leach Pottery

In 1920 Leach and Hamada made the journey half-way around the world to set up a pottery at St Ives in Cornwall. St Ives had long been an artists' colony, and the pottery was built with the aid of a grant from the Handicrafts Guild.

The first kiln, which was wood-fired, was made with three climbing chambers, each six feet high, six feet wide and four feet deep. This was the first of its type to be built in Britain, and was a disaster. In 1922 Leach had to ask Tsuronosuke Matsubayashi to come from the Asahi Pottery in Japan to re-build it. Matsu stayed for two years and was a tremendous influence on the St Ives potters. His knowledge of the chemistry of ceramics was a great help and something of an innovation to Leach who had been concerned primarily with the aesthetics of pottery rather than the technical aspects.

Leach and Hamada were like-minded and worked and relaxed well together. Their ideal was a fusion of arts-and-crafts principles and a desire to make pots of classic, simple beauty. Early English and Eastern designs in pottery were their paradigm.

The early years were fraught with failures. Many firings were unsuccessful, and expenses were high. There was also a lack of acceptance in many quarters of the work, which often appeared crude by the standards of the day. Even so, there were successful exhibitions in St Ives and in London, and many pots found an eager welcome in Japan. Hamada returned to Japan in 1928, but frequently visited St Ives.

The pottery was home to a succession of students and apprentices that almost comprise a complete who's who of studio pottery, Michael Cardew heading the list. Every student and apprentice was taught that his first aim should be to throw to a standard; to be able to execute repetitive work accurately. Only when this was achieved, said Leach, could a potter call himself a thrower rather than an improviser. Leach's sons, David and Michael learnt their craft at the Leach Pottery before taking part in regular production and management.

The post-war years brought more success and critical acclaim, perhaps helped by Leach's writing. He continued potting until 1972 with the help of William Marshall, his very first apprentice, and died in 1979. The pottery remained open under the direction of Bernard's wife, Janet Leach. After her death in 1999 it was bought by businessman Alan Gillam, owner of the Western Hotel in St Ives. Trevor Corser and Joanna Wason are the main potters. The Pottery Cottage, next to the pottery, is now open as a museum, showing many examples of work of the fine potters who have contributed to the astounding reputation of the Leach.

Further Reading:
Bernard Leach, Hamada and Their Circle by Cornelia Wingfield Digby and Tony Birks
 A Potter's Book by Bernard Leach
  Bernard Leach by Edmund de Waal
  The Leach Legacy by Marion Whybrow

You can buy this book on line
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