Ray Finch and Functional    

Matthew Partington University of the West of England, Bristol


This article is concerned with one craftsman's understanding of the word 'functional'. Using an audio interview of the potter Ray Finch, in which he voices his 'hatred' for the word 'functional', the article looks at the various discourses surrounding function, which are suggested by Finch's words. The areas discussed are:

  • Winchcombe Pottery and Michael Cardew.
  • The Mingei philosophy of the unknown craftsman.
  • The making of production wares and one-off pots.
  • The class system and the experiences of Sidney Tustin at Winchcombe.
  • The influence of Chesterton, Gill and the Distributist movement on Finch and Cardew.
  • Englishness and the pottery of Finch and Cardew.
  • The lifestyle of 'The Country Potter'.


This article begins with a 1 minute 50 seconds fragment of a 5 hour interview. The fragment was chosen because it addresses several important issues in twentieth century craft history:

  • Function
  • Englishness
  • Usefulness

The article sets the quote in the context of the whole of the Finch interview and other interviews from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC). The methodology is to begin by looking at these few words spoken by Finch, before discussing at length the wider craft discourses1 that are suggested by his words.

The article begins by looking at Finch's and Cardew's philosophy, examines the influence of Eric Gill and GK Chesterton upon Finch and Cardew, asks what the word function means to Finch and looks at the importance of his use of the word English and his lifestyle as a country potter. The article does not look at function as part of the modernist debate throughout Europe,2 rather it looks at function, modernism and Englishness through the very particular lens of the interview with Finch.

Analysing the 'text'
This section of transcript comes from an interview conducted in 1994 for NEVAC. The respondent is Ray Finch, (born 1914), a potter who began his working life atWinchcombe Pottery in 1935. Throughout the interview he discusses Michael Cardew (1901-1983), the founder of Winchcombe Pottery, in its twentieth century incarnation, and one of the major figures in English studio pottery. Finch bought the pottery from Cardew in 1946 and it continues to this day to produce, 'a wide range of hand-thrown stoneware pots for domestic use.'3 The interviewer is Anna Hale, an archivist from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. The interview was conducted at Finch's house, next door to the pottery. (Each individual utterance is numbered to make it clear in the paper, which is being discussed).



AH. Can we talk a little about… how Cardew evaluated what was good and how you umm, how he communicated that to you, you know?

RF. Well, I think his erm… I think his essential philosophy was that potters made things for use. You know that he said somewhere that 'my chief inspiration in making pots is the idea that they should be used', and that's, that was really the essential thing ...

AH. To the function?

RF. Yes, well not 'functional', I hate that word really. I much prefer 'useful'. I think it's a…

AH. It's softer …

RF. …better, better English word and that's what he, I don't ever remember him talking about things being 'functional' but certainly about things being useful and all he made, really, related to that and no question about it. I mean, he used to make big cider jars and things but they still were useful pots you see, and big plates and… he did make pots for flowers but then that's a perfectly legitimate use... 4



It is important to begin by contextualising the quote itself. Ray Finch was interviewed over a period of five hours by the experienced archive interviewer, Anna Hale. In totality the interview touches upon Finch's youth, how he came to take up pottery, his beliefs (both spiritual and social), his relationship with Cardew, his family life and the history of Winchcombe Pottery.



Transcription typed up by Janine Partington from original hand-written manuscript 03.04.2000

Download Transcription [276k word file]


Before analysing the ideas suggested by the quote, I will look at each part of the quote in detail in order to identify the discourses suggested by the words.

  1. Hale begins by asking Finch how Cardew evaluated what was good, (presumably in pottery terms), and how he communicated that to Finch. She has identified an area of Finch's experience that she wants to explore. She is searching for testimony.
  2. Finch replies by trying to sum up Cardew's approach by describing his 'essential philosophy'. He does this by the basic definition that 'potters made things for use', and then goes on to quote Cardew. The quote is Cardew saying that his major inspiration for making pots is that they will be used. Finch is trying to give the essence of Cardew's approach. By quoting Cardew, Finch is answering Hale's question by using Cardew's voice.
  3. Hale interposes with 'to the function'. This doesn't work well grammatically but it is apparent that she means, 'the function'. She uses it as a prompt to Finch, who pauses regularly throughout the interview and is notable for the economy of his replies.
  4. Finch begins by agreeing but quickly checks himself by saying 'I hate that word really'. It is the only time in the whole interview that he uses such a strong word. Consequently, it draws our attention to this part of the transcript as being of particular interest. He says that he prefers 'useful' as a better English word. He doesn't recall Cardew ever using the word functional, rather about things being useful. At this point Finch again uses his 'master's' voice. He has been talking about his own dislike for the word function but qualifies that by stating that Cardew never used that word.
  5. Hale uses the words 'it's softer' to prompt Finch. She has associated the word functional with hardness and before Finch has mentioned England, she has defined the word useful as 'softer'. She says these words over the top of Finch's words.
  6. Finally, he discusses the larger pots Cardew made. This is presumably because he is aware that a criticism was often made of Cardew that his big pots were too big or expensive to be used by their buyers. His language at this point is defensive and therefore addresses the criticisms: 'He used to make big cider jars and things but they were still useful pots you see… he did make pots for flowers but then that's a perfectly legitimate use' (my emphasis).

From this analysis of the text I have identified the following as key words and address each in the article5:

  • Philosophy
  • Functional
  • Useful
  • English

These words represent the topics discussed above: numbers 1 and 2 cover Cardew's 'philosophy' for making pots, numbers 3 and 4 cover 'function' and 'useful' and numbers 5 and 6 cover 'English' and continue the discussion of function and use.

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1. The meaning of the term discourse has been stretched to the point of imprecision in recent years. Vivien Burr defines discourse as follows: 'Surrounding any one object, event, person etc., there may be a variety of different discourses, each with a different story to tell about the object in question, a different way of representing it to the world.' (Vivien Burr, An Introduction to Social Constructionism, London, Routledge, 1995, p.48). In this essay I identify several major discourses, which offer a particular model of the crafts world. back to article

2. This article looks specifically at Finch's words and what they mean. Therefore the debate around European Modernism is touched upon but is too wide a research area to be discussed in detail. back to article

3. Winchcombe Pottery promotional leaflet, 1999. The leaflet was designed by Nina Davis in 1976. See Ron Wheeler, Winchcombe Pottery: The Cardew-Finch Tradition, Oxford, White Cockade Publishing, 1998, p.80, for further details. back to article

4. NEVAC, (National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts), audio interview with Ray Finch, owner of Winchcombe Pottery, Gloucestershire, 9 April 1994, NEVAC no.AC 77 (side 1), p.31 of transcript. The inclusion of Hale's use of the word 'softer' did not appear in the transcript as given, rather it was found on listening to the original tape. back to article

5. There are clearly other words such as 'legitimate' that are important words, but for the purposes of this essay, I have concentrated on these four words. back to article

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Using a fragment of an interview with the potter Ray Finch, this article looks at his understanding of the word 'functional'. The methodology has been to look at small elements of audio recordings in great detail and then to work out from the words spoken to the ideas and concepts suggested by them. Using audio recordings from the National Electronic and Video Archive of the Crafts, (NEVAC), it looks at Finch's philosophy, examines the influence upon him of Michael Cardew, Eric Gill and GK Chesterton and looks at the importance of his use of the word 'English' and his lifestyle as a country potter.

Ray Finch, studio pottery, Englishness, function



Functional and Useful




Ray Finch and Functional • Issue 1