Review: A.S. Byatt on a biography of the turbulent life of the potter Michael Cardew
“The last sane man” was a phrase used by Angela Carter to describe the potter, Michael Cardew. “Sane” in this context is associated with a simple life, and the ideal of the human as artist, art and life as one continuous work. Cardew came from a rich family and studied classics at Exeter College, Oxford – he was already obsessed by his father’s collection of Devon Country pottery, got a third-class degree and began a life of making pots. He was in the line of William Morris and Bernard Leach – a believer in making beautiful pots in a traditional way, suitable for daily use. This went with a studied simplicity of lifestyle – living in basic cottages, without much sanitation, wearing shorts and sandals. He was drawn to what he called “warm” pots, and his work has a range of subtle earthy colours – from sooty to soft golden, decorated with slipware trails and very simple stylised ducks, fish and leaves. Cardew’s work was collected by FR Leavis and his wife Queenie in Cambridge, who studied what Tanya Harrod calls “George Sturt’s elegiac [memoir] The Wheelwright’s Shop” and were “nostalgic for a lost rural community”.
Although he described himself as three-quarters homosexual, Cardew married the artist Mariel Russell in 1933. They had three sons – Seth, Cornelius and Ennis. In 1939, he started work on a derelict inn that he converted into the Wenford Bridge Pottery. In 1942, he went to work in the Gold Coast, in Ghana, where he built and managed the Achimota pottery, designed for a handcraft-based industry to combat the dreary “corrugated iron” surroundings of colonial Africa, and allow the Africans to be independent and creative. He had been reading Marx, and moved idealistically from cottage-based art to the use of industry and machines for both beauty and utility. This failed in 1945, when Cardew moved to Vume on the Volta river, in west Africa, and made another attempt at creating a pottery. During this time, Mariel brought up the boys in England and earned her living as a teacher. Cardew returned to England in 1948, to make stoneware at Wenford Bridge. At the Achimota pottery he had an apprentice, Clement Kofi Athey, with whom he fell “desperately in love” and who remained part of his life as long as he lived.
These are the bones of the story, which can also be read as the history of an insane and unbalanced man, alternately insensitive and over-sensitive. Pottery as a vocation has an illusory air of peacefulness – wet hands on the original clay, spinning evenly, the use of “natural” materials, clays and glazes. The tale of Cardew’s potting is full of arduous effort – expeditions in Africa in search of African clays that could make new shapes and subtle colours. In fact, making pots is an unusually violent and chancy business. A kiln may be carefully stocked with vessels that have taken months to construct, sheaves of wood, having been cut, can be put in to keep the heat constant – and an error of temperature, damp, thickness of clay, arrangement on saggers (protective boxes used during firing) can produce a kiln disaster that leaves nothing but “a formless mass of black slag”.
Pottery is a constant battle with the old elements – earth, air, fire and water. Harrod is particularly good at describing repeated kiln disasters. She describes Cardew writing to Mariel about the African clays: “These clays are absolutely intoxicating to pot with – so sweet and plastic you can do anything with them.” She describes a summer of ecstasy – making mugs, jugs, plates, pitchers and moulded dishes. Then says: “But we don’t know what these pots looked like. All are lost in the firing – the disaster probably due to Michael’s imperfect construction of an inlet for secondary air.” Or there is a later disastrous firing in 1947, including a deep bowl with a lily that was “not taken from nature, but was a symbol of tropical exuberance and generosity and gravid fruitfulness”. This firing ended with beautiful pots that were shattered: “The loveliest and most richly coloured would simply fall to pieces when Michael picked them up.”
Cardew’s own temperament was very like the conditions of his work – simple, concentrated, explosive, dangerous, destructive. He was given to fits of intemperate rage, smashing his pots, damaging people. All his love for Kofi we know from his letters to Mariel, which sound purely self-centred. Harrod observes that when Mariel did finally come to Vume, she noticed things that Cardew had never commented on. He took Mariel back to Vume to collect Kofi, for whom he wanted to create a new job at the Volta pottery; Cardew explained disingenuously that only Kofi knew what he liked to eat, that Kofi needed a change of air, that his knowledge of the Hausa language would be invaluable in Abuja (in Nigeria). Mariel noticed that Vumë was very unhealthy, that the children were suffering from malnutrition, and “what Michael chose to ignore – the misery Kofi’s departure caused to his extended family. His wife and a cluster of children wept and his brothers-in-law glared angrily as Michael, Mariel and Kofi drove off.”
Cardew’s marriage, odd as it was, endured – it was Mariel’s name he called, coming back to consciousness after a near-fatal crash in 1953. Harrod tells the complicated tale with a splendid mixture of imagination and, where required, judgment. She describes Cardew’s self-obsessed letters from Africa as “cruel” and is properly shocked when he decides to omit the period of his early marriage and the birth of his children from his biography, as somehow inauthentic. He appears to have patched together a relationship with his sons, though Seth is recorded as once referring to him as “the devil”. He himself coined the aphorism: “Narcissism is not a vice provided you go the whole way with it” – which, Harrod says, “he paired with Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s ‘he too was a beauty lover and loved himself with an untroubled and unselfish love'”.
Harrod is the perfect biographer for such a complex and gifted man. She has that great virtue of not inventing what she does not know – there are spaces and absences, such as what Kofi really thought and felt, which are moving. What she does know is extraordinary – she has talked to everyone Cardew knew, both in Africa and on his later travels in the US and Australia. She is sagacious about his relations with colonialism, noting that he confessed to liking the idea that the Africans were innocent and lazy, while avoiding a colonial lifestyle.
Above all, she has a sure and extensive knowledge of the craft world of which Cardew was a part. She records his diatribes against modern studio potters – the great Lucie Rie, for instance, whom he categorised as making “functionalceramics which one couldn’t use for anything at all”. Harrod remarks drily that Rie’s tableware, besides being delicate and exquisite, was nonetheless perfectly usable. This reminded me of Edmund de Waal‘s observation that the ideal plain brown slipware was often not as useful as it claimed to be. He quotes Henry Bergen “one of Leach and Cardew’s most supportive collectors, who complained that peasant work is quite out of place in the modern kitchen. Practically all the slipware I have begins to lose its glaze after a short time. Much of it is porous.”
Harrod sums up Cardew’s life as a critique of modern consumer capitalism, a series of romantic refusals, a plea for irrationality. The biography is wonderfully illustrated, transforming our attempt to imagine the man and his work. Photographs of Cardew at work show his intent, uncanny face and his long, wiry fingers, working gently and firmly with the wet clay – we can see the work, the new form, the alert obsession.
And I return again and again to the colour plates of the pots themselves, the lovely range of browns and golds and greenish greys – colours you couldn’t quite imagine, yet all looking natural and right. They have the warmth, the rims and lips, that Cardew found “warm and kind and generous” in the Devon Country pottery as a boy.