Emmanuel Cooper on Michael Cardew
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.