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Cardew's Legacy

Added: Thu, Nov 9, 2006

By Jane Herold, The Studio Potter, vol. 22, no. 2, June 1994, p. 21-+

Michael Cardew

Michael Cardew

Michael Cardew

There is a sort of family of potters who apprenticed to Michael Cardew, some at Winchcombe, many in Nigeria, and others at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall, England. Their pots seem related, too. Like any family, there are branches that grow close together, shoots that take off in other directions, and even relatives who don't talk to each other.

All of us were drawn to Michael in the first place and absorbed something from him. His pots still stop me when I turn the pages of a magazine, but twenty years ago, when I began potting, his were the only contemporary pots that had that power. Now there are others, in large part thanks to him.

Michael Cardew said to me, in the year preceding his death in 1983, that he hoped "it"---meaning Wenford Bridge Pottery and all it represented—would survive him and continue at Wenford and in other places. Some of us were lucky enough to have our life spans overlap with his and to have the chance to live and work with him. What Michael gave was of incomparable value. I would like to share it with young potters today who never knew him.

Here are some words from eight potters who found something of value at Wenford and who continue to work in ways that are at least partly a tribute to Michael Cardew. — Jane Herold

Jane Herold

There was an Old Person of Down,
whose face was adorned with a frown;
When he opened the door,
for one minute or more,
He alarmed all the people of Down.

So says Edward Lear, and he might have been speaking of Michael Cardew on a bad day. On a good day, Michael could charm the monkeys out of the trees. He played music with childlike glee, took delight in searching the woods for the earliest wood sorrel, drove miles to show you a Celtic cross up on the moor, clambered over stiles, cane in hand, quoting Shakespeare on youth and age, and simply made you awfully glad you were born, and glad to be with him. He had more vitality even at eighty than anyone else I've known.

Michael Cardew was a man with a rare habit of using his intellect. He had vehement convictions, a passionate nature, abundant humor and a terrible temper. He was easy to love; it was impossible not to enjoy him. If he threw the huge stump that sat by the fire out the door in a rage (it tripped him, you see, while he was carrying a knife), he was sure to come staggering back in with it an hour or two later.

He was most emphatically NOT an even, controlled, academic sort of teacher. Neutrality was virtually unknown to him, and there were times as his student when I found him a mite intimidating. I did see him intimidate the occasional lorry driver and customer too, especially if the customer was foolish enough to sneak up on him, which meant entering the room without rattling the latches and generally making enough noise to announce his presence. Of course, this meant that quiet, timid, mild people were treated to his indignation more often than more boorish types who just stomped in. Michael liked honesty, even in how you entered a room.

The apprentice/mentor relationship is always a somewhat self-conscious one–at least for the student, at least at first. I know that on my first day at Wenford, on being asked to "wash the pebbles in the ball mill" I actually emptied them out of the 60-gallon mill and and washed them in tubs until they were spotless.

It took at least two hours before anyone remarked on my absence, and I learned that to wash the pebbles in a ball mill you pour in some water, run it for a minute or two, and then empty the water out. I guess I was eager to do good, thorough job. It's a state of mind that his its pitfalls.

In time, I came to feel that Wenford was home, that I'd arrived at the one place on earth that made real sense to me, that finally I was in a place where my values were accepted and reasonable and my days were spent devoted to every aspect of making pots, from mixing clay and chopping wood to throwing, slipping, decorating and firing. We wasted no energy on mindless questions about the value of what we were doing; we were too busy doing it.

Michael's teaching was specific and yet quite indirect. I both dreaded and longed for his morning ramble through "skittle alley," where we worked. He'd wander through on his way to his wheel and without fanfare cast his eye on what we were making. Most days, he said very little. I longed for the days when, with a word or two, he was uplifting, bolstering, encouraging, enthusiastic, acknowledging that I'd "got it just right."

I dreaded the door opening on those days when he roared out something annihilating, such as: "If you don't I like bowls, don't make bowls!" Then he slammed out the door. The unlucky recipient of this high-decibel advice did indeed curb his bowl-making for some time to come.

Later, over meals, more considered advice was given. If I felt bold enough, a sure way to get a lecture on plates was to put one of which he disapproved at his place. We'd all quickly find out why it was quite impossible for him to eat from such an abomination, and as he returned to the table with a more suitable example of potter's art in hand, we'd find out just what was "right," or at least bearable, about that one.

Michael might quietly let a week roll by while I struggled with lids, and then announce at lunch one day that the important thing about a lid is it should sound right. It should drop into place with a satisfying clunk. The coffee pot, chocolate pot, sugar bowl and jam pot all clinked and clunked throughout the meal, which ended with, "Yes ... that's right ... clunk, clunk, clunk ... and too big is even worse than too small!"

When I started making hot milk jugs and was uncertain of their proportions, Michael said, almost nostalgically, "You have to be young to make hot milk jugs–they're all athleticism and animal vigor." My hot milk jugs shot up an inch that afternoon.

That is how Michael taught, how I learned–through hours of potting followed by hours by the fire, reading, talking, sipping our port, improving on the Bible. (Michael was shocked I hadn't read it and set out to rectify that lack by reading it to me in the evenings. But he generally preferred to make up his own endings to the stories.)

I don't think we even once talked about anything so sterile as "design" or the technical aspects of "function." Not because Michael didn't ask a lot of pots; he just expected a pot to be as it should be, from foot to lip. He had almost no comprehension of how people could "get it all wrong," as he claimed one ex-apprentice had an unerring ability to do.

Overall, Michael's honesty came as a huge relief to me. He was vehement about pots because he cared about them more deeply than is considered quite nice in this world. He didn't hide in the endless lies that we call politeness. Michael Cardew never lied in this way. Perhaps this is the distinguishing trait of an artist: he is unable to be other than true to himself.

I watched Michael do many things at Wenford. I watched him make pots, pour wine, play music, pick vegetables, slice potatoes, clear the garden of brambles, knock out his pipe by the fire. But I never saw Michael do anything in an offhand way. In his own fashion, he was like one of the Zen masters he used to tell amusing stories about: "You know, the abbot takes his shoe off, puts it on his head and walks away in the opposite direction, and the would-be initiate, the postulate, gets the message that way. It's a pretty good way of teaching, I'm sure!"

We lived entirely in the present at Wenford Bridge. I think that's how you have to live to make good pots.

Jane Herold
67A Ludlow
Palisades, NY 10964

"You see, nobody can teach anybody anything, you must teach yourself. You just keep trying and repeating a shape and then you begin to feel confident . . . yes, yes, I can do this. I know this shape."

Excerpted from: Cardew's Legacy, by Jane herold, The Studio Potter, vol. 22, no. 2, June 1994, p. 21-+