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|
Michael Cardew moved from Winchcombe to Wenford Bridge on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall with his wife, Mariel, and his three young sons in June 1939. They bought the derelict Wenford Inn for £500 and started to convert it for use as a pottery.
Before the conversion was finished, war broke out, and after only two glaze firings at Wenford Cardew had to return to Winchcombe to help Ray Finch who had been badly affected by the conscription of both Charlie and Sid Tustin. He stayed there until June 1942. While he was at Winchcombe he was offered the position of Pottery Instructor at Achimota on the African Gold Coast. Money was tight and the £600 per annum that the job offered was too good to refuse. Cardew was to remain in Africa for the next six years, with only a brief return to England during the winter of 1944/1945.
In 1948 trouble was brewing in West Africa and Cardew's life was threatened. He returned to his wife, family and home in July of that year. He worked as a thrower in Surrey for six months and then resumed work at Wenford Bridge.
In 1950 Ivan McMeekin, an Australian potter joined as a partner, and ran the pottery when Cardew returned yet again to West Africa. McMeekin build a down-draught kiln and produced stoneware at Wenford Bridge until 1954. Cardew spent two months of each year at Wenford Bridge during his fifteen year stay in Nigeria, but after McMeekin returned to Australia the pottery was unused until Cardew's retirement from his African post in 1965.
Cardew then potted at Wenford Bridge when lecture tours and demonstrations permitted until his death in 1983. In 1971 he was joined by his eldest son, Seth Cardew, and in the following years many fine potters including Svend Bayer, Michael OBrien and Danlami Aliyu spent time there as students.
Wenford Bridge Pottery closed in late 2004 when Seth moved to Spain
|Pioneer Pottery by Michael Cardew|