You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Michael Cardew: The Potter as Great Modern Artist

Imagno/Getty Images

What might a heroic life in the world of traditional crafts have looked like during the twentieth century? The question almost seems absurd. Isn’t heroism the exact opposite of the modesty and even anonymity that we associate with handmade craft objects? Aren’t the potter and the weaver meant to be so fully absorbed in folk traditions as to all but disappear in the process of making humble things for daily use? Isn’t craft in its highest calling an escape from the awfulness too often associated with the fine arts, with all their flimflam of fulsome marketing, arcane theory, and individual celebrity?

But an escape into what, exactly? Sir Claude, the financier in T. S. Eliot’s play The Confidential Clerk, offers a provisional answer. “I wanted to be a potter,” he confesses.

Most people think that a sculptor or a painter

Is something more excellent to be than a potter.

Most people think of china or porcelain

As merely for use, or for decoration—

In either case, an inferior art.

For me, they are neither “use” nor “decoration”—

That is, decoration as a background for living;

For me, they are life itself. To be among such things,

If it is an escape, it is escape into living.

The extraordinary life and work of the English potter Michael Cardew, who moved in some of the same artistic circles as Eliot, give a vivid idea of what such an escape into living might actually look like for a potter, and how pots—vigorously made, in touch with the lives of previous makers, and vitally experienced by their owners—might come to seem like “life itself.” Tanya Harrod, author of an excellent monograph on the history of British craft, has written a remarkably full, eloquent, and even-keeled account of Cardew’s artistic achievements, as well as of his conspicuous personal shortcomings. A man who deliberately lived in opposition to many of the institutions around him, including art schools and traditional marriage, Cardew could seem, as the novelist Angela Carter once wrote, “the Last Sane Man in a crazy world.”

One cannot help wondering why a major potter such as Cardew (or, for that matter, innovative American potters such as Peter Voulkos and Karen Karnes) is not better known beyond a relatively small circle of collectors and connoisseurs. The self-chosen low profile of craft surely has something to do with it, though so do prejudices regarding the status of the fine arts in relation to the decorative or “applied” arts in general. Cardew, impatient with museums and patronage, wasted little time on such distinctions, once remarking that “I could not travel in the fine art bag.”

Born in London in 1901, Cardew had the respectable upbringing that one might predict for a lawyer, a politician, or a professor. His kindly father, a college chum of Oscar Wilde and a musician manqué, was a civil servant with good connections and a middling inheritance. A passionate collector of ceramics, he imagined naively that he could support his family by trading in pottery and had a nervous breakdown trying to do so. Cardew’s mother, Alexandra (or “Xie”), had been Lewis Carroll’s favorite model. To get a perfect photograph, he once said, “take a lens and put Xie before it.”

Dashing and blond like his four brothers, Michael took up the clarinet, thrived at private schools, and prepared to study classics at Oxford. But something decisive happened along the way. Harrod quotes Graham Greene: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Too young by a couple of years to die in the trenches of France or Belgium, Cardew lost a beloved brother in the first tank-to-tank battle of the war. During a home-front camping trip to toughen up the lads for future service, Cardew hooked up with a fellow camper. Passionate fumbling in a tent and walks in the fog amounted, according to Harrod, to “a great love”: “What happens at that age is forever indelible,” wrote Cardew. Propriety prevailed, and David Owen—Cardew never forgot the name—made it clear that whatever had happened would never happen again. Cardew, who read Freud with enthusiasm, believed that his rejection by David Owen was “what has enabled me to make pots.”

Aversion to mechanized warfare and a deep conviction that European civilization had taken a wrong turn toward an alienating means of production (Cardew had also read Marx) led him, like many others in his generation, to embrace pre-industrial modes as closer to the pulse of real life. Ruskin and William Morris had imagined an older, more “organic” England of feudal artisans and communal living. Cardew allowed himself to be distracted from Greek vowel quantities—“scraping” a mediocre third in Classics at Oxford—by the magic he witnessed performed at the potter’s wheel by a local craftsman, who made traditional slipware near the Cardew family’s vacation home in Devon.

Slipware—coarse, low-fired earthenware, decorated by runny clay known as “slip” that could take on vivid yellows, greens, or blacks when fired in the kiln—was felt to be indigenous to England, an authentic growth from the earth uncontaminated by later developments in industrial ceramic production by English firms such as Wedgwood and Spode. Few had done more to revive slipware in England than the great potter Bernard Leach, at his studio pottery at St. Ives in Cornwall, where Cardew began a three-year apprenticeship in 1923. Unlike many self-styled craftsmen, however, Cardew, following Leach’s lead, never succumbed to mere nostalgia for the past, adopting instead, as Harrod notes, “pre-industrial techniques in a modernist spirit.”

Leach’s A Potter’s Book remains a bible for studio potters around the world. Born in Hong Kong, Leach collaborated with the Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi and the brilliant young potter Shōji Hamada in founding the Mingei, or “Art of the People” movement, in Japan, a revival of Japanese handicraft that had its origins during the 1920s. The trio brought their ideas to the United States for a tour in 1952; their visit and demonstration at Black Mountain College, in the mountains of North Carolina, remains a watershed event in the history of ceramics in America.

It is one of the ironies of this “revival” that English slipware, as translated into the extraordinary stoneware platters and pitchers that Hamada made throughout much of the twentieth century, became closely identified with Japanese pottery—one of those hybrid creations that one encounters everywhere in the invention of tradition. A similar exchange occurred when Cardew, during the 1930s, fashioned a double pot joined by two bands of clay modeled on a similar pot that Hamada, whom Cardew described as “a very senior elder brother,” had given him. Cardew’s “twinned jam jars,” which look like paired bongo drums, take Hamada’s model, which had a looped handle and sunken lids, in a distinctively English direction. Cardew’s joined pots, with their austere decorations brushed on in iron, could be a married couple with arms intertwined; he claimed the pot had romantic undertones inspired by Shakespeare’s poem “The Phoenix and the Turtle.”

Along with jam pots, Cardew developed distinctive forms, such as his terrific cider jars, with their graceful looped handles and spigots at the base, which look back to medieval fairs and festivities but have, like all Cardew’s best work, a clean modernist look. For his slipware decorations, sometimes inscribed with a finger wiped through the slip, which he had learned from Hamada, he drew on various sources: “Byzantine pottery for the birds, Chinese drawing for the fish and British popular art and cave paintings for the stags.” One might draw an analogy with contemporary experiments in verse by Yeats or Frost, where inherited forms are “made new” with leaner, more colloquial diction and an updated aesthetic sophistication. Critics such as F. R. Leavis and Herbert Read were soon collecting Cardew’s work along with artists such as Henry Moore, a longtime enthusiast, and Yanagi sent “large amounts” of Cardew’s pots to Japan.

Cardew had little taste for Japanese pottery, and in 1926 he left Leach’s world to found his own workshop at a derelict pottery near Winchcombe, and then, in 1939, in quest of raw materials and new techniques, at the more remote, rat-infested, and primitive Wenford Bridge, among the rock quarries of Cornwall. Cardew was a key figure in the rise of what has come to be called the “studio pottery” movement, with its cult of the handmade and the small scale, and its view (as Harrod puts it) of the “performative act of throwing” pots on the wheel as “a semi-spiritual act.” Harrod quotes Rilke on his decisive experience, in 1924, of watching an Egyptian potter in a village on the Nile: “to stand by his wheel was so indescribably and mysteriously fruitful for me.”

Yale University Press/Doig Simmonds
Abuja, Nigeria, 1955.

Distinctions among kinds of clay and kinds of pots had an almost religious significance for Cardew. He had a moral aversion to “bisque” or biscuit (“twice-cooked”) firing, in which pots are fired at a high temperature without glaze before undergoing a second, lower firing with glaze overlay—“killing the body before you glaze it,” as he put it in his typically vitalist language. Equally alienating, in his view, was the use of commercially produced materials. Potters who bought ready-mixed clay, prepared glazes, and prefabricated kilns ended up producing pots that “will only be partly yours,” and that were “deprived of half their personality by all their shortcuts.”2 Increasingly, Cardew came to believe that potters should make everything they worked with, or their pots would not be fully alive. They should dig the raw materials for their own clays and glazes, and make their own bricks for their kilns, and cut their own firewood, and so on. He called starting from scratch in this way “pioneer pottery,” and wrote a classic book on the subject.

Meanwhile Cardew had found a woman willing to marry him, an artist of bohemian background and “mystical tendencies” named Mariel Russell. Educated in anthropology and literature at Oxford, she tried heroically to pursue her professional interests while raising three sons, whom Cardew mostly ignored, among them the modernist composer Cornelius Cardew. Mariel and Michael were, unsurprisingly, “sexually ... incompatible from the start.” Their oddly resilient marriage, which survived long breaks followed by brief reconciliations, seemed to thrive when they were farthest apart. Their connection was maintained in large part by letters, in many of which Cardew was needlessly cruel in his frank and pitiless assessment of the marriage as “unsound” and stifling of his “natural ... self.” “Narcissism is not a vice,” he claimed narcissistically, “provided you go the whole way with it.”

The separation threatened to become permanent when Cardew, unable to support his family during World War II when the market for handmade pottery predictably collapsed, answered an advertisement to work for an experimental art school in the British colony of Gold Coast, later Ghana. Achimota College was modeled in part on the Bauhaus school of design in Weimar Germany, with its commitment to applying principles of good design to industrial production.

Arduousness had always appealed to Cardew. Failures of various kinds, financial and technological, struck him as evidence of authenticity, and he found an abundance of failure in Africa. He had always been more of a “mud and water man,” the title of an appealing documentary film about his African sojourn, than a man of fire. If, as Valéry once suggested, a potter anxiously watching a kiln is like “a gambler whose fate is to be sealed by a throw of the dice,” then Cardew gambled and lost much of the time before he eventually learned to control the firing process.

Naively convinced, like so many aesthetic travelers before and since, that the unspoiled African natives were natural-born artists—“the flower of their sense of form has never been crushed by the slavery of Puritanism”—Cardew surrounded himself with local helpers. Among the African assistants he hired was a young man, perhaps twenty, named Clement Kofi Athey, with little talent as a potter. “I am desperately in love with him,” Cardew told Mariel, with his usual guileless cruelty, “all my suppressed homosexuality seems to be coming out again in me.” Wedging (or “kneading”) clay with Kofi had, for Cardew, the sexual charge of Melville’s sailors squeezing spermaceti together. Like Cardew, Kofi had a wife and children to support, a complication that Cardew blithely ignored.

There were also significant changes in Cardew’s work. He abandoned the low-fired earthenware of his English potteries and turned instead to the challenges of high-fired and durable stoneware, more in line with the export market. He developed a new vocabulary of forms and decoration, some of which were based on African vernacular forms like stools, and others, interestingly, on cheap Japanese tableware that he found in local shops. A stoneware teapot of 1947 with a dark iron glaze and a stylized fish brushed on in red looks thoroughly Japanese, especially outfitted with its looping bamboo handle. Despite his aversion to anything mechanical or industrial, Cardew experimented with twist-on screw caps for oil jars and soy-sauce dispensers.

An invitation to lead a commercial ceramic initiative in the Islamic region of northern Nigeria, in 1951, opened another phase in Cardew’s career. In the then-remote city of Abuja, he built up a little artisanal kingdom of his own, with local women potters providing much of the labor force and local colonials filling out his social life. Cardew had always been a good judge of talent, and among the Gwari potters he discovered the remarkable Ladi Kwali, a brilliant artist and performer. Watching Ladi Kwali make a pot was, according to Harrod, “one of the world’s performative wonders”:

She starts by punching into a solid cylinder of clay, pulling up the sides, adding rough coils of clay, walking round and round the pot, scraping and thinning the pot’s wall while the whole thing sways outrageously. The shape is then bellied out and an elegant rim created by manipulating a piece of cloth or leather. The end result has perfect symmetry and classical rightness. Ladi Kwali was a past mistress of this and she was also peculiarly imaginative about decorating, always ready to try new ideas. To awed outsiders she appeared to go into a trance-like state as she incised outlines and cross hatching with a knife-like tool, working her way round the pot without any preliminary setting out.

As two milestones approached—he was about to turn sixty and Nigeria was about to become independent—Cardew began to think of returning to England. Harrod points out that as a colonial official and a production potter he was “doubly out of step” with the art world in England, where ceramic art, increasingly aspiring to the status of sculpture, was on the ascendant. But Cardew relished his outsider status—cultivated it, in fact. His pottery at Wenford Bridge lured disaffected young people, including gifted potters such as Svend Bayer and Mark Hewitt (now active in North Carolina), drawn to his back-to-basics approach to craft. He drew on the “society and company of those who are young” in a process he creepily called “Beneficent Vampirism”: by grafting the energies of the young onto one’s own wisdom, he claimed, “one regains for a short time the vitality & enthusiasm of one’s own youth.” The same Gothic phrase might be used for his aesthetic program in general: grafting the energies of other cultures, past and present, onto his own work.  

Cardew’s tours of the United States with Ladi Kwali in 1971 and 1972 make amusing reading. Pioneer Pottery had been included in The Whole Earth Catalog of 1970, and his back-to-the-land approach to pottery appealed to the “counterculture.” Cardew detested the efflorescence of summer craft programs: “very serious people taking themselves very seriously, producing monumentally frivolous work.” Fiercely drawn to African Americans, Cardew read James Baldwin’s novels and continued to believe that people of African origin had “kept open their lifeline to that art faculty which most of us allow to disappear.” Unpacking Gwari pots at O’Hare Airport, Cardew noticed some black baggage-handlers watching the scene and speculated that the pots “must have looked strangely familiar, speaking to them directly out of a long-forgotten past with some kind of submerged folk-memory.” Cardew was overly optimistic regarding his ability to connect with any such folk-memory. As Harrod notes, “Africa certainly meant something to black American students but village arts and crafts were not at the forefront of their minds.”

Seth Cardew, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Michael Cardew can be seen, in retrospect, as a pioneer in many different spheres.  He was there at the beginning of the studio-pottery movement and the wider revival of craft traditions. He was among the modern artists, like Gauguin and Picasso and Henry Moore, who engaged, sometimes naively, with ideas about “primitive” art as a corrective to what were seen as overly civilized European tendencies. He lived a complicatedly bisexual life, refusing—at great cost to those in his intimate circles—to constrain his desires according to conventional patterns. And he developed an influential and still provocative vocabulary of vessels and forms and decorative schemes.

Among these, surely, are his handles. In Cardew’s time, the art of “handle pulling”—coaxing a handle, with a wet hand, from a lump of wedged clay—was, as Harrod notes, “a fast vanishing skill, little used in the ceramics industry where handles were mostly cast.” Pulled handles, by contrast, have “a sprightly, sculptural quality that,” as Cardew wrote, “could make a jug or cup come alive.” Cardew’s big vases have exquisite handles, four arrayed around the rim, like a perfectly fitting crown. His arresting African casseroles, with their distinctive ridged shoulders, have sturdy but elegant handles, as ready for use as for aesthetic admiration.

“A pot is always a container,” Cardew wrote, “even if it is never actually used as a container.” The idea is given a wider understanding by the philosopher Georg Simmel, in a beautiful essay called “The Handle,” first published in 1911.1 Simmel suggested that a work of pottery lives in two different worlds. A pottery vessel, “unlike a painting or statue,” he wrote, “is not intended to be insulated and untouchable but is meant to fulfill a purpose—if only symbolically. For it is held in the hand and drawn into the movement of practical life. Thus the vessel stands in two worlds at one and the same time.”

For Michael Cardew, as for T. S. Eliot’s potter manqué, pots were neither primarily for “use” nor for “decoration,” and certainly not meant to serve simply as “a background for living.” As Sir Claude concludes, “they are life itself”: “To be among such things, If it is an escape, it is escape into living.”

Christopher Benfey is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author, most recently, of Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay: Reflections on Art, Family, and Survival (Penguin).

  1. Georg Simmel is not as well known as such brilliant contemporaries as Walter Benjamin or Thomas Mann, but his essays on the cultural shift circa 1900, including "The Stranger" and "The Metropolis and Modern Life," are provocative and wonderfully written. "The Handle," first published in English translation in The Hudson Review in 1958, is a major statement on the relations between the fine arts and handicrafts, delivered with a light touch and a quiet lyricism.
  2. These quotations appear in a key essay on Cardew by Garth Clark, who is perhaps the major American critic and connoisseur of ceramic art now writing. His essays are collected in Shards, edited by John Pagliaro and with a forward by The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl (Ceramic Arts Foundation, 2003). Clark later wrote a controversial essay called "How Envy Killed the Crafts," first delivered as a lecture in 2008, in which he argued that craft in America lost its way when it developed "art envy," and aspired to the status of the fine arts. "Eventually, wearied by this artificial, self-loathing and thankless crusade, the craft movement weakened and died," according to Clark. "I would place the time of death at our about 1995."