Ceramic Points of View: 'Cider Jar', by Michael Cardew
'Ceramics Points of View' is the result of a collaboration between The National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts and the V&A. A range of people were asked for their responses to the same ten objects from the V&A's 20th century ceramics collection.
On this page you can discover the six people's responses to 'Cider Jar', made around 1938 by Michael Cardew (1901-1983). Simply choose one of the people below to see their response.
Here the work of Michael Cardew is critiqued by Alison Britton, Neil Brownsword, Emmanuel Cooper, Claire Curneen, Tanya Harrod and Oliver Watson in the following videos.
AB: This ties in with the English slipware enthusiasm that everybody wanted to try, when everybody wanted to embrace it but it didn't sell apparently. So a lot of people - I mean Leach and Cardew and others -started to make stoneware because it was going to go better, apparently. But there is again a wonderful rich warmth in it. It's a nice weight, nicely made ... probably never used, do you think? [video clip ends] Was it bought ...?
MP: Yes, it was bought in 1938, so it has never been used.
AB: Yes, so it was bought from an exhibition or bought from his studio, maybe.
MP: I think from an exhibition.
AB: Yes, it's a very, very nice, full volume, a classic example of its kind. It doesn't touch me at all. No, I can admire it, but not feel for it.
MP: You wouldn't want it?
AB: I wouldn't want it, no. There are pieces of his that I would. There are some plates; there's a bird plate I'm very fond of. I think when he's using colour more, [when] there are different colours of slip and so on, [then I think] there's an economy and gracefulness in the drawing. No, this talks about a time just a bit before mine. I think this would have had vivid meaning as a contrast to what had come before it, [but] its freshness is not there for me. But I can imagine it being there in the thirties.
MP: Do you ever come across students who are turned on by the sort of things we've been looking at?
AB: Yes. Throwing's definitely on the increase in general and the idea of the studio potter is not dying. At the Royal College we've had to buy three or four new wheels and enlarge the throwing room because it's definitely [and] quite forcibly back on the agenda. [This is] not people trying to re-create Cardew or anything, but they definitely buy some of those values. They want a modern version of that whole ethic of the hand-made in everyday use. You know that still is what they're trying to do.
NB: Well, I think, again, just that marriage of graphic and form, for me there's got to be something there in the graphics to be on the form in the first place. But now just looking, and maybe I'm just coming from my own prejudice with a particular kind of aesthetic of mine, but just the style of drawing [is] like it doesn't have any kind of impact or anything, it doesn't strike any kind of chords at all. You look at paintings or drawings of the same period and maybe later, and there for a graphic quality, I will be prejudiced. Something like a Roger Hilton drawing or a painting by Cy Twombly. I shouldn't dismiss these things because they are representative of that period in time, but for them to have the status that they carry now, I don't know. I suppose it's more the kind of influence they had on the movement, rather than the objects themselves, which carries an impact for me. And especially, I suppose, going back to the Leach thing, the truth to material. Now that does strike a chord, and it does have a relevance with what I do. I don't go digging my clay down in Bradwell Woods or anything, but just that letting the clay do its work rather than the control of the maker. So, I suppose, I think it was Cardew who reflected that point back, wasn't it, to have some truth in the material.
MP: Does this have any resonances with the things you were talking about earlier, like the medieval work or the earlier slipware things?
NB: Nothing, none at all.
MP: Why do you think that is?
NB: Because of the lack of vigour, because maybe it was working towards a standard that Bernard envisaged that brought this generation of objects into being , that it's got to have a certain flow. [video clip starts] You go back to some of those medieval pots upstairs and it's the cack-handedness that brings me to them. It's the rawness. There is that immediacy with clay which is not here, and these objects ... I'm not saying that everything made in clay has to have that raw quality, but it's just some things are, some things have got a certain life haven't they? You It's difficult to articulate in words what that quality is, but you know you can stand in front of something for about an hour and still be fascinated by it. And I can go back, every time I come here I go back to mainly the same objects upstairs, because they offer something new to me. And just maybe looking at the back of something, some of those crudely pressed Staffordshire figurines, the backs are fascinating. Just the hand of the maker, the thumb print in the back of that clay. Now this is, for me, devoid of that. [video clip ends] Yes, it's got throwing lines in, but it doesn't really speak of any ... it could have been by ten people working within that generation of potters. It didn't matter whether it be a Cardew or whatever, it still doesn't, no.
EC: [video clip starts] It is a magnificent object. I mean there are two things about it that strike me first of all. One is [that] it's tremendously strong throwing. When you look at the actual line of throwing it comes right up like that. There isn't a hesitation. It looks like it's holding air inside it. It looks like there's a balloon in it which is actually pushing to get out. So that there's a balance between the internal space and the external space, and it's a very happy balance, it doesn't look like it's overblown. It doesn't look like the outside is winning and it's actually collapsing, it's a very good relationship between that internal space and the external space. Look at this wonderful handle, it's like a medieval buttress. You feel that it's just close enough to the actual body of the pot like that, so that you get your hand in there and it's absolutely, totally functional. [video clip ends]
It just is a treat. To look at it just gives this absolutely wonderful movement to the actual form itself. Just enough spring on it, this sense of restraint that Cardew had at his best, so that there's just enough energy, enough life in there, enough vitality, is what Leach would have said, to make the whole thing glow in terms of both its form and its sense of itself in the space. But just enough to give it this quality which isn't over the top, you know it's not extravagant, it's just restrained, slightly understated. But you know this curve actually could have been a bit smaller, and it would have been terribly boring. With that amount of spring in it it just gives it that life so you get this relationship between the handle and the actual volume, and it's a very happy relationship. I find this a bit small but it's very functional, and the decoration absolutely superbly suited to the actual pot. By keeping the pot on the wheel you can make these lines which echo the throwing rings which are just visible in the actual form itself. And then look how he's actually scratched all these lines. Again they echo this so that there might be trees or birds or whatever they are vaguely related to the natural world, the world in which we live. But spreading again across the pot, not intrusively. What you get here is decoration quietly animating the surface of the form. It isn't overdoing it. It's a wonderful, controlled but at the same time free use of line. It's like Cardew's, you know he liked folk dancing, he liked playing a musical instrument, he liked other interests besides pottery.
He wasn't like Leach, he wasn't single minded, you know he liked the classics, he was a very well-educated man. Educated at Cambridge and so on. It's where he actually goes mad if you like. You know this is one thing, the decoration is something else. And it's like the old English decoration, the traditional English decoration on earthenware pots. They didn't have to decorate. Decoration was something that they could enjoy. It made the pots more attractive, it might have made them more saleable, but they didn't have to do it, it didn't increase or improve its functional qualities, but it actually made it more life enhancing if you like. And I think this is what this does. It's full of life, it's full of energy, it's full of vigour.
Cardew works through a very bad time at this in the late 1930s, it was very hard to make a living making things like this. You know there were all sorts of problems going on in his life and of course he went off to Africa and became an instructor in Africa introducing new pottery techniques, nurturing old pottery techniques and so on. And to actually make pots like this partly in opposition to Bernard Leach, Bernard Leach was interested in high-fired wares that's where Cardew trained. Cardew didn't like oriental wares. He wasn't attracted to them. He found them too self-conscious. He felt that the orient was the orient and potters in Britain should look to the British or English tradition and that's what he did. And so he took over this old pottery, he set up his own workshop and his pottery echoed what had been made before, but in a slightly different and modern idiom.
What I always find most difficult about this piece is that it's a cider jar, and I think, what's a cider jar, you know? Did people ever use cider jars? I mean, I suppose that it was a cider jar that they would have had for use at a special occasion. You know they would have kept their cider in a barrel, they'd have filled it up and then during the course of the party or reception or event they would have used it, but it seems to me [that] when they were making this in the late 1930s, it belonged to a particular view of society which was actually terribly middle class, and it seems to echo that in a way... I doubt if it's ever been used, it's an object which says 'I'm functional', which looks functional and yet it's an object which isn't going to be used. So you know it's an odd, it's an uneasy relationship between function which is meant and function which is actually decorative.
Cardew was well aware of all these problems, and most of his pots were perfectly functional. He made a casserole, cups and saucers, jugs and so on and they were all functional. It's this particular rural tradition, the cider jar, and Leach made things similar in a sort of vaguely, slightly bucolic tradition, but an imagined tradition. You know it's when they were imagining creating tradition. And although cider jars had been made, you know when you look at a traditional cider jar it's very functional, and they're just brown or pale creamy white, you know they're very, very functional. This is obviously a very special piece. And it's meant to be a special piece and it's meant to be preserved as it were and held and displayed as a special piece for use on special occasions. But somehow I feel it was never going to get used. And that always slightly makes me a bit nervous about objects like this. But I feel that's probably my prejudice rather than the pot, because the pot is a magnificent pot. At his best Cardew was absolutely brilliant. He brought to his work a completely different understanding. He and Leach were great buddies, they were great friends, but they didn't see eye to eye on pots. They came from completely different traditions. Cardew was essentially practical, he wanted to research his own materials, he went on geological expeditions, he investigated geology.
And of course Bernard Leach and Michael Cardew were very different people. Leach really always felt, following the ideas of Blake, that process follows idea. Cardew felt that idea followed process more so that he investigated geology, investigated local clays. He wanted to do it as best as possible. He wrote an excellent technical book. And in lots of ways they were very different in their approach to pottery, but nevertheless they shared a genuine love of pottery. They were great friends, their friendship survived until the very end, and it's interesting that Cardew saw himself as much more interested in mud rather than fire. He wasn't a fire person. He described himself as a mud person. I don't know whether it's evident in that pot, but what I feel about that pot more than anything is it's tremendous energy, the strength, the simplicity. It is a very strong piece.
CC: God, it really makes me want to drink cider, really cold cider. There's great volume in it, very peasant-like, very truthful. I quite like that in some work. I'm not quite sure if this is a honey glaze, and I can't quite make out what the decoration is. I don't know whether it's abstract or alluding to some kind of birds in flight, but it's very bold, very confident. I'm not sure how I like it. I like its qualities, there's something quite gorgeous about the material, but I'm not looking at it as I suppose I should be looking at it, as what it is.
It's a functional object to hold cider. Is it cider? Yes? Try and move it. That's quite lovely, that handle. There are parts of it that are really quite intriguing in terms of their qualities. There's a lovely dribble of glaze on the back here and this is very sturdy; it really does say it is the right kind of handle for that kind of volume. [video clip starts] And it seems very quick in its making. It seems very confident of the fact that it's been thought, to throw very quickly and brought to that neck and into that lip. And it's quite simple and plain in its approach. And I think that's the kind of thing I like about it. These marks again, that movement, it has the same kind of energy or mark-making that almost the rings are left behind. [It's] that kind of idea of throwing something upwards and moving to a volume to contain it. And then deciding, what am I going to put on the edge of it? [video clip ends] It's almost as if ... would it have been more successful without these marks? Because these seem to say an awful lot of these lines. There's quite a reflective surface as well. I can actually see my hand reflected on the surface.
MP: You said it was functional. Do you think it really was, literally?
CC: Yes, I think it was intended to be used. I don't know, I'm not quite sure if that's the truth or not.
MP: I don't know. It would have been a relatively expensive object at the time.
CC: Right. So the people who would have purchased this may not have actually thought of using it, which is a shame because it seems to be intended to be used. Going through all that effort to place this and the stopper for it to actually be used, it seems a shame not for it to be used. I'd use it. Okay I may not use it now, I mean it's rather out of my league, but ...
TH: Gosh. Well there are some good and bad things about it. [video clip starts] And as he's my complete hero, I can say that. I think there's something intrinsically horrible about the cider jar form, and it makes you think of all kinds of Lucky Jim things about Merrie England and everything, and I suppose he felt there was a market for cider jars, and a great many other studio potters made cider jars. But in many ways I really wish he hadn't gone down the cider jar road. Going with cider jars there are frightful kinds of tumblers, which you presumably drink the cider out of. And it didn't even give him a chance to do what he did so beautifully on jugs, [which was to] pull these fantastic handles, [which are] unbelieveably beautiful, because somehow the cider jar seems to have this rather vestigial little handle on its shoulder, and it's got this hateful tap [video clip ends] which takes away any kind of sculptural beauty from the object.
But there are wonderful things about it, and I think what's lovely is this incised decoration. He hasn't so much decorated in slip as incised and then let let the design come through that way. And some of his early decoration was a little bit timid to my mind, but here he seems to be developing these fantastic birds. And we know that he was really interested in calligraphy and he spent quite a lot of time trying to draw Chinese characters; he'd never been to art school, he was a different kind of person to Bernard Leach. He'd read Greek at Oxford and he came from this extremely intellectual family, a family with members really high up in the legal profession, in the academic world and in the church. And so, this decision to become a potter and live in Gloucestershire, in what he called a rural slum with, by then, three children to support... well he wasn't actually entirely supporting them, he had a wonderful wife who supported him and them a lot of the time... but the decision to do that must have seemed extraordinary, and to embark on it without any kind of artistic training at all apart from apprentice work with Bernard Leach, being a paying apprentice with Bernard Leach ...
But you can see here he's beginning to teach himself exciting ways of drawing on pots. And that really takes off when he goes to Africa because he sees the kinds of designs that are also scratched into the surface of pots. And he's going to go to Africa, this is 1938, [and] he gets to Africa in 1942 at the age of 40 or thereabouts, and it's the beginning of a whole new life. And there are all kinds of tragic phases, but out of it, ultimately, I think we don't see any more cider jars, which is a huge benefit. He creates interesting new shapes based on certain low-fired African lidded vessels that he sees. He invents extraordinary casserole dishes which are again influenced by some of the shapes that he sees mainly, I think, in Nigeria, although he initially goes to Ghana and the Gold Coast. And he first sees, I think, Ashanti pots, so he's very fascinated by the incised designs on pots that he first sees there. Looking at this, [it] also seems so extraordinary that he was sent out to West Africa to run a huge factory during the war, which he notably failed in doing. I'm still sad it had to be a cider jar really.
MP: Cardew said that he intended to make things at Winchcombe to be used, broken and replaced again, but clearly this type of thing on this scale wasn't necessarily of that ilk. Do you think he would have intended this to have been used by somebody as a cider jar?
TH: I think so. I just can't imagine the occasion, can you? Upper middle class people, 'Let's have a glass of cider', perhaps that happened all the time.
MP: But do you think maybe he was deluding himself, or maybe he just realised it wouldn't be used but it was an interesting exercise for him to make?
TH: Yes, well he did make a lot of pretty useful stuff, but then he writes in his wonderful autobiography about making big pots bigger and bigger, and perhaps his most beautiful work in that area in the 1930s were... I think he called them rose bowls and fountain bowls, they are just huge bowls which he decorated in a very free and beautiful way. But I've read letters where Marie is asking him to make women's cosmetics sets to put on dressing tables. He was desperate, he was so poor and he was doing things like demonstrating at agricultural shows, and he was ready to make candlesticks. He had a bird bath phase, they might have been very beautiful, I've never seen one. So he was ready for anything, but I think the heart of it all were these beautiful bowls, and the jugs. But I don't like to think of him making these cider jars. He may have thought they were marvellous and he had that side to him, you know, he liked folk dancing.
MP: [He] played the recorder.
TH: He had such impeccable taste in music, but he played the flute as well. Such a wonderful man. And this ordinary cider jar, although it's beautifully shaped and decorated, I suppose it does hint at all the difficulties and tragedies of his life. The fact that he'd read Marx and then he went off to Stoke-on-Trent to try and design for industry and nothing came of it. The fact that he felt totally unable to position himself in either the art world or the craft world. He did exhibit with a group called 'The National Society (Potters, Sculptors and Engravers)' and his work was seen by the sculptor Leon Underwood and by a rather oddball painter called Moresco Pearce, and they compared him to Gauguin. There was a roughness and fierceness about the work [and] perhaps this little tap here slightly detracts from that, but you can see it in this piece too. And he was invited to have lunch with Moresco Pearce, and hanging over the dining room fireplace Moresco Pearce had this wonderful Gauguin of a red field, that is now in the Tate. But he didn't feel at ease with this guy, he didn't really feel at ease anywhere.
OW: I always wonder whether you should actually ever meet the artist or the potters who make things, because you meet people you like and you like their work more than people you don't like, [whose work] you don't like so much. I first really got into these Cardew earthenwares when he came to the V&A to choose some pieces for the Craftsman's Eye show at the Crafts Council Galleries. And he was such a fantastic, wonderful man, like your favourite uncle straight away. And it was also particularly exciting because we opened our cupboards and we had quite a lot of pre-war Winchcombe stone, earthenware like this piece of his, and his jaw positively dropped when he saw the condition of them. And he said, 'I've forgotten what they look like when they're new.' Because he of course had dozens of pieces back home, but he'd been using them solidly for all that period and, as earthenware does, they were cracked and stained, and all our ones are still as they were when they came out of the kiln.
I love Michael Cardew, and I loved what he did because he was the upper middle class lad who went and reconstructed and worked as a country potter to produce country pots, buying Winchcombe Pottery that had been a traditional pottery and setting out to become a country potter. And the things he made [have] wonderful, flowing, bold decoration. [There are] many, many qualities that I find in here which I find in the writings of Bernard Leach, but not actually in his practice. Of course, when I say he reconstructed the country pottery, the country pottery was actually performing a real, economic function in the country for local people. And we're not at all sure that this stuff was made for urban people coming to rediscover the country, or particularly... I think, if you really want to know where a pot like this would have sat, you go and look at the entry 'The Country Cottage' in ... I'm going to embarrass myself now ... I've forgotten the man's name ...
RP: Let's go to a close up.
OW: [video clip starts] There was a great cottage movement between the wars, [when] all sorts of artistic types and intellectuals would go out into the country, buy cottages and then furnish them in an appropriate way. I think that's just the sort of situation [in which you] would have found [this piece]. As to whether it was actually ever used for cider, I very much doubt it - this one certainly wasn't, as it came straight to the Museum. There's something else in this particular piece that suddenly strikes me. It's thinking that he was very much just about the English tradition, and not Chinese and all the rest of it, when actually the dark, black glaze with the incised decoration through it is a Chinese stoneware technique, and not one that you find in the old English tradition. [video clip ends]
What else to say about it? [It's a] very good piece of throwing, whether it's actually him or Elijah Comfort who did the throwing. When he came, and unfortunately I didn't note [it] down precisely, he used to pick up the pieces and feel them and he'd say, 'Oh yes, that's me' or 'No, that was Elijah.' And he'd be able to tell. One of the phrases he used about Elijah's throwing was that it was lazy. He said, 'Oh, that's a lazy way, that's Elijah.' And I think what he meant by that was [that] the real professional had found the short cuts to doing the rim on the lid, or something like that. And this piece has his personal stamp on the bottom end, because you're not often likely to pick it up, I suppose, and look at the bottom; on the side, as well, Winchcombe Pottery seal and Michael Cardew piece. [It's] a grand pot, and really remarkably well made, like a lot of these things were. And he'd actually struggled with an original kiln that was vast that he only used to fire once every couple of months and filled with several thousand pieces. And he managed to sell them, but lived in penury [as a] self-inflicted country potter.
MP: Okay, brilliant.
OW: The quote I was looking for, of course, is Osbert Lancaster in 'Home Sweet Homes', published in 1939, where there's a section on something called 'The Cultured Cottage', and there he says that nine out of ten cottages in the countryside - the most comfortable and hygenic nine, that is - are now occupied by film stars, barristers, artists and BBC announcers, and that they totally changed the décor. He mentions that the plastic souvenirs have gone, and they've brought in Czechoslovakian handicrafts bought from an interesting shop run by gentle folk in the Brompton Road, you know, almost certainly the place that we, we bought this. And that the family bible would have gone and there in its place would be 'The Shropshire Lad' hand printed on a stained oak table in an artist design, and so forth. And that is absolutely the context in which Michael Cardew's work finds its real place.