Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Last Sane Man, Michael Cardew, Modern Pots, Colonialism and the Counterculture, Tanya Harrod, Yale University Press, 2012


Michael Cardew, (1901-1983), was, and still is, one of the most highly regarded potters of the 20th century. Along with Bernard Leach, he pioneered both the aesthetics and the technical know-how of the modern studio pottery movement, or what we now call ceramics.

Tanya Harrod’s detailed journey through his life and work is an epic sweep across the social, political, and art history of the 20th century. Her biography opens before Cardew was born with a brief look back at his ancestry, introducing his well to do, highly educated, upper-middle class family, and closes after he dies, looking forward to the impact of his extraordinary legacy which crosses well beyond the borders of craft pottery and the arts to embrace anthropology, politics, and the ecological and alternative movements of the 20th Century.

Early life and love

Cardew was born and raised in Wimbledon, South-West London, with regular family holidays at a seaside house in Staunton in Devon, where he grew to love the traditional English slipware pottery still being made at nearby Fremington. As a teenager, while doing agricultural work with his school during WWI, he experienced his first male love and subsequent rejection. While his love of slipware flourished, his love of other men became highly conflicted and was largely closeted throughout his life; he longed for ‘normality,’ for marriage and children.

He studied Classics at Oxford but then rejected the expected career of a socially privileged, scholarly male and, instead, pursued his love of pottery. He trained with Bernard Leach in St. Ives and, within a few years, set up his first pottery, retrieving the abandoned kiln and workshops at Winchcombe in Gloucestershire. Here he had success in both his pottery ambitions and in love but, nonetheless, longed to return to Cornwall. It was at Winchcombe that he met and married Mariel Russell and where their three children were born. Here too he developed his life-long preference for ‘austerity.’ He rejected what he referred to as ‘bourgeois’ affectations, preferring the sometimes harsh conditions of the struggling rural potter.

Cornwall and West Africa

In 1939, he left Winchombe with Mariel and the children to realise the dream and set up the Conrnwall pottery at Wenford Bridge. This saw the beginning of a series of disastrous firings and relentless, unforgiving struggle. With the onset of WWII Cardew decided to leave Mariel and the children to cope with the inconclusive chaos at Wenford and, in 1942, got a posting to Ghana, then called the Gold Coast and still a British Colony. Here, at Achimota, he set up what would be the first of three pottery workshops in West Africa. It was also here that he met and formed a lasting relationship with a young man called Clement Kofi Athey. After Achimota, he went with ‘Kofi’ to Vume on the Volta River, and set up the second workshop. The third was near Abuja, in Northern Nigeria.

For five years, the failed firings continued but, at the point of transferring to Abuja, with an adjustment to the kiln design, they began to yield much needed success. It was also in Abuja that Ladi Kwali, an immensely gifted Nigerian potter, using traditional handbuilding methods, joined Cardew and his team and learnt to use the wheel and work with stoneware and glazes, while also doing with her own work. Ladi Kwali later became a major star, touring the USA with ‘Kofi’ and Cardew and also visiting the UK. Cardew left Nigeria in 1963, after independence, and returned to Wenford Bridge. Mariel was living in London now but regularly visited Wenford. 'Kofi' also came to Wenford for some time but returned to Ghana and Cardew continued to visit him there. Over the next twenty years, Wenford Bridge became a magnet for aspiring studio potters from all over the world and Cardew did numerous speaking tours to USA, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia.


Michael Cardew’s working life spanned sixty years, (1923-83), in Britain and West Africa. Tanya Harrod navigates this vast and complicated historical terrain with formidable political agility. She applies forensic critical scrutiny to the colonial context of working, personal and romantic relationships as well as to the wider social contexts. We learn about Nigerian contemporary art movements and evolving independence movements in both Ghana and Nigeria. Cardew’s tours of the USA and Canada and his relationships there are all explored in the context of the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, gay rights and ecology movements.

We hear the voice of Clement Kofi Athey from his letters and through others who knew him. He does not appear only as a colonial ‘subject’ but as an active player with his own concerns and priorities. We also hear the opinions and memories of the villagers at Vume and Abuja from interviews and site visits. We hear from Mariel’s friends, colleagues and associates, as well as from her own letters and diaries. Harrod brings an admirably cool head combined with considerable compassion to the complicated tangle of both homosexual and heterosexual relationships, enabling a fully rounded picture of all concerned to emerge.

Cardew eschewed industrial processes, insisting on developing a pottery ‘from the ground up,’ starting with making and firing the kiln bricks, digging up local clay and grinding rocks for glaze materials. Undaunted, Harrod deftly picks her way through the details of craft pottery - the firing temperatures, the nature and feel of the clay, the machinery and general grub and grit as well of the science and aesthetics of the business.

This is painstaking historical research combined with fluent, inspired storytelling. It’s a glorious book, one that will live near you and will be read and reread, argued over and discussed. Buy it new - second hand copies will be rarer than hen’s teeth!

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