Tanya Harrod on Michael Cardew
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.