Michael Cardew: Hero or Monster?

Michael Cardew was arguably a stronger influence on the British studio pottery movement than Bernard Leach.  His revival of the old slipware pottery at Winchcombe to make useful and affordable pots consistent in their forms with traditional pre-industrial country ware was a model followed by numerous young potters through the 1960’s and into the 1970’s.  Recruitment to the cause has been slower since, but it’s not over yet.


I read Cardew’s autobiography “A Pioneer Potter” when it was published in 1988. It remains my favourite “pottery book”, beautifully written and hopelessly romantic.  As a guide to making pottery and living by it, it is a terrible warning about what not to do – massively wasteful firings in kilns (circular, for aesthetic reasons) whose fireboxes had been built without a proper understanding of their design, intensive, largely fruitless, searches for raw materials in West Africa for making a stoneware body in a country where there was a plentiful supply of earthenware clay which the locals had used successfully for millennia. I always wondered, too, just whom the African stoneware pots that he and his apprentices made were intended for.


Amongst other unanswered questions in “A Pioneer Potter” was what the colonial and government administrators who funded Cardew thought of this Pottery Officer, who failed to deliver more than a fraction of the routine ceramic ware they ordered, failed to train more than a handful of apprentices and who apparently rejected Western values to “go native”.  And of course there is the matter of his treatment of his wife and children, abandoned to fend for themselves on Bodmin Moor while he, Gauguin-like, indulged his romantic fantasy as a “primitive” potter and his love for one of his assistants.  Of course Cardew suffered hardship too, but he did receive a salary (though, admittedly, not during the last two years at Vumé).


Tanya Harrod’s biography of Cardew, “The Last Sane Man”, answers most of these questions.  Recorded comments by his employers in Africa note “(He is)…very difficult to work with, very self-centred, no business ability and no administrative ability” and later “Cardew is taking us for a ride”.  His wife, Mariel, must have been a tough woman.  She found employment and saw to their sons’ education.  She shared with his friends the conviction that Michael was a “great man”, and must have accepted that he was the sort of “great man” (Gauguin, Picasso) of whom one must tolerate selfish, unreasonable behaviour.  There is ambivalence in Michael’s eldest son, Seth, who, in Harrod’s words saw his father, after his return to England and in his later life as a pottery guru, as a “petty domestic tyrant” and “the devil”.


I made an unplanned visit to Cardew’s Cornish pottery in the late 1970’s, having spotted a sign to Wenford Bridge while driving south.  The man himself was in his bed.  This, I was told by the young students/disciples was a good thing.  They had been firing the kiln and Michael’s fussing and fretting had driven them to despair.  He did appear later, passing through the kiln room, looking grumpy.  I didn’t have the effrontery to approach the living legend.


“The Last Sane Man” is a very good book indeed.  It complements “A Pioneer Potter”, certainly not replacing it.  You need to read both and to see the films of Cardew, notably “Mud and Water Man” to get near to understanding his drive, his “wrong-headedness” (?), his charisma and what he saw as his message.  I think if I met him at the age I am now, there’s much that I’d want to question him on (always assuming I wasn’t struck dumb by his huge personality), particularly as regards his twenty year African adventure, but if I’d met him at twenty years old I think I could easily have become a disciple.


Tanya Harrod: “The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture”, Yale, 2012